There’s an intersection on my usual route to work where the winding, tree-lined, two-lane black-top I love, Rocky Ridge Road, meets an eight lane thoroughfare, U.S. Highway 280. A traffic signal hangs over that confluence of asphalt and if I get it red, which I usually do, I know I have at least a three-minute wait.
A three-minute wait. When I type that out, it doesn’t sound like much, and yet, for so much of my commuting life, even sitting for a minute at a traffic light seemed like an eternity. I’ve been working on that. You see, I’m convinced that the stress I felt all my life while commuting had a role to play in producing the kind of toxic inner environment that enabled latent cancer cells to multiply. Whatever you believe about that, I know it can’t be healthy when I feel a spicy seething in my gut for an hour each day.
These days it’s been different. Oh, I still know our car-centric, fossil fuel driven society is on a dead end path, but it surely hasn’t helped my health any stewing on that every time I go out. Since this encounter with the death intentions of the carcinogens in my body, I’ve decided to let it go. I’m still not going to buy a gas guzzler, but I’m also going to quit inwardly cursing those who do, along with the poorly timed traffic lights that cause so much useless idling of big engines. (Oops! There I go again!)
Besides, something wonderful happened to me today at the three-minute traffic light.
The signal was green for Rocky Ridge Road as I approached the intersection, but the yellow soon glared and went to red as I pulled my car up to the white line. The asphalt flares into four turn lanes at that point, one going right, three going left, and I occupied the middle of the left three. Soon cars were on either side of me and I stared across the intersection at the opposite tree line. My gaze strayed upward to a disc glowing through the misty clouds moving like rags across the sky. The disc was about the size of the full moon, and it dawned on me that I was looking directly at the sun, partially but not completely shaded by the translucent clouds. Bands of slightly thicker clouds in the atmosphere striped the disc so that it resembled photos of Jupiter taken through the Hubble telescope.
“That’s our star,” I said out loud, and with a growing sense of wonder gazed at the source of all life on Earth, the stellar parent to everything growing and moving about the planet. The beauty of it held me. I felt a smile spread across my face. I watched as the clouds continued to swirl and the intensity of the glow pulsed, but never to the point of being painfully bright. I remembered that our star is 93 million miles away, holding everything we do in its gravitational pull. It embraces two other planets closer in, and six others farther out (or five, depending upon how you feel about Pluto). I felt joy growing in my chest as I spontaneously contemplated the marvel in the sky . . .
. . . and then the traffic light turned green. The cars on either side of me jumped into the intersection and I thought, “No, not yet! I haven’t had enough time to soak this in!” Alas, by the time I reached the parking lot at UAB, the mist had cleared, making it impossible to look at the Sun. I’ll never forget the image, though, and the irony that I hadn’t had enough time to sit at a traffic light I’d always cursed for stopping me.
When I saw the beauty and soaked in the gratuitous gift of the cosmos shimmering above the tree line, time became relative, indeed. Sure, the sky won’t always produce conditions as perfect as those above Rocky Ridge Road and U.S. 280 that morning. Beauty, however, is all around us, if we have the eyes to see, and can embrace the imposed pauses in life not as oppressive inconvenience, but contemplative opportunity. Even traffic lights could become moments of life-giving revelation.