Exit 7A

I have traveled along the New Jersey Turnpike many times. When I was a kid, my parents would take us to New York to visit their parents. When I was in high school I would travel to swim meets with my school. In college, I went to Great Adventure with a collection of friends. After college, I had a girlfriend who lived in Freehold, and drove there and back  to visit her in my first car. I later took dates to Great Adventure. Most recently, I headed north with my (now ex-) wife and family to visit her family in Ocean Grove, NJ. Today, I took the familiar exit 7A to attend a workshop on the Jersey Shore. I can recall all or parts of all the trips I made along this highway, but I didn’t make it so often that it became rote. I remember leaving from Steve’s home out toward Exton, along with Chris, Darius, and Julie. I remember driving to, and then from Ginny’s home in Freehold. I remember the warm spring air across snow plowed into mounds in the Lawrenceville gym parking lot. I remember riding the Ferris wheel with Marie. I remember missing the turn onto Rte 18. I remember the radio signal fading out from WIP close to where the NJ State Police building was along the turnpike. I can remember feeling happy, sad, angry, jealous, confused, frustrated, thrilled, elated, confident–all along this same stretch of road.

As I drive along this road, I feel as if I am accompanied by several versions of myself, each one traveling the same path to different destinations, either alone or in the company of friends. I wonder what habits have shaped my travel, and me, and how the habits formed over time. I wonder what it would be like to wander over this path–and a dozen, a thousand other paths–for the first time. “You’ve analyzed this enough for both of us,” someone once told me. Of all my habits, analyzing–what I will call wondering or remembering or reveling or pondering or considering or questioning or figuring or honoring or respecting or holding or living–is perhaps my most ingrained habit. It isn’t second nature; it is first nature. What would it be like to just do–either guided by feelings or by someone else’s direction–without thinking?

I once used the metaphor of a path in the brain to demonstrate how memories are made and habits formed. I told students to imagine someone walking through woods over and over until a dirt path had been worn into the underbrush. walk along that path enough and it becomes more like a rut. As soon as the path takes hold, it begins to seem like there is only one way through the woods. I said that once a neural pathway had forms in the brain, it becomes a little like that deep hewn path, and that will power and determination alone are insufficient to the task of changing it. I was trying to disabuse my students of the notion that addictions or mental illnesses like depression could be combatted by force of will alone–that there is no shame in seeking help. I was also trying to show how deeply ingrained habits and patterns in our lives could become.

Maybe this kind of thought is simply a habit for me. Maybe others simply do not need to reflect and wonder. I don’t know what that would be like. I am reading William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and he writes about being a young surfer and learning to surf a particular break, and how surfers–the epitome of “go with the flow”–patiently learn the dynamics of each place they surf. They intimately learn the combinations of wind, tide, and depth. And then make surfing seem effortless. Thinking is effortless for me–not easy, to be sure–but something that comes as naturally as breathing or eating. I barely need to daydream, because the visions, the thoughts, the fleeting glimpses and sometimes lengthy gazes into the breaks of the day come involuntarily.