Adam Zagajewski, “Auto Mirror”

Those who drive wherever they like, whenever they like—I've been jealous of them for so long.

Adam Zagajewski, “Auto Mirror”

Those who drive wherever they like, whenever they like—I've been jealous of them for so long. It's one thing for nearly all of us in the US to have our sense of independence tied to driving. I mean, not being able to drive typically means not being able to work. But it is quite another thing to fully embrace driving. To take a burden and make it maximally positive. One person I knew would leave work and go to cheap and tasty hole-in-the-wall spots. He had an endless supply of locations. He'd also hunt down vintage toys and games, help out at community events, reach out to innumerable people. Driving wasn't just something he did or enjoyed. It was damn near a superpower.

However, I just drove from Texas to Missouri, a distance of 500 miles traversed in a day. I am proud I made the trip. I increased my endurance, focused on competent, safe driving, and packed a car as full as possible. I brought everything I own with me. I wouldn't say I felt free or confident during the drive, though. I was far more stressed and worried. I certainly could not acknowledge, much less process, moments with any emotional weight.

Thus, a glance at Adam Zagajewski's "Auto Mirror" took me aback. He says he saw the "bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral" in his rear-view mirror, "suddenly." That he was open to amazement shocks me. Godzilla could have been fighting Mothra in my mirror and I would have made sure my car didn't drift into the shoulder. Dolphins could have been firing rockets at each other from head-mounted launchers and I would have been checking if I had enough bottled water.

Granted, I'm making a major change. I lived in Texas for 20 years. That's gone now. But I wonder if there's an element of driving that's reflective, not just passing everything by. Here are Zagajewski's words:

Auto Mirror (from A Book of Luminous Things)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Czeslaw Milosz & Robert Hass)

In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.

His little lyric does not lack intricacy. "In the rear-view mirror suddenly," the first line, gives a specific time and place. A second for glancing, as moving supersedes looking. A compressed space in a machine's service. This modern moment he juxtaposes with a past enormity: "I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral." These two lines remind me of movies where someone goes through a dark cave to find a majestic lost civilization at the end. But it's an everyday experience which he relates. Plenty of people pass Beauvais Cathedral daily.

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One can take stock of the everyday and bury oneself with it. All of us know people intent on drowning others with every detail of their lives. Thus, the character of Zagajewski's observation fascinates me. He's not indulging the mundane, but he's also not declaring he saw God. He simply records a happening which might be passed over. He draws a conclusion that's almost trite: "great things dwell in small ones / for a moment." Somehow, it works.

I'm thinking about my most recent drive. I didn't see a cathedral in the rear-view. Instead, I stopped at a Shell station in McAlester, Oklahoma where an older woman said I had beautiful skin tone. I got that compliment years ago from someone I still miss. As I drove into Missouri, I might have heard every FM station in Tulsa. What struck me was how much they had going on. An open invitation to a kickball league, advertised with gusto by the DJ, as if living in Tulsa automatically made you the epitome of cool. A bit later, a young woman working at a gas station wanted all of her customers to assent that her job sucked. They did, strangely affirming her job wasn't the worst.

Cathedrals had many anonymous artisans, who created magnificent artwork for the glory of the divine, not their own name. They poured every ounce of themselves into their work; they took pride in creation even as they gave it away; their affirmation of themselves, you might say, was ironic. I often say that feudal mores have infected modern life in a bad way. People treating anything and everything as their castle, or looking for some status which they feel permits them to dominate others. But maybe the collection of experiences which made a cathedral is a way of understanding when you've been given a gift. For some, driving will only be passing through quickly. That's fine; they've got places to go. For others, there's seeing yourself reflected in other people's eyes. They know you're making a journey. It's not something that you yourself might remember, perhaps least of all when driving. "[G]reat things dwell in small ones / for a moment."