It has been almost 30 years ago, but I can still remember the feeling of being jampacked inside that car. In fact, it is a moment that I will never forget. Back in my high school days in the early 90’s, it was a rarity for teenage drivers to have their own cars. This meant that those who did got the privilege of hauling around as many people as they could cram into their backseats for weekends full of fun and trouble. As the designated smallest person of the group, I was always the last one shoved into the back, squishing and wriggling my way across laps, with my elbows digging into ribs, my knees bunched up in a face or two, and my muddy Treetorn sneakers ruining someone else’s thoughtfully chosen evening outfit. On this night, it was much of the same, but somehow it was different.
I remember on this particular night, at this particular moment, being crunched up on two of my friends’ laps as we sped down the curvy bumpy West Virginia road. More than one mullet caught the wind through the rolled down window, the smell of Chanel Number 5, Old Spice, and heaping dirty ashtrays hung in the air. The driver cranked up the tunes, and the old cassette player filled the night with a little Bocephus (that’s Hank Williams Jr. for those not in the know). We sat there together, singing along, off-tune, I’m sure. And it was there, in that moment, that for a second, time just stopped. I remember, as if it were yesterday, looking around from face to face, in that smelly, cramped car being bumped from side to side as our driver hung a little too tight against the curves, and realizing ‘This is happiness.’ I remember intentionally stopping and telling myself to never forget this moment. I never have.
Much has happened in the years since that car ride. Some of those faces I haven’t seen for decades, others are still familiar. Some of us have seen success since then, others trauma, and truth be told, probably a little of both. But it has been just recently that this memory of the car has come back so close I can almost touch it. And when I think of it, I can’t help but be struck by this new thought, ‘It doesn’t matter how bumpy the road is, it’s about who you bring along for the ride.”
Life isn’t about the comfort of our journey, it’s about the people who travel the road with you. Recently, I had a friend pass away unexpectedly. She was not a part of those cramped high school car rides, but from a group much the same. And as my friends and I spent time grieving, telling old stories and sharing updates on our lives, even the ugly parts, I realized how much we all have been through. I also realized that when it came to the hard parts of my own life, I wouldn’t trade those times away for the world, if that meant traveling an easy road alone.
Because it isn’t the smooth superhighway that makes us reach out to the ones next to us and hold on. It’s the twisty path, the rocky road, the ups and downs of not knowing what is coming beyond the next curve that inspires us to grab those closest to us and steady each other. It is in sharing our secrets and our fears and letting go of pretend perfection, maybe even singing off-key, where happiness truly grows. It is in accepting others as they are and daring to be accepted ourselves where joy takes root. Friendship doesn’t grow in the perfectly presentable places in our lives. It blooms from the rough ground. It’s messy, like muddy sneakers. It’s noisy, like off-key Bocephus fans. It gets uncomfortable, like an elbow in the ribs at 75 miles an hour. And when the road gets really bumpy, it is sometimes all that keeps us steady.
Sitting here now, I can’t help but feel grateful for each kind soul who has traveled the bumpy road with me. I hope you can do the same. And I hope that the next time your own journey gets hard you won’t focus on the rocks in the road, but instead look at those beside you and remember that this is where friendship grows.
And remember this, life can be twisty and tough, jubilant and joyful, and many other things. But one thing that life is not, is forever (at least on Earth that is). So, if no one has reminded you lately, let me be the one. You are more important than you know to someone. Your time is a treasure to someone. Your listening ear, even when the story is long, is a difference maker to someone. You are someone’s steady hand when times are tough. So, I encourage you, reach out to someone today. Remind them what happiness really is about. They just may never forget it.