What Happens in the Margins: Riding in Cars with Naomi Shihab Nye
September 26, 2019
Words by Danielle Palmer-Friedman, illustration by Madeline Kernan
“Everything is always bits and pieces,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes in I’ll Ask You Three Times: Are You OK? As soon as I saw that sentence, I stopped what I was doing and started reading. It’s a beautiful thing when an author’s words succinctly express a feeling you’ve always had, but have never seen on paper. The book, a collection of vignettes about car rides, is exactly the bits and pieces. It’s the moments, the conversations, the fears, and the mistakes. It’s the thud of emotions that make up a life.
In I’ll Ask you Three Times, Nye is always asking and looking—and she says that says riding in a car is the universal human experience. “I don’t know when it hit me that what happened in the margins, on the way to the destinations of any day, might be as intriguing as what happened when you got there,” she writes in her collection. After reading I’ll Ask you Three Times, I’m inclined to believe her. You can experience the full range of life’s emotions, all while on four wheels. You can stumble into an instant connection or end up bewildered. Your experience can change depending on who you’re with, where you’re going, even where you’re seated. It’s not a thought I’d had before.
Nye was the first poet of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ 2019/20 Season, appearing at Town Hall on November 19. Watching her on stage was like watching a time lapse of a flower bloom: a lesson in patience, a hum of readiness. She was the perfect writer to open our year, bringing with her the same energy that floods the pages of I’ll Ask you Three Times—a genuine care for her fellow human, a pure interest in peace and justice, growth and happiness.
In her Q&A with poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha that night, she told us a story. “My father used to pause at a hilltop coming into Jerusalem, and he would point out places from his childhood,” she said. “He would say, ‘Just take this all in. It will be with you forever.’ So there’s that sense that some of us have in childhood—that you must pause, take a long look, because everything – as in Buddhism – changes. And it will change.” The beauty of Nye’s work is the ability to capture a bit of life and breath a hugeness into it. She opens your eyes a little wider, steadies your breath so you have time to collect meaning and move on with a grander sense of purpose.
Recently, I was late to work and ordered an Uber Pool ride to save some time. I climbed in the car and sat, silent and stoic behind the driver’s seat. Cool leather interior, even colder atmosphere. It was me, the driver, and another passenger. We were all feeling the early morning sedation, apparently. No conversation flying about in either the front or back seats. No pleasantries. I was immediately reminded of I’ll Ask You Three Times. How many of Nye’s car rides had been like this? It felt like a wasted opportunity. Nye taught me that each time I’m faced with an interaction with another person, I have the chance to learn a little more. I have the chance to say “hello” genuinely and open the door on a new connection. I will carry this one car ride with me forever, partly because of what it was and partly because of what it could have been. It has become a part of my life’s bits and pieces, officially.
Danielle Palmer-Friedman is a Seattle-based writer in love with ice cream and local theater and currently obsessed with poetry and taking leftover food home. You can read her published work from The Daily and City Arts, or check out her personal blog here.
Madeline Kernan is an illustrator and outdoor preschool teacher currently living in Queen Anne. You can find her on Instagram: follow her literary adventures on King County Metro @booksandthebus or see more of her artwork @mordgey.