In silence, I drove a couple hundred miles today, something I’ve not done since the AM radio broke in my first car, a ’67 Chevy Malibu. That break from noise only lasted a week, until I bought an eight-track tape deck to listen to Clapton’s guitar on “Bell-Bottom Blues” interrupted mid-heartbreak to clunkily jump to another track. Same thing with Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” my absolute favorite song at the time. (Forgive me, without any effort, I’ve digressed from my topic before I’ve begun. That, my friends, is a gift. Let me begin again.)
I drove mainly in silence today, very unusual for me. Walking in silence—which is to say with no headphones pumping sound into my brain—is common. Five years ago I walked Hadrian’s Wall, about a hundred miles, rarely listening to anything other than Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Woods” and early Richard Thompson. For this trip, I’d asked friends to send me stuff they thought I hadn’t heard. I got songs, albums and entire genres of music. Who knew Pastoral Pagan Death Metal or Fourth-Generation Neo-New Wave had their own bins? I’ve also downloaded a bunch of audiobooks, most of them way over my head and out of my league. For today I listened to no Marcus Aurelius, no Epictetus, no St. Augustine. Even the relatively bush-league Sartre and Camus remained untouched today. Not a word. Not a melody.
Driving alone through hard but beautiful land with no distractions, I was comfortable—with me, with my life, with the universe. This ease, this peace did not come early or easily to me. In my previous life, every time I drank and drugged, I did so to get out of me, to break the bonds that tethered me to me. Every beer, every joint, every shot was a Keith Escape Vehicle. In my 15 years of recovery, I’ve lost that need for desertion, that desire to withdraw from myself. I am happy with me. I am good company.
No one, including me, ever got clean or sober, to use the language of the 12-Step fellowships, simply to take a long car ride in silence without wanting to scream. Broken relationships, busted heads, infections of various kinds, a weltschmerz that won’t quit and a sense that suicide on the installment plan should just be paid off right now—these are the reasons people usually quit. For me, suicide was the deciding factor—I didn’t want to live anymore. Easing into myself and breathing in peace are just a few of recovery’s gifts, small lagniappes, really. Small but damned good.
My wife, Elena, has the largest vocabulary of anyone I know. She’s also the smartest, kindest and most intuitive woman, but those attributes can wait for another time. Elena regularly reminds me, often after I’ve asked her what an unfamiliar word means, that English is her second language, and her vocabulary is much larger in her native tongue. I don’t know what sesquipedalian is in Spanish, but I’m certain she does.
Elena claims to enjoy my writing, and perhaps she does the way a Faulkner scholar likes “Pudd’nhead Wilson” or “Tom Sawyer, Boy Detective,” entertaining little pieces after a day of critical reading. Still, Elena, occasionally chides me for using obscure words in writing, unknown not to her, of course, but to the kind of person who reads the kind of stuff I write.
Out of love—and a hope Elena will find this amusing—I’m beginning a new feature. Drawing on my background as a second-grade teacher, I’ve embedded three vocabulary words in the above:
Weltschmerz—World-weariness; severe depression about the world and one’s state in it.
When he looked at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, all covering mass shootings, Tom was overcome with Weltschmerz.
Lagniappe—a small gift given to a patron upon buying a larger item.
When I was a boy, we’d fill up with Shell gasoline just so we could get another Red Sox glass as a lagniappe.
Sesquipedalian—having many syllables; a long word
Hating sesquipedalian language, Maggie used only four-letter words when describing bodily functions.
These will be on the quiz!