Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Before and After

Today is Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

"There comes a point in life when you realize that nothing will ever be the same, and you realize that from now on, time will be divided into two parts – before this and after this."

There have been several moments in my life that I can categorize in this way, but two of them stand out.  The first is when I stepped onto the path of conscious spiritual growth, and the second is when I learned to drive.  

The driving story is easier to tell and easier for others to understand, so I'll start with that.  All of us who drive have lived through a period in our lives when we could not yet legally operate a motor vehicle on the open road, but for most people, learning to drive was one of several rites of passage into adulthood that were bundled together within a few short years of each other.  Unlike most other drivers, I spent a good portion of my adult life as a non-driver.  I didn't earn my driver's license until I was about 49 years old.  Better late than never, as they say.

Most people learn to drive when they are teens, so they get to practice on the family car while mom or dad sits beside them.  By the time they take their road test, they have spent a fair number of hours behind the wheel.  When you start to learn to drive as an adult, you don't always have your parents to act as chaperons.  I had a few friends who offered to help me learn, but they always stopped for one reason or another.  One told me her husband said he was afraid I would crash the car and their insurance would go up.  Anther lady told me that she was pregnant, and could no longer afford to ride with an unlicensed driver.  A third friend was simply too impatient to kill time sitting next to me while I drove around town in her car.  I did have a few official driving lessons, and that helped immensely, but those were expensive, and the driver ed guys were busy tutoring the teen drivers.  

I finally connected with a friend whose hobby is, strangely enough, helping foreign college students get their driver's licenses.  He told me he'd be glad to teach me, but that I'd have to learn on a car with manual transmission.  That's when I decided to buy my own car.  I bought my first car from my dad before I actually had my official license.  (I had only a learning permit.)  He had bought this car from his sister after her husband died, and had used it for a short time while his own car was being repaired after a smash-up with a deer on the highway.  Finally, I had a car of my own and a good driving instructor.  I bought the car in November and got my license in February.  It took me three tries to pass the road test, but I persevered, and experienced the synchronicity of finding two different road test officers who were willing to give me some pointers for next time when I messed up.

People with a car don't generally appreciate the constraints on where you live and work when you don't have a car.  They don't realize how much harder it is to find work when you can't depend on a set of wheels to get around.  Some places won't even hire people who don't have their own transportation.  When I was about to finish my master's degree, a I traveled to Atlanta with a couple of other people to see about getting jobs in their school system.  (Of course, now that the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal is in the news, it's easy to say that I'm glad I didn't get a job there, but that's 20/20 hindsight talking.)  In the south, schools are generally administered at the county level, but I noticed that schools in the city of Atlanta, proper, were administered separately from other schools in De Kalb County.  When I inquired about public transportation in the suburban areas, I was told in so many words that there was none, on purpose, to keep poor blacks away.  If a family was too poor to afford a car, then the De Kalb district didn't want to have anything to do with them.  If the family was black, as well, so much the better.  Coming from the north, I was shocked at this open display of discrimination.  It's not so much that there's no racial discrimination in the north.  The shocking thing was that it was just so blatant.  And I was one of those being discriminated against!

Another thing people with cars just don't appreciate is the amount of time one has to spend waiting for transportation, whether it be a form of mass transit or a ride in a private car.  My world was limited to the places I was able to go by bus and on foot, unless I was able to get a ride with someone, and my daily schedule was constrained by how much time it took to get to a place and back.  I found that I could only do one or two errands per day after work, and these had to be planned and executed carefully, to economize on time.  I did errands in places that were relatively close to each other on the same day, saving errands in another part of town for another day.  I hated having to beg for a ride, and would do anything to avoid it.

