What I Don’t Know by Niles Reddick
When I was younger, I thought I knew everything. I was confident about what I knew, I was much more assertive about what I know than now, and I liked myself a lot more. My dear grandmother, who died three years ago, once told me on her front porch, “I wish I loved myself as much as you do.” Of course, I took that as a compliment, but now I wonder what her wisdom was sharing with me.
Today, I’m not so sure about anything anymore. I’m certainly not confident in what I know. Ten years of college helped me to realize just how much I don’t know, and I am constantly learning new things and remembering old things with my son and daughter, which reinforces the idea I don’t know much—yesterday, my daughter asked questions about slavery, and I wonder how I will respond to those questions today (since I told her we’d talk about it later and she will not forget to ask again). Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, gulping coffee. I’m still not completely recovered from the long drive from Tifton, Georgia (near the bottom of Georgia, gnat-infested country, and humid and hot—the kind of heat that sticks to you and makes you feel like your brain is cooking inside your head).
I’ve learned a lot about Thomas Jefferson–an amazing man who has touched all of us in some form, an almost obessive-compulsive list maker, a lover of good food, an artist in his own right, and while I walked Monticello yesteday and breathed it in, my desire was to live in a home like this on top of a mountain surrounded by vineyards, apple trees, manicured gardens, to live the Agrarian life my ancestors in Savannah, Georgia lived, and to write more on a daily basis and in a disciplined way like Thomas Jefferson. I wondered how he persisted during times of personal and professional adversity, how he overcame his own fears and doubts. His losing family members including many of his own children would be enough to make me give up. His international travels by boat would be enough to send me over the edge, and I complain about traffic and getting anxiety on bridges.
I don’t mean the kind of anxiety of just not looking out to see the river or ocean. I mean the crippling kind that if those riding with me knew I was having they wouldn’t want to be in the car with me at all. I grip the wheel with both hands, my heart races, I sweat, I can’t breathe, and I feel my pulse in my head. I really do try to pick roads without bridges in advance of a trip, but the map doesn’t show this river or bridge in Lynchburg, Virginia. I curse the map maker and I vow not to come this way again. When I’ve made it across, it’s not over. It takes me almost 30 minutes to get back to normal. I keep holding my hands in front of the air conditioner vents to dry them. I wonder why in the world I experience such insanity. I wonder why it takes so long to recover from such an episode. I wonder and worry if the next curve on this mountain road to Charolottesville has another bridge. I wonder if I should tell my family the extent to which this bothers me. Last summer when we were on the coast for a wedding, I pulled off the side of the road and asked my wife to drive over the bridge at St. Simons Island. That was a first in our sixteen years of marriage. I gave in to it, but it’s a huge bridge and it even curves. That late afternoon thunderstorm didn’t help as the lightening bolts were hitting the top of the bridge. Even as we crossed, my eyes were closed, and I gripped the seat and door and pressed the imaginary brake on the floorboard with my feet. My five year old son (who is unaware of my anxiety since I could win a grammy for my acting ability) yells, “What happens if we run off and land in the ocean? Will sharks eat us like in that old movie Dad watches?” When we left the island, I let my wife drive and I still close my eyes though it was beautiful outside. My dad who is traveling with us for fun is only six months out from having had six heart bypasses. He’s never been to some of these places, and I think he’s enjoying the trip. He quizzes me about the bridge and says, “You must get that from your mother.” My mother couldn’t make the trip because of constant back pain. I wonder if an anxiety is genetic of behavioral. I recall riding over the Tampa Bay bridge in a storm in our VW bus when I was a kid. This was when they were rebuilding it from it having been hit by a ship, sending people to their graves in the bay below. The VW bus rocked back and forth and my mother scared us, telling my dad to watch out, slow down, don’t kill us, and my three younger siblings laid on the rubber mats on the floor and prayed. Now, I wonder if they, too, have this bridge anxiety, but my anxiety stretches to high places and planes, too.
My struggle has always been to write what I just wrote—to write those fears we don’t show the world, to write those eccentric notions we get stuck on that need to get out. I prefer not dealing with issues (and hell, I’ve got a degree in psychology and once was a counselor who wasn’t much help to those in need), except in my own way. Yesterday, I thanked Jefferson and I thanked God, too. I thanked Jefferson for all he did for us (silently in my head, of course), I thanked God for getting me across that bridge and for giving me the strength to get around and make it this far, to take my kids to Monticello and other historical sites. As I saw people using canes to walk or riding in a motorized scooter, I was thankful for the strength and energy to still walk, for legs. I saw a man in the hotel wearing shorts sporting two good looking prosthetic legs. I thought O’Connor would like seeing this, and I wondered how he lost his legs and wanted to stop him and ask him his story, but didn’t. I wonder what struggles we’ll face today (other than heavy traffic) as we head to DC for Mount Vernon. I hope my kids are well behaved when we tour the Capitol and White House on Thursday and I hope we make it back home a different way without crossing any bridges. Today, I thank my grandmother for her wisdom and would like her to know that I still love myself, but it’s a different love—one that’s more accepting of what I don’t know and understand, one that has matured, one that continues to struggle on a daily basis.