Ritual – Put the Keys in the Chrysler

Car Keys

My father has always purchased Chryslers. I remember the green Plymouth Fury III that he drove to my friend’s house one afternoon to pick me up; it was not our first car but I loved the surprise of him showing up in a new one. Later there was a light blue gray Chrysler that he drove on his carpool days when I was in high school. For a few weeks until he got it repaired, the horn used to randomly sound off if he turned the steering wheel a certain way. The intermittent honks and beeps could have been embarrassing but I ignored my friends’ quizzical looks and acted as if it was the nervous tic of a car overly stimulated by chatty teenage girls.

Chryslers, in shades of blue and grey and different models, carried him to and from work for decades, to meetings at his employer’s downtown offices, and back to the research and development offices where he worked most of the time. To church, the grocery stores, to his father’s house a few miles away, up and down the expressway, taking my brothers and me to college—always a Chrysler.

In his office, he was a mentor to many, especially some of the other black men, usually engineers, but also scientists, and other types. He was known for being direct, honest, and insightful. My father is not easily rattled; his responses to questions are always thoughtful, never hastily blurted out.

The work environment was demanding, one of those places that practiced “up or out.” This meant that if your career was not progressing, if the promotions and raises were not coming, then maybe P&G wasn’t the place for a young manager. Everyone except for a handful would top out at some point, but if it happened too early in your career, you were in the wrong place, and you knew it.

My father’s office was like the neighborhood barbershop, a place where men and boys can drop in, stay a while, and feed off the knowledge of other men, all while getting a haircut or a shave. It was as if he was the top barber and anyone with a question could have his time in the chair to receive what wisdom my father had to offer. His days were never routine, because he advised and coached senior and mid-level managers on business, personnel, and operational issues.

He was asked how he dealt with the stress at work. Other men wanted to learn the rules of the corporate game, how to play them, but more importantly, how to maintain your integrity and excel at work, without taking the stress and anxiety home to family. One day my father shared his response with me.

“At the end of the day, “ he said, “I grab my coat and briefcase, close the door to my office.” His response was delivered with ease; he did not rush. “I head out to the parking lot,” he continued, “place my briefcase on the back seat and slide behind the steering wheel.”

I wondered if the men thought the next sentence would involve a stop for a drink, or maybe even saying a prayer or listening to jazz on the car radio to mellow out before heading home.

“When I put my keys in the Chrysler, I let it go.”

I realize that I need my own keys in the Chrysler ritual, something that signals the work of the day is done, and it is okay to move into relaxing. It is hard when you work from home as a writer to honor a quitting time. The ideas keep coming, even after the clock says to quit. There are the distractions and pings of social media, and the nagging sense that you have not done quite enough to earn downtime. Even if you don’t work from home, with smartphones there is always someone or thing reaching out for us, trying to grab our attention.

I am working at it, determining when I have given my work its best and it is time to relax and restore my spirit. For my father, it was the turn of his car keys in the ignition of his Chrysler that signaled the end of work and the transition to family time. My commute is so short, a mere stroll down the hallway, that driving is unnecessary. There are times when even after dinner, I feel as if I should be doing more, working more, researching more, writing more. There is no cue to stop working.

Years ago, when I lived across the street from an old Catholic church, I used the chimes of the 5:00 p.m. bells that rang though the neighborhood as my quitting time. When those bells pealed throughout the West End, I told myself it was time to wrap up, shut down the computer, and transition to the leisure of evening.

I have to find a way to signal the end of my day, a cue that says I have done enough, that the work will be there for me tomorrow. I must give myself the grace to say that even if I didn’t accomplish as much as I intended, the good news is that I can start fresh tomorrow. I can give myself permission to enjoy my evenings during the week, my Sabbath during the weekend, and find ways to release the stress that sometimes builds up during the day. I might not find that in a set of keys like my father did, but the need is the same.

When I have done enough for the day, I have to set down the worries, mental somersaults, and my growing to-do list. I am searching for a way to set them aside and enter into rest with the same determination and eagerness that I start my day. I don’t have my ritual down yet, but I know that this is going to be important for me. My first step is remembering the words of my father—“Put the keys in the Chrysler.”


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