I’ve had some emotional moments in cars.
There was that late-August ride in the back of my parents’ station wagon when I was careening toward freshman year of college, away from everything familiar, including my sweet high school boyfriend. I was excited, yes—but silent, bittersweet tears rolled down my cheeks for the entire seven-hour drive.
There was the sudden three-day cross-country journey with my two small children strapped into the back of my SUV. We were driving away from our home in Idaho—a beloved place that had become painfully unpredictable—toward the sparse refuge of my parents’ basement. I didn’t know if we’d ever be back.
And then there were the countless drives to Target, the grocery store, client meetings, play dates, coffee dates. Those ordinary drives of everyday life have often been, paradoxically, some of the most intense.
For many years, I didn’t really register that intensity, at least not in connection with the car. I knew I was prone to waves of emotion the way you might know you’re prone to headaches. It wasn’t until the last few years that I began to notice a pattern, like you might eventually realize your headaches are more intense when you’re wearing a slightly too-tight hat. You start to wonder if the two things are related. (Hint: They probably are.)
On any given day, when I start the engine and pull away from the curb, I am (almost literally) strapping myself into an emotional roller coaster. It doesn’t matter if I’m cruising down the highway or stopped at a light; there’s something about a car that activates my heart.
I’ll check my blind spot and be struck by the deep ache of a lost love. I’ll accelerate out of a construction zone and be overwhelmed by a euphoric wave of possibility and hope.
Both things might happen within moments of each other.
What the heck.
During times in my life when I’m going through heartbreak, I’ve had to forego music in the car completely lest a piercing lyric or a mournful chord push me over the edge. The soothing voices of NPR have kept things a little more steady.
I realize this level of emotion doesn’t happen for everyone, but there are enough songs about driving to confirm I’m not the only one who feels things in the car. So what’s actually going on there?
Why does this certain combination of metal and motion spark so many feelings?
I have poked around for a scientific answer. I asked my therapist once. So far I haven’t found any physiological answers. But I have some guesses of my own. Here goes.
Have you ever stopped to think that that mosquito in your car is flying at the standard mosquito speed of 1 mph but, also, it’s flying at the highway speed of 65 mph? How is this possible? Which speed is its actual speed? Does the mosquito feel this dissonance?
For we non-insects, it’s even more dramatic.
To be in a moving vehicle is to be more still than we usually are, while also moving faster than we usually do. What does that mean for our body and brain? What does it mean to feel the freedom of the road yet be restrained to a seat; to be out in the world but contained in a vehicle; to be hurtling through the air yet perfectly still?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that such a unique space could generate some unique feelings. Maybe this singular convergence of both/and opens up something inside of us.
While these little steel capsules of ours might seem like pretty sheltered places to be, in fact, they leave us quite exposed.
As we’ve learned from every horror movie ever made, you might think you’re perfectly safe behind that shatter-resistant glass but…you’re not.
You might imagine no one can see you as you putter down the road but…they can. And they do. Probably when you least suspect it (so keep that finger away from your nose).
And perhaps the biggest vulnerability, for me at least, is that behind a steering wheel I’m forced to sit still, pay attention, and not accomplish anything.
Now that’s vulnerable.
It leaves my heart wide open to the feelings that have been held at bay by the act of getting things done. When I settle into that driver’s seat, stop moving my body, and start moving my vehicle, I’m no longer protected by activity—and the rest of me can bubble up. And, boy, does it.
Behind a steering wheel I’m forced to sit still, pay attention, and not accomplish anything. . . . It leaves my heart wide open to the feelings that have been held at bay by the act of getting things done.
To be in a moving car is to be in between. You’re not where you came from and you’re not where you’re going. You’re leaving what was and moving toward what’s next. You’re in transition—and transitions unmoor us in sometimes sacred, often powerful ways.
I find that in spaces like that, it does me well to listen. What is my body telling me? What is wisdom saying? What have I not been hearing, or feeling, that is needing to be acknowledged?
These can be deep thoughts for the drive to Costco, but maybe that’s exactly when the deep thoughts need to come. And maybe stillness can be found right in the middle of our day, behind the wheel of a car.
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and empty-nester mama who’s living alone and liking it . She’s perpetually the chilliest person in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or on the socials at @shortsandlongs.
BY Julie Rybarczyk - June 27, 2021
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.