Up against the wall

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The interstate that connects my town to neighboring cities is under construction. It’s going from two lanes to a much-needed three. But during the road’s growing pains, construction workers have erected a concrete wall that runs along the left-hand side of the road right next to the yellow boundary line. And that wall? It scares me.

It’s not a tall, intimidating wall, but I get nervous when I enter that stretch of interstate. I tense up. I put my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel and try to remember all the safe driving tips I’ve ever heard. I even hold my breath a little, as if that will somehow pull the sides of my car in and make it easier to fit down the lane.

road construction ahead2The barrier wall makes the lane look narrow, which makes me feel like I’m on a thin tightrope. Except instead of inching carefully along the tightrope, I’m hurtling down it at 70+ miles per hour. (Note to the state troopers: Please be advised that I only included that plus symbol because I’ve seen other cars on the interstate taking liberties with the speed limit. I would never do such a thing because I’m a law-abiding citizen who is never running late or daydreaming instead of paying attention to the speedometer.)

It would be hard enough to drive along the concrete wall if I was the only driver on the road. But inevitably, there’s at least one other car (or eighteen-wheeler) in the right-hand lane, sandwiching me between a wall and a hard place. That’s when things really get tense.

As I drive along gripping the steering wheel a bit too tightly, I tell myself over and over: “Don’t look at the wall. Don’t look at it.” Because I once read an article that said drivers who stare at a certain object also tend to steer their cars toward that object, sometimes colliding with it. It’s called “target fixation” or the “moth effect.”

So I do my best not to pay too much attention to the wall flying past my window in a blur. But it’s there. I can feel it. And I’m counting down the days until the newly expanded interstate is complete and that blasted wall finally comes down.

I drove on the interstate yesterday and felt myself relax and exhale once the construction zone ended and I entered the new part of the widened road. And that’s when it hit me: The width of the lane stays the same. It doesn’t get smaller because the wall is there. So why does driving feel so much trickier along the wall than it does when it’s gone?

The answer has everything to do with margin. When we’re up against the wall, there’s a voice deep inside reminding us of just how fallible we are. We’re human. We mess up. It just comes with the territory. But when we’re hemmed in by a wall, there’s no room for mistakes – no margin of error. We need to know that a slight bobble won’t send us crashing into a concrete wall.

Whether we’re on a literal road or navigating life in general, we all need breathing room. Not only do we need it on the interstate, we also need it in our day-to-day schedules. We need it in the expectations we set for ourselves.

If life is a highway, may we be on the one with wide, flat shoulders and a grassy, forgiving median. And instead of blindly racing through the miles toward our next to-do list item, may we appreciate the scenery, be kind to our fellow travelers and remember to enjoy the journey.

highway2gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

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