Driving north on Interstate 5 heading from Los Angeles to San Quentin State Prison, the anticipation of visiting my father pushed my thoughts to a quote I had recently heard: Live life through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.
I found momentary comfort in those words as I focused on the joy of soon seeing him rather than on my belief that he never should have been incarcerated.
Living life through the windshield is a philosophy based upon forward thinking. It encourages one to truly live in the present while focusing strongly on the future. The idea is that very little comes from looking back, dwelling on the past or concerning oneself with things that have already taken place and cannot be changed.
Foot on the gas pedal, I cruised along a highway flanked by graffiti-covered walls and, further north, stretches of greenery while wondering what it would mean for me to actually adopt a consistent attitude of forward thinking.
“I often needed to glance at myself in
the rearview mirror to be
reminded of racial profiling”
I understood the concept of working to rid myself of personal regret, grudges and negative memories that might hinder any attempt to successfully move forward. And I could clearly see the potential benefit of training my mind to focus on the opportunities in front of me as opposed to the missed opportunities behind me.
Still, there was a part of me that struggled mightily with the notion of not glancing often into the figurative rearview mirror. There were some unpleasant experiences behind me that I needed to remember. There were certain occurrences that I needed to remain heated about and needed to use as teaching tools and motivation.
My rearview mirror refused to let me forget my history and the struggles along the road my family had traveled. Among many things, it reminded me of the letter my grandfather received in 1957 from the University of Houston denying him entry because he was a Negro.
It also reminded me of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that set out to “neutralize” any movement towards a righting of the injustices piled on black people in America played a large part in both my father and uncle being sentenced to life in prison in 1969. How could I only look forward through the windshield when there was still smoke rising from the wreckage behind me?
Continuing my ride toward the prison, I recalled times in Los Angeles County when flashing blue police lights lit up my rearview mirror for no apparent reason. I remembered pulling over and watching through that same mirror as two uniformed figures slowly approached my vehicle. The beam of a large flashlight would penetrate the car on the driver’s side as one officer motioned for me to roll the window down. On the other side of the car, the second officer would stand at a distance peering inside while one hand gripped his holstered weapon.
Soon, I’d find myself standing on the sidewalk watching my vehicle being illegally searched. The phony explanation, if there was one given at all, was usually the same: I fit the description of someone who had stolen a car that happened to be the same color, make and model as the one I was driving.
Tellingly, it seemed to make no difference what part of town I found myself in, what I was wearing or whether I drove a used Chevy or a new Mercedes-Benz. It wasn’t very long before I sadly concluded that I often needed to glance at myself in the rearview mirror to be reminded of racial profiling and the dangerous situations I could find myself in simply because I dared to be driving while black.
Seven hours into my road trip, I could finally see the notorious prison up ahead. Oddly, that picture through my windshield symbolized a loving reunion, good conversation and hope.
I began to look forward and tried to focus on the special visiting time that I saw ahead of me. Yet and still, I remained conscious of the things behind me and never lost sight of the past. I recognized those prior experiences as vital in keeping me grounded, alert and motivated to continually seek change so that others might possibly travel a smoother road.
In essence, on that ride from Los Angeles to San Quentin, I made up my mind to live life through the windshield and the rearview mirror.
This guest column is by the son of Watani Stiner, the regular OG Perspective columnist for the San Quentin News.