Right Hand Turn

Posted: May 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

It was a beautiful day to hit the bicycle trail and so I did. I rode about a five mile circle, a rolling circuit with a few steep hills both up and down. The jaunt concluded in a rather congested area of town that included both cars and pedestrians. Preparing to turn right I did what they taught all of us in basic bicycle safety decades ago: With your right hand remaining securely on the hand grip, extend your left shoulder out and forearm up creating a kind of “L” with your arm. You execute the signal and then return your signal hand to the handlebars to actually make the turn.

This I did, to the best of my ability. But just as I flashed the right-turn signal, my arm extended out and hand up, a fellow was cruising through the intersection very slowly with his window rolled down. Believing that I was not signaling, but rather waving to him, he shouted out a jovial greeting like you would give to a long-lost friend. “Hey, man, how are you?” Not wanting to put a damper on what seemed to be a singular moment of joy for him, I retorted, “Fine, thanks? Hey how’s the family?” By the time he could reply his car had moved too far to be heard and I, having actually turned right, was headed toward who knows what, perhaps other unexpected encounters with total strangers.

At least two things occurred to me about this ephemeral bike turning experience.

The first was how easily we misread the communication of others. We suppose we know what people mean. So often we have it wrong. Generally it’s wrong because we’re assuming that what we see is close to something else we’ve seen before, like someone waving. It’s just that we screen out the fact that the one waving is riding a bike in traffic, wearing a silly looking helmet and making gestures as he turns. Other than that, it’s just like the guy I saw waving at me in the restaurant last week. Close enough, but wrong. And we get it wrong lots.

The second has to do with the need for a wave. I think lots of people, myself included, walk through an average day waiting for someone to recognize that they are alive and breathing, occupying space on the planet. That’s why I always say hello and chat it up with people who are eating alone at a restaurant and look like they don’t want to be. If I’ve mistaken those cues and they’ve really just escaped the crush of people to find a rare moment of solitude and I’ve ruined it, we’ll I’m sorry. But it’s usually not that way. After the bike incident I was near our apartment and an elderly woman was standing out on her porch, just leaning against the rail, taking in the day and the world. She watched as people walked by, hoping she wasn’t invisible. And I talked about the weather with her. It’s hell being invisible.

And the guy at the intersection was, I am convinced, not only confusing cues and mistaking a turn signal for a wave. Oh, it may have been that. But I think it’s more likely that he was waiting for somebody to do something like that in his direction, and when it happened he seized the moment. I think we all wait for moments like that and of different kinds and depending on our courage or desperation or frivolity shout out like we’ve known them forever.

We all want to be known, have someone raise an eyebrow in recognition, smile our direction, because life can be lonely. You can wave to yourself or smile back in front of the mirror but there is nothing like seeing, hearing that your space has been noticed, not in a grandiose way, full of narcissistic preoccupation, but with simple hope that you exist and belong. It’s no wonder that almost every theistic major religion says something about being seen by God. We’re here, you know. It may be for a short time, but we are.  Just wave, will you?

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