I believe in the inevitability of disaster.
This is not an easy thing to believe—not when so much of our lives seem bound up in the worry of what might go wrong, and in frantic attempts to prevent it.
Last summer, I took three English friends on a road trip across America. I borrowed the family minivan and met them at the Houston airport. We had it all planned out—the maps drawn, the budget apportioned. But days into the trip, driving through San Antonio in the late afternoon, our van began the long slow process of breaking down.
The breaks failed first. We flew past a stop sign and careened into a gravel lot, and the repairs bled our bank accounts. Then, sailing down the desert highways of West Texas, the dome lights started tumbling from the ceiling. We camped on the piney ridge of the Grand Canyon and found the passenger doors would no longer open. And then, somewhere outside Vegas, the breaks went out again. No number of mechanics, and no amount of money seemed to keep that van in working order. We worried it would give out at any minute, on any road.
When we began to chart the worst possible scenarios, we were only half joking. Steve suggested tumbling down the high cliffs of California One. Stu suggested fire. Dave catalogued his possible escape routes. And in the front seat, I perfected the fine art of anxiety. I became keen to every hitch in the hum of the engine, every wobble in the tachometer. I drove with my breath sucked in and my shoulders drawn up to my ears, both hands gripping the steering wheel. For six thousand miles, I swear it seemed like I was holding that car together myself, like I was propelling it forward with the force of my own will.
We were nearly home when we stopped for dinner at a barbecue shop in Kansas City. We ordered half pounds of beef brisket, sat down in a booth and ate. When we went back out to the parking lot, we found that our van was the focus of a small crowd. It was charred, the windshield blown out, the dashboard melted, water from a fire hose dripping out the doorframes. The hood had been pried off and thrown to the ground. A fireman came over to us. “This your car?” he asked.
I nodded, both hands on my head.
“Must have been a freak electrical shortage,” he said. “Bet you never saw that coming.”
Strangely, there was a tremendous lightness in that moment. When I look back at the photos from that day, we’re standing around the wreckage and smiling.
I have come to believe that the moments when everything seems to fall apart—the moments that I used to dread—are not always the worst. There is relief and release when small disasters take over, when we can surrender up our vigilance and finally get on with our lives.
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