I also hated to go out at night for fear of having to wait for a bus at a dark bus stop in a dangerous neighborhood.  Besides, even my normal bus routes operated on a different schedule after evening rush hour ended, and the time between buses lengthened to an hour or more in the evenings.  I have met more than my share of shady characters at bus stops, and have even had a driver stop and shine his bright lights on me while I was waiting for a bus at a corner in a residential neighborhood.  The driver questioned me about why I was waiting there, suspicion more than evident in his voice, and when he learned that I was waiting for a bus, he insisted that I let him drive me home.  He seemed insulted that I would refuse.  Keep in mind that I couldn't even see this guy's face, because his bright lights were shining in my face.  I managed to stand my ground, and he finally got back in his car and sped off, probably dismissing me as ungrateful. 

I have spent more time in a taxi than anyone in my family, and certainly anyone who lives in Brandon, South Dakota, or even in Sioux Falls, for that matter.  For people who have a car, a taxi ride is an unnecessary expense.  Now that I have a car, I get that, but a cab ride to and from the airport still beats parking fees at the airport, hands down.  I can't believe how many people in the Twin Cities fret about getting a ride to the airport when all they have to do is call a cab.  I learned that the best cab companies are the specialty ones that cater to business passengers. These guys don't cruise around looking for fares.  Their business depends on reservations, and they show up johnny-on-the-spot and on time.  The cabs are clean and the drivers are courteous.  The fare is exactly what they say it will be.
One skill that I have kept from those days without a driver's license is the ability to plan a travel itinerary in detail.  Before the Internet (and that is another before/after event, come to think of it), I had to keep a master bus route map at home, plus as many up-to-date schedules of specific routes as I could, so that I could plan exactly which bus route to take, where to wait for the bus, and what time to be at the bus stop.  I still plan trips to unfamiliar places, but now my plans include which highway to take, what exit to use, and where to stop for gas and something to eat.  For my upcoming trip to Nebraska, I have located several gas stations along the route, and I pretty much know where I will find food and Starbucks.  I have turn-by-turn directions for every part of the route and I have planned my trip down to the minute.  

Another skill I learned from my mass-transit days is how to dress for the weather.  Like a lot of drivers, I can now afford to wear a lighter coat in the winter than I would if I had to wait at a bus stop or two in forty-degrees-below-zero weather.  Still, I tend to hang on to my gloves, hat and scarf, and I keep some back-up clothing in my car in the winter.  An extra pair of dry gloves is a godsend when you have just got yours wet from brushing a pile of snow off your car.  In my bus-passenger days, I noticed that the people who were the rudest to the drivers when the bus was late were the ones who were not dressed appropriately for the cold or the rain. Believe it or not, I never really saw a bus driver shout back at a passenger.  Pretty amazing, when you think about it. 

Once I got that driver's license, the world was my oyster.  I controlled when I left for work, and was able to get there early or stay late if I wanted to.  After school, I could afford to finish what I started instead of  leaving everything where it was and flying out the door to catch the last bus in the evening.  I was thrilled to be able to get more than two errands done in a day, and reveled in all the free time I had, once the wait time at bus stops was eliminated.  I was free to leave an event when I got tired, rather than having to wait for a friend or be bound by a bus schedule.  I was no longer limited in where I could live, relative to where I worked.  I was free to patronize restaurants and movie theaters far from my home, whether or not there was a bus route nearby. For me, it was a revelation, and I enjoyed being able to explore more and more areas of the Twin Cities and surrounding areas on my own.

For my first long-distance trip, I drove from my home in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, to the home of a cousin of mine who lives along a road that forms the boundary between Tennessee and Alabama.  Along the way, I visited friends in Carol Stream, Illinois and Shelbyville, Tennessee, as well as cousins in a western suburb of Chicago and tiny Taft, Tennessee. I stayed in hotels in Rockford, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky.  I remember crying as I made my way in the dark and in heavy rain on an unfamiliar stretch of highway, realizing that I had missed an exit because the car behind me was making me nervous.  I probably wasn't going fast enough for him, and I could feel the waves of anger from the other driver. Fortunately, a fellow at a gas station in the middle of nowhere knew how to direct me to the correct highway.   I also remember getting very, very lost in a state park in Illinois, and feeling bad about making my friend wait for me as it got later and later – and darker and darker.   But all in all, it was a good trip, and I don't regret it.  Since that time, I've made several long-distance trips, but never ones quite that long.  I'm still planning to visit friends in Missouri, though, and some friends in Ontario, Canada. I'd like to see some friends on the east coast, the west coast, and the south.  We'll see how life plays out.

