I normally try to abstain from mixing writing gigs (and metaphors), but this piece appeared a few months ago in the literary edition of the awesome art journal OUTLET and I wanted to share it with a bigger audience. I’m real proud to be a part of such a stellar issue—you can download it for free!
Morning Commute of a Misanthrope
By Jessica Leigh Lebos
When I was much younger than this, I had a bad habit of hating my life. Fortunately, the more of it I lived, the more miraculous I understood it to be—that I, along with every other animate creature in this world, am moved along by a common pulse that drives every heartbeat and breath. Compared to the majesty of this force, even my most existential frustrations are ridiculously insignificant. Falling in love and becoming a mother practically cured me of my cynical navelgazing, and rather than despising myself and others for all the things we are not, I mostly view humankind as a collection of mentally-challenged pets, worthy of compassion and usually in need of help.
Still, some days, like this morning, when the news is depressing and the small difficulties of managing a life and a family seem stupid and overwhelming, a good attitude is as hard to hold onto as an angry catfish. I decide a drive will clear my head, but when I go out to my beige minivan I find the gas tank empty. I am recently unemployed with a house full of dirty laundry, and it is instantly clear that the empty tank is a metaphor as well as fact. I pull the Stumpjumper mountain bike out of the garage, brought from the redwooded hills of the San Francisco Bay Area to the Deep South on the back of the minivan. It occurs to me that a person needs a mountain bike in this low country even less than a fish does.
No matter that 20 of 21 gears are unnecessary. Feet push pedals, wind meets hair, wheels churn pavement. Heading north on Habersham, I navigate a solid line in the slim lane between traffic and gutter. I don’t give a damn that heavy scoops of cumulus clouds pile up above; rain only sharpens the feeling of world on bare skin. How vulnerable I am, soft skull exposed while metal boxes whiz by with tanks full of gas, propelled by people preoccupied with places to go. All it would take is a blind turn, a slip of a foot, to render me a broken, bloody pile. I am suddenly terrified by the realization that I am at the mercy of the driving abilities of my fellow humans. Another metaphor, and not a very comforting one.
I make it to Washington Avenue without incident, even though the bike lane disappears without warning for fifty yards in front of Ma’s Convenience Store. Knuckles tight over handlebars, I pass the block where the old brick schoolhouse sits. I send a mental kiss to my children, housed safe and warm inside, presumably calculating math problems with Montessori beads and discovering the magic of a grammatically correct sentence, blissfully unaware that their mother is outside, riding her bike without a helmet on a street where they’re not even allowed to walk on the sidewalk. I swerve slightly to avoid a dead squirrel not lucky enough to have made it across the intersection. I choose not to see its flattened body as another metaphor.
Along the tony blocks of old Ardsley Park are big houses with dreamy porches where no one ever sits. A maroon SUV begins drifting across the bold white line of the bike lane, dangerously close to my front tire. At the stoplight at Victory, I roll up to the passenger side window. A blond woman in enormous sunglasses talks animatedly on her phone, hand tapping the steering wheel, and even though she faces straight ahead, I can sense that she knows I’m there. It’s creepy, the way she refuses to look at me, luxurious leather interior and totally unnecessary V8 engine cushioning her from any interaction with the outside world. A sense of entitlement exudes from her, absolving her from her careless driving and pollution-spitting vehicle and the political sticker on her bumper and God knows what else. There’s no traffic coming from either direction, and I decide I’m entitled to cross without waiting for the light to turn green.
My legs burn as I pick up speed and pass the Mediterranean deli with the amazing falafel and come to the railroad tracks slicing a diagonal line through this otherwise square city. A Savannah old timer once told me that 50 years ago, a local politician spitefully routed the tracks through the heart of the Victorian district rather than around the city as revenge for a personal slight. It’s a shame how one person can ruin a whole neighborhood for eternity. That could be a metaphor if one person could be a few corporations, and you consider the planet your neighborhood.
Somewhere around 32nd street, obscenities bounce off the pavement from an upstairs window: Gawdamn stupid muthafucka Imma keeel her for taking my babeeeeeeee, a Doppler effect of sobs petering out on the tail end. I catch another red light at Henry Street, the wind from a wall of westbound traffic whistling through my tires, then swing left until I hit the top of Forsyth Park, where I’m suddenly among clusters of other people with no place to go and all day to get there. No metaphors here, just wide expanses of green grass and lithe college students tossing Frisbees and grizzled men lounging on benches who nod and smile as I sail by.
As I pedal around the fountain with its tritons eternally spitting water, the rain begins to fall in splashes like the tears of a large slow animal. My mind finally begins to loosen from the problems of global warming and how much garbage just one Starbucks generates and how to pay the bills and reaches itself around this rhyme:
All I want to know is what makes us alive
And do we get to keep it after we die?
Rain trickles down my neck and tamps down the sheen of sweat on my back as I ride north of the park, where the carriages drawn by horses show the tourists the oldest parts of town. At the beginning of the Savannah colony, these roads were part of the cemetery down the street. A few generations later the powers in charge paved over the interred and left a stone memorial on the median—what else to do? The living need so much more room than the dead. In the literal sense, anyway; not one of us can vouch for it that as an allegory. I observe the canvas bucket under the horses’ asses, the carriage companies’ ingenious way of keeping the roads clean. In my first burst of gratitude of the day, I am thankful that not having a job means I don’t have to deal with the reality—or the metaphor—of horseshit.
Maybe it’s the shower from the sky or that I’ve finally outridden my own mind, but as I navigate the crowds and cars of downtown a charge of positivity ignites in my chest. I am no longer bound by my personal problems; I have been reminded that I am part of something bigger and more mysterious. I slow down as a relaxed curiosity replaces tight-fisted angst, taking in the ancient oaks bordering the squares, not animate like me, but still undeniably alive.
A cape of goodwill unfurls from my shoulders as I breeze down Broughton Street, gracing everyone with a silent blessing. Benevolent mental fairy dust mixes with raindrops, settling on the sad-faced grandmother at the bus stop, the fat white couple staring at the art supply store’s punk rock window display, the blond woman in the sunglasses on her cell phone hurrying with an enormous shopping bag from one of the boutiques (the same one who almost hit me with her SUV earlier? Who can tell?) To all in my eyesight and beyond, I am a sudden secret superhero, bestowing a wish for peace of mind and heart for all. In the absence of specific guidance from above and beyond, it is our only true work.
I skitter down ancient cobblestones and arrive wet and exhausted at the river, where a ship ten stories tall glides inland. It’s probably full of cheap plastic shit from China, one of fifty that will arrive at the port today, but I have already reached my limit of despair for the morning. I can go no further, my non-tragic trajectory that began in sixty blocks south ends here.
Like Jacob tussled with the angel to find his place in the world, I’m always in a fight my own mind to stay present. As sentient beings with limitless figurative capacities stuffed into literal bodies, we define and describe what is in front of us with what we already know. Peace of mind only comes when we can stop that habit and let reality be, unadorned with metaphors or fancy language.
After a time watching the ships and the tourists taking photos, I flip around the bike, made for rugged terrain but with only flat streets to cover now, and turn 180 degrees. That is at once a metaphor as well as a fact, and I begin to the ride home to exactly who I am.