Not long ago I had an accident in my car. I’d had a few minor collisions before, my fault or someone else’s, but this was worse. I was driving faster than usual down a narrow lane, and didn’t see the other car coming round a blind corner towards me until it was too late. I braked, but still slammed into the by now stationary bumper of a very nice new-looking Mini. The other driver – who turned out to be a lorry-driving instructor – was understandably furious and told me in no uncertain terms what I’d been doing wrong. Fortunately neither of us was hurt, though the fronts of both cars were damaged by the impact. (When I lived in London, there was a local driving school that called itself the Impact School of Motoring and presumably ran crash courses.)
Once we were off the main track and trying to sort things out with our respective insurance companies, I felt myself wanting to collapse into a wobbly, weepy state compounded of shock, relief that things weren’t worse, recognising how much worse they could have been, and a large dose of shame. The other driver soon got over his anger and was as helpful as he could be, but his kindness made it all the harder not to dissolve in a puddle of unhelpful tears – which I didn’t do. In fact I kept pretty calm, all things considered, and didn’t collapse until I’d got the poor injured car home (fortunately not far away) and finished dealing with the insurers. Questions like ‘Was there CCTV?’ (concealed in the hedgerow, I assume) and ‘Which side was the other driver on?’ (in a lane just wide enough for one car) left me teetering on the edge of hysteria. At least I could phone a good friend afterwards and get, in lieu of an in-person hug, a comforting virtual one. (I got some real ones later too.)
Since then I’ve been both surprised and not surprised at how vulnerable and shaken up I’ve felt. Various other mishaps – which I won’t go into here – haven’t made things easier, but I still find myself buying into the assumption that if the accident has been fairly minor and I haven’t been hurt, I should be able to get over it pretty quickly. At the same time I know perfectly well that any sort of traumatic incident in the present, even a relatively minor one, leaves a residue and also taps into the reservoir of previous trauma that most of us have inside us. By trauma I don’t necessarily mean anything as horrific as violence or abuse or even a serious accident, but circumstances that, whether we consciously remember them or not, have in some way left an imprint of unresolved shock. (For more on this and the way trauma remains in the body see, among other good sources, In An Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine.)
But feeling more vulnerable isn’t all negative. I’ve been more open to the beauty of the landscape, the wild flowers that grow in the hedgerows and beside the little river that runs through the town, the plants in my garden; more touched by friends’ care and kindness; more aware of what’s been going on inside me. The other day I pictured the car as a hard shell that had been covering me but had now cracked and fallen off, leaving me rather like a hermit crab without its borrowed casing. It felt like a relief, as though I was allowed to be myself more directly and openly, even if that self seemed in some ways less grown-up and was less carefully held together. Perhaps many of us secretly long to return to the spontaneity we knew as small children, when pain and delight were equally immediate and there was no barrier between us and the world, so that in each moment we were not separate from the colour of a poppy or the taste of an ice cream.
The Buddha teaches that the sense of a separate (and essentially self-protective) self that most of us carry around with us is illusory. He didn’t say there is no self, since clearly for everyday purposes it exists and gets us through, but if we begin to deconstruct our experiences what we find is that none of them is actually ‘myself”: it isn’t owned by me, it’s simply lived experience. Discovering this, even for tiny moments while on retreat or in contact with the natural world, is extraordinarily freeing. We realise again that the shell isn’t necessary and in fact holds us back from connection with all things and all beings. And that connection has the quality of love, so that in those moments something as mundane as the moss growing in the cracks of a stone wall can seem infinitely beautiful and precious. But dropping the sense of self in those moments, even partially, can also be frightening. The familiar sense of who I am, what I’m like, how I respond to things, is no longer there as a set of railings to hold on to, and the fear is that without it I might die – though without its restriction I become more fully alive.
It seems to me that the best writing, whether poetry or prose, comes from this experience of immediate and unselfconscious contact with the world. The writing may not be a spontaneous outpouring: it may be worked and crafted and may contain reflection after the event, but if it doesn’t spring from that essential truth then it is in some sense lacking. The truth of the moment may be an ‘inner’ truth – a depth and clarity of emotion – as well as an ‘outer’ truth, and in fact may probably be both, since the dichotomy between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is ultimately a false one. If my feelings and emotions aren’t essentially ‘mine’, then they are simply part of the totality that makes up this given moment and can be perceived with the same clear-sightedness and compassion as everything else. If only I were able to write in that way…
My car is still sitting outside my house, waiting to be taken away for repair. That was going to be done today but has now been postponed until Tuesday, three weeks after the accident. I’ve had time to get over some of the shock and re-assess what happened: how over-confidence and thinking about ‘me’ lessened my concentration on the road in front of me and led to misjudgement. I’ve also had time to enjoy walking and taking the bus, noticing what’s around me in a way that I can’t when I’m driving. And I’ve had to forgo things that I might otherwise have attended, like a choir rehearsal and a poetry performance, because down here in rural Devon public transport is less than adequate and I can’t always rely on lifts from other people. So sooner or later I will start driving again, hoping the accident has been a salutary experience.