I still appreciate being able to drive to a doctor appointment when I need to, or get over to my mom's house in a few short minutes.  I love being able to just hop in my car at anytime of day or night to shop at a 24-hour grocery store, or to drive aimlessly around town just to sip coffee and listen to the CD player in my car.  With a car, living solo as I do is bearable, because I no longer have to depend on anyone else to go where I wish.

The other event that divided my life into before and after was stepping onto the path of conscious spiritual growth.  Unlike getting a driver's license, this change was not an abrupt one.  It didn't happen all at once on any particular date that I can point to on a calendar.  Rather, it happened gradually, over a number of years.  My personal path involved reading and digesting a lot of so-called New Age books, and doing a lot of questioning and talking to others. I stopped attending Christian churches long before I went to the trouble of writing to my last church to have my name taken off their rolls.  Once I did that, I felt free to move on in my spiritual quest.  My path took me in a lot of different directions, but finally I heard about the teachings of Eckankar.  I joined for a few months, then quit, not quite ready to commit to that path.  It wasn't until seven or eight years later that I finally became a formal student of the teachings of Eckankar.  By this time, my own beliefs had changed to the point where they no longer fit within the Christian mold, but they seemed to fit right in with the beliefs of my new path.  I have since learned that people generally don't join a religion that they were not brought up in unless it matches the beliefs that they already have.  In that sense, there is really no need to "convert" someone.  If they are interested in your religion, it's probably because it is a good fit for them.

I've been an ECKist for over 17 years now.  Although my spiritual outlook changed gradually over time, when I contrast my present beliefs with those I held as a Christian, I sometimes marvel at the difference.  I have found some of the answers that I was seeking before.  There is a clarity in my life about why I am on this earth now, what I came to learn, and what I have to offer others.  Although I have not found "all the answers," I have found a Source of answers that never fails me.  I no longer wonder whether God really exists.  I know how to recognize God's help in my life.  I am no longer afraid of death.  I have a good sense of the work that I will be engaged in when I leave this physical life and resume my life in the worlds of spirit. I am not afraid of hell and damnation.  I know why life seems unfair and why seemingly bad things happen to good people.  I can appreciate the economy and efficiency with which life operates at every level.  I can see beyond the illusions.  

Interestingly, although I have answers to a lot of the questions I had as a teen and as a young adult, I have recently come to appreciate that I am no longer looking for one ultimate Truth, because I realize that Truth is bigger than any one person, and it cannot be understood in its entirety by any one person or even any one religion.  Further, I have realized that those who feel that they have found The Truth tend to close their minds to any other information.  They stop learning, growing, and striving.  Their thinking becomes calcified.  They stop looking at other perspectives, even if only to understand another person's point of view.  They start discriminating against those who disagree with them.

My understanding of Truth is not the same as yours, and that this is perfectly OK.  Each person's understanding of Truth and of God depends on his or her state of consciousness.  Each state of consciousness is OK in and of itself.  Nobody but God has the whole picture.  We are all like the characters in the story of  "The Blind Men and the Elephant."   We each have a piece of the whole Truth, based on whatever part of it we have had experience with.  All we can do is start from where we are and strive to increase and expand our understanding of life little by little.  In that sense, I no longer seek The Truth.  Rather, I seek more information.  

I'd like to stress, here, that although I am no longer Christian, I hold no enmity against anyone who professes that faith or any other.  Each of us belongs to a particular path because it is a good fit for us at this time.  Nevertheless, I have moved on and I have no wish to go back.

The effect of this change in my beliefs has been a chance to experience of the "peace that passeth understanding." My expanded understanding has given me a sense of purpose and clarity in my life, and it has eliminated much of my fear.  I have learned to relax and tolerate others' differences much more readily, rather than always feeling that I have to defend my own beliefs.  At last, I can let go and let God.  :-)

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