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Perspective: My divine car line

Most parents dread car line: the long waits, the uncertainty. But I’ve found a silver lining to the daily task

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

Drawing near my daughter’s school in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, I cross a bridge — an overpass that takes me high above Interstate 95. Suspended in the air for a moment, I look down and see what’s ahead: a quarter-mile line of cars, all those red brake lights piling up. Car line.

I prepare myself mentally: I turn off the radio and turn on DashPass, the app that lets the school know when I’ve arrived on campus and then lets me know when my daughter has been released from class.

As I turn into campus, yellow signs advise: “School zone No cellphone use.” And so I silence mine and tuck it into my purse.

Quiet descends. Far from the interstate, car line at a standstill, the hum of traffic is gone. No one honks. Because there’s no point — car line is unmovable, unchangeable. We line up because there’s no choice. There’s nothing else we can do.

As we edge forward, one by one, the PE coach holds up a number, stacking us into the first, second, third or fourth lane. It reminds me of filing into pews and I realize that, just as the act of entering the sanctuary focuses worshippers’ attention on the imminent service, this sorting focuses all of us in our cars towards the same goal: picking up our children.

In this moment, we’re not Christians, Jews or Muslims; Democrats or Republicans; vaccinated or unvaccinated — we’re all just parents. We’re united by having conceived, carried and birthed a child, united by the fact that we care for our little human beings day in and day out. United by the act of picking them up from school.

Although I’m completely alone in my car, thinking about our shared experience makes me feel connected to these people around me. I look at them in their cars — fiddling with the radio, fixing their hair, texting or talking or just gazing into space — and I think of how being next to them right now isn’t so different from being together in a synagogue or church or mosque. There, too, I can see the others around me but don’t know what they’re thinking. But I feel their presence and realize that we’ve gathered together in a shared time and space for the same purpose and this bridges the gaps between us.

Slotted into a lane — a car ahead of me, a car behind me — I am unable to move. I can’t change anything around me. Even if I had an emergency and began honking like crazy, no one has anywhere to go. We’re all trapped.

I worry, for a moment, that if car line is too slow today I’ll be late picking up my 4-year-old, who attends a different school a few miles away. But then I realize that there is literally nothing I can do to change these circumstances. There is nothing to do but submit.

And so I do.

I surrender to car line. I accept the moment — there’s no past or future. Time is completely out of my control now that I’m here. I have to accept that I might have a 10-minute wait or I could be sitting here for 40 minutes. It doesn’t matter if I have a meeting lined up or my daughter has ballet or if I’m not feeling well or if we need to get milk.

No, there’s not even a point in thinking about any of these things. Maybe I’ll make my meeting or maybe not. Getting hopeful or upset or disappointed — having any expectations at all — or worrying doesn’t help. I have to submit to whatever the car line has in store for me.

This submission can be sublime.

As time and possibilities and opportunity and all the wants that come along with it — all the desires that cause suffering, according to the Buddhist tradition — slip away, I put my car into park, take my foot off the brake and feel both my feet on the floor mat below me. I feel the seat cradling me and the seatbelt bracing me. I listen to the engine idling and the air conditioner blowing. I breathe.

I pick up a book and find — amid the quiet, amid the submission, amid the impossibility of using my cellphone — that I can concentrate in a way I can’t at home. I read without a child sleeping next to me, without dishes waiting for me downstairs or a pile of laundry awaiting me on the floor of the bedroom or my laptop full of unread emails and half transcribed interviews and unwritten stories and student assignments to grade and so many other ands.

As I read, the words penetrate me in a way that they don’t usually. I’m not moving through the pages — rather, the pages are moving me. It’s what the experience of reading should be: transformative.

I pause my reading and look around at the other people again. I imagine us not in one chapel, though we are in a way, but each of us in our own little tiny chapels — each car a chapel. I see the curve of the windshield extending up, up, into steepled roofs pointing towards heaven and then I’m overcome by the same feeling of expansiveness I’ve had in houses of worship around the world. I imagine the roofs opening, nothing standing between us and the sky — all of us connected to the blue beyond.

Suddenly the car line moves!

I put my book down, shift into drive edge forward, excited to get my 5-year-old daughter. How was her day I wonder? What did she learn? How much has she grown in the hours since we have been apart? I picture the baby who slept on my chest and think about how fast it’s all going, how she’s just sort of passing through my home on the way to her own adult life, during which she’ll sit in a car line. And I’ll be old then and on my way out, so to speak.

I begin to think that Earth isn’t God’s waiting room — it’s God’s car line. But then I push the thoughts of mortality away.

As I edge forward, a teacher reads the bright yellow placard I’ve taken out of the glovebox and placed on the dashboard, on the passenger’s side. Speaking into a walkie talkie, the teacher says my daughter’s name. Down the line, another teacher announces it into a bullhorn and then, moments later, there she is. My daughter. The reason I’m here. She steps out of the crowd, spots my car, and striding towards it, she smiles.

The world drops away a bit more — even car line — and nothing exists for me outside of this moment. Our eyes lock as we see each other and we give each other a smile.

This is what car line has prepared me for — my reunion with this girl who swears that, from heaven, she saw me and she chose me to be her mama and decided to join me here on earth. And now we’re joining each other again, my car sanctuary made more sacred by our reunion.

She opens the door and enters. The sound of children streams in and she starts her first sentence as she always does, “And Mama,” as though we were in the middle of a conversation that she simply paused for the school day.

As she tells me about her day — who was there today, who wasn’t, what she ate for lunch, every sentence starting with “And Mama” — I drive with one hand and reach into the back of the car with the other. I open my hand and she places her foot, still tiny — but getting bigger every day — into my palm. We drive away, merging into traffic with all the other families.