It is 8:04 a.m., somewhere between Sandusky and Cleveland, and I am standing in the rain on the shoulder of the Ohio Turnpike, semi-trucks hurtling past me at seventy miles per hour. I press my hands against my face, try to breathe in deep and slow. I am fine. I am alive.
A state trooper in a yellow rain jacket waves me into the hard plastic back of her patrol car and takes my statement from the front seat. No other vehicles involved. No injuries, if you don’t count the tiny welts blooming red on my arms and the knot in my neck that will take a week to loosen. The car, front crumpled like a soda can, is already loaded onto a tow truck by the time she finishes taking my details. After that, just logistics—the trooper will drive me to a service station where I’ll sip terrible coffee and wait for my parents to come and get me.
I am alive. I am fine. In the sterile light of a service station that looks exactly like every other service station, I think of everything I’ve never put into words and feel a frantic need to yank out reflections like unripe carrots, to find some meaning beyond the animal shock of impact. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I hit the slick patch. The moment I began to slide, I thought of nothing.
My deepest fear is not a sudden end. It’s that I take and take from life without setting anything back into it, that whenever my end comes, my thoughts remain my own private treasures. So many people have shared their wisdom and stories, things of great value, not so that I can know more, but so that I can act differently. But it takes courage and effort to weave knowledge into reflection and reflection into mobilizing calls or plans for action. If not miserly with my knowledge, I am lazy with it. I tell myself I’ll leave everything inside a little longer to ripen; instead, I wonder if it spoils.
Of course, I am not my output. I want to avoid the capitalist assumption that we are only valuable for what we put back out into the world. Sometimes knowledge is beauty, and I pick it up like a molting cattail or a smooth lake stone for no reason other than to marvel. But knowledge isn’t virtue. Thoughts, however precious, are nothing more than rehearsal.
I am fine. I go back to work and read hundreds of emails. I read articles for work and books for class, listen to the radio and scroll through news as if each new idea were a good unto itself, another bauble to decorate my interior space. I read about terrible things—forced sterilization and medical neglect in ICE detention. The exoneration of Breonna Taylor’s killers. The rush nomination of a Supreme Court justice. A president that refuses to commit to election results and instead stokes fear and hatred and violence.
What do I think about all of this? I’m sick about it. But what do I plan to do, as Mary Oliver asks, with this one wild and precious life?
I need to learn to weave these tangled strands inside me into something that keeps others warm. I need to learn to bake these overflowing shelves of dry goods into something that keeps people fed. This mixing, sorting, presenting, and sharing isn’t, in the end, about productivity. It’s about mutual care. I am fine. I am alive. The world hurtles past me but I breathe in deep and slow. I hold that breath inside me.
And then I breathe back out.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).