Under the Overpass

A childhood game that now seem like a precursor to meditation.

fox car at higgins
The author, looking on in striped shirt, as her cousins load their station wagon.

As a kid, long car rides in my family were a time of constant bickering, pinching, and tickling between my brothers and me. To keep themselves sane, my parents would separate us. Douglas, though the middle child, got the front seat, where he was less likely to get carsick and to puke. Or that was the theory. I often thought he faked it so he could keep that prime position between my parents. Donald, the oldest, got the back seats to himself. As the youngest, I got the far back of the station wagon, what we referred to as the way-way back. This was understood to be the worst place because there wasn’t enough room to sit up. In truth, I liked it because I could stretch out and sleep. Yet I always acted as if it were uncomfortable, collecting whatever points I could for my way-back martyrdom.

I’m five and we’re driving from Maine to New Jersey. I’m in the way-way back, fitted between suitcases and the paper bag with the peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. It’s a sunny day. I’m bored and can’t read well enough to play the license plate game going on in the front rows. So I make up my own game.

I lie on my back, let the sun hit my face, and keep my eyes closed until we pass underneath an overpass and a slice of shadow crosses my eyes. Then I can open them.

It was mostly a waiting game. Could I keep my eyes closed until the overpass? Mostly no. It’s much harder to do than it seems. There were lots of overpasses, sometimes a couple a minute. Even if I saw one ahead in the distance and then closed my eyes, it never came as quickly as I thought it should. I’d open my eyes after what seemed like forever, only to see the overpass a couple of seconds in front of us. A few moments later, the quick slice of shadow.

The overpass game showed me how challenging it can be to stay still for a set amount of time, or in this case, distance. Things could get boring/uncomfortable/unbearable pretty quickly when there wasn’t a view out the window to entertain me. If, according to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” then time expands a little too much when the work is waiting.

I never got good at the underpass game. When I began meditating, the timer beside my cushion became the overpass. Surely ten minutes have gone by. Maybe I forgot to set the timer. Hold on just a little bit longer. Maybe it’s broken. Maybe I mistakenly set it for hours instead of minutes. I looked: seven minutes remaining. I looked twice more before the timer finally sounded.

If I were a kid today, I’d be sitting in a mini-van, watching a DVD of The Lion King for the 29th time while my brothers played on their separate tablets. Though there’s probably more peace in the mini-van, there’s also less opportunity for boredom. And for learning how to cope with it.

In the way-way back, I was playing with my own impatience. I didn’t learn be patient, not in the least, but I started to see how the eyes-closed world inside my head was different from the world outside. Things were a little further away than I thought. And then, swoosh, suddenly over.

3 thoughts on “Under the Overpass”

  1. My two brothers and I called it the way way back too. We drove from ohio to Maine or Massachusetts in our family station wagon. 18 hours over two days. I remember nothing favorable about the way way back, except that is where we kept the pee bottle, just in case. I do remember hours of opportunity to develop our imagination and, gasp, actually converse with each other, as well as read a book or knit. We all developed our minds pretty well from this dreaded state of boredom.
    When are teenage daughter used to comment, “I’m bored,” I say. “Good. It’s good for you.” I think she has seen the light, thank God.

  2. You’re welcome, cousin. The photo is from Higgins Beach. You should see the monstrosity that’s in the place of our old cottage. Douglas calls is Cottagezilla.

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