My daughter, Emerson, is visiting my parents in Miami this week. While the annual pilgrimage to visit grandparents in Florida is an ancient tradition among my people – those people being New York Jews – this is Emmy’s first time making the trip. My parents moved to Florida in October of last year, after a lifetime in New York City and Westchester, and we are all still adjusting to the new distance.
For Jonathan and me, it’s been a lazy week of sleeping in, Netflix binging, and take out. A delicious reenactment of the first six months of our relationship, when we put on pants only long enough to go get another pizza and rent more movies. It’s also an odd sort of return to my teenage years, those idyllic days when my parents would go out of town and my 17-year-old, green-eyed, James Dean lookalike boyfriend would all but move into my house.
Yesterday was Jonathan’s birthday, and we were awakened by a phone call from Emmy, who warbled an early-morning rendition of Happy Birthday and enthusiastically informed us that she was going on SAFARI today, to a place where the ANIMALS WALKED AROUND but you were perfectly safe, because you STAY IN THE CAR. There could be lions, or tigers, or monkeys, and maybe you will want to touch them and maybe they are dangerous but you STAY IN THE CAR and you will be fine.
Emerson is often a pint-sized guru, dropping wisdom about forgiveness, friendship, admitting when you’re wrong, and self-reliance (she is well named, this independent, imaginative, dragon-loving cherub of mine). But this particular bit of advice has been traveling with me, working its way into my thinking, the way poetry will.
I have a habit of getting out of the car, metaphorically speaking. Of wanting to run my hands over the tiger’s hot fur, feel his rough tongue on my skin, because he is exciting and beautiful, even though I know he is dangerous. Wanting to mediate the chattering drama of the monkeys. Wanting to help the giraffe figure out how to safely walk under the low-hanging bridge. Sometimes this works out fine – the tiger is growly but playful, the monkeys’ disagreement is resolved, the giraffe is rescued. Other times, more often than I’d like to admit, my good intentions end in troubled feelings, and I am reminded again that it is wise, good even, to empathize, to hold compassion, to listen, even to offer an opinion or perspective, if it’s asked for, if it can be received, but ultimately, you have to stay in the car.
Stay in the car.
Let the tiger slink by, let the monkeys sling it out, let the giraffe find her own way. You stay in the car, and you root for them, you send them your kindness and your care. But your business is in the car, behind the wheel, driving through soft summer air or under a brilliant winter sky, into the soft grey where morning arrives. You stay in the car, fiddling with the radio, keeping the temperature right. You plot the best route to wherever you’re going, get lost, find your way again.
None of which is to imply you can’t invite a fascinating gazelle or rumble-throated golden lion into the car with you, or that you can’t climb out now and then to ride a buffalo. I’m not talking about coldness, or a lack of adventurousness. I’m talking about cheerful participation from a secure place of your own.
Stay in the car. Drive your own safari. Let the tigers and the monkeys and the giraffes figure it out for themselves.