Award-winning Baltimore poet Elizabeth Hazen weighs the pros and cons of sitting in the pilot’s seat.
When my best friend told me she was giving herself a flight lesson for her birthday, I did not envy her role as pilot, but I longed to be a passenger in the plane. After a lifetime of struggling to be in control, I now find myself tempted to hand over the keys. With someone else in the driver’s seat, there’s a chance I might find the time and space to think my way beyond the daily grind.
This desire for passivity may be, at least in part, a reaction to being single for the first time in over 15 years. My new independence is both a thrill and a source of anxiety; I must strive to fulfill my obligations, but with equal vigilance I must resist my inclination to obsess about outcomes that are beyond my control. Often the responsibility is overwhelming, its weight bearing down like grief. In the two years since my separation, I have made questionable decisions. A variety of regrets hang like once-worn dresses shoved into the back of my closet, but in spite of these mistakes I carry on. In my more desperate moments I entertain the fantasy of missing my exit home and cruising until I reach some dusty western town where no one knows me and I have no ties. I imagine flying away into a sunset that holds promises of adventure and escape. I ruminate over what-ifs and if-onlys. My darkest imaginings have me destitute and helpless; I regress into dependency and find myself in my childhood bedroom once more, my mother beside me with a bowl of soup, a bottle of pills, a tissue to blot my tears.
I have not always wanted someone else to take charge. In fact, when I was a child all I wanted was dominion over my own life. Independent by both nature and necessity, by the time I was 14 I spent most weekends alone while my parents traveled. I got my driver’s license the day I turned 16, hopped in my 1988 Camry, and drove away, never to completely return to the realm of childhood, never again to have anyone limit my comings and goings. I was a careful driver, a good driver. I had so many places I wanted to go, and who else would get me there if I did not drive myself?
I feel certain that my need to be in the driver’s seat was rooted, at least in part, in my childhood summers spent trapped in the backseat of a mini-van, completely deprived of any control over where I was going, how fast, or in what direction. I could see miles of space, but only from the confinement of my seat. I was moving swiftly, but my body itself was immobile except for involuntary fidgeting and sparring with my brother who was equally bored beside me. These road trips meant up to eight hours in the van each day watching the landscape pass by at 65 miles per hour. We visited national parks, cooked cans of beef stew on a Coleman stove, and combed outcrops for fossils. I was plugged into my Walkman, the soundtrack of these endless days: David Bowie, Genesis, and the Bangles. I saw a blur of rock walls, fields, cows and silos, highway signs, roadkill, the Vegas strip, and all kinds of weather through the smudged rectangular window. Our father was not the cartoonish brute who refused rest stops, but his intensity was enough to tell us to cross our legs and wait.
The absence of control was, at the time, a misery. Nothing seemed open about the roads on which we traveled; my parents had an itinerary, a budget, an agenda akin to a lesson plan. I was, in every sense of the word, a passenger. If my father decided that today we would hike the trails of Arches or take the scenic route through Joshua Tree Park, there was no argument to be made, no revision to the plan.
As an adult, it seems all I do is revise. When I was 20 years old, I had my whole life figured out, but time has taught me that a plan is not a guarantee. My ambitions (first book by age 30, widespread acclaim) have morphed into more general hopes that have no timeline; I am just happy to have a job. My marriage lasted for 11 years before falling apart, completely redefining my future, necessitating a new plan. I’m still not sure what that plan is, and to be honest, beyond caring for my son, my current “plan” is really more a mantra: “I do the best I can.” I have had to learn to appreciate the possibilities that result from disappointment, failure, and the unexpected. I have had to give up security and the illusion of control; in exchange I have received a blank page and a sense of relief. After so many years of revision, I now have the chance to write something new. This time, however, I know better than to lay claim to a future that is unpredictable and largely out of my hands.
This lesson in control – and its illusory nature – is one I learned as a child and have had to relearn as an adult. Back then, I accepted that I could not control how those summer days were spent, and within the confines of that backseat I discovered the resources of my own mind. I knew I could not dictate to the car, the sky, the road, my parents, my brother, the circling birds of prey, the fossils embedded under layers of shale, the moon, or the sun. There would be traffic, breakdowns, bears to disrupt the campsite, and scorpions in our path through the desert. All I could do was go along for the ride. I told myself stories, composed songs in my head, imagined myself someone different, someplace different – a coyote living deep in the orange desert we cut through like a bullet, a toll collector in a booth somewhere in the middle of Iowa, a vulture, a cowboy, a hitchhiker, a snake.
I still spend a great deal of time in the car. I take my son to and from school and camp, to and from his father’s place downtown; I drive to and from work, the store, the bank, the library. Weekends when my son is with his father, I visit friends and family in Bethesda, cruising down I-95 and around the DC beltway. It is during those weekend commutes that I find myself in a rare state of solitude and relative silence; but I am still the driver. I can’t lose myself entirely in my thoughts, gazing out the window as I did when I was a child. I can’t stare out the rear windshield to see where I have been or watch people in cars beside me, inventing narratives about their lives. And I can’t just stay on I-95 South all the way to Florida. My life is here, and truly I don’t want to flee, so I move forward, trying to avoid an accident.
If this were fiction, I would end with the image of myself seated in the back of the Cessna 172 my friend flew for her birthday. I would describe the way the world looked from 13,000 feet, the way my mind reeled with the freedom of having someone else in control. But the truth is I was not in that plane. I can describe to you the fluorescent lighting of my classroom and the scent of faded air freshener and mold, but I cannot describe the patchwork world I saw beneath me because I was not in that plane. The constraints of adult life, though different in tone, are just as powerful as those of childhood, and I had to go to work that day. As I sat at my desk grading papers, I did imagine the vibrations from the engine, the rush of propellers. I could almost feel the adrenaline of rising at great speed to lofty heights. I marveled at aspect ratios, gravity, aerodynamics, and the countless forces of the universe I can neither understand nor control.
Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2013, The Normal School, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, and other journals. She teaches English at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland.