The Wave (It’s Okay Not to Wave)


The following is an excerpt from Richard Purinton’s new book, Bridges Are Still News: Island Essays, Poems and Photos, now available at local booksellers.


Do you ever wonder why we motorists wave at one another?


Here on Washington Island, we do it all the time, waving as we pass in our cars. It’s a Scandinavian thing, perhaps, served locally, like whitefish at a fish boil. To not wave is to not conform, and so nearly everyone waves, even if it is just to wave in return.


I’ve waved and been waved at when I’ve driven through Sister Bay and points southward on the peninsula. The wave seems to subside near Sturgeon Bay but then picks up briefly, around Brussels or Namur. It might be a rural thing.


My hand goes up automatically in Baileys Harbor, as if I’m still on the island, until I realize I didn’t know who that person was in the other car. If the driver signals back at me, or maybe initiates a wave, it was most likely because my car was mistaken for someone else’s.


Is this highway reflex a motion from which we have no recourse? What would happen if we didn’t wave? We all have bad days, irritable moments, and sometimes we can see a car coming from far off driven by a person we haven’t talked to in years. Can’t we just be ourselves and not wave?


That brings up another point, and that is, can it be mechanical, or must our highway wave come from the heart? I sometimes wave through frosted windows or slush-laden wipers, unable to see who it is in the other car.


Maybe because we live in a small community like Washington Island where everyone thinks they know, or should know, everyone else, we don’t want others to think ill of us for stiffing them as we drive by, motionless at the wheel. The daily wave among motorists is not symbolic of deep relationships. Rather, we might be saying, unemotionally, “I see you and will safely avoid your vehicle.”


So, if our highway wave had no deep-seated meaning, then it must be okay not to wave.


Certainly! There are those for whom the act of waving is actually distasteful, and I know some of them as friends, too. What’s their problem, I ask myself? Too lazy? Never got the hang of it? Saving energy for a swim, I’ll bet, or for shopping or mowing the lawn. Maybe they’re balancing a hot cup of coffee between thighs and don’t want to spill.


We all can’t feel good all of the time. Let’s rethink this wave thing.


Despite the fact most of us love community, there are days even out in the country when we like to alone in our car, unmolested by the wave. It’s quite all right not to wave on those days, and we want you to know that.


Next time out on island roads, see how you feel. Does a reciprocal wave do anything for you? Do you know you’re ‘back home’ on the island when you can’t relax enough on a drive because you keep wondering, “Who was that who waved at me?” Would a limp-wristed, half-hearted acknowledgment, minus the accompanying head nod, get you by when others pump their forearms vigorously in sweeping arcs over steering wheels, or point with their forefinger like a gun, as if to say, “Gotcha! Hey, buddy, great day, ain’t it?”


Like a rusty ballplayer returning from the winter off-season, we know you’ll soon feel better with practice, and the swing of your palm above the instrument panel will become natural, even sweet with time. When the sun comes up over wooded meadow, when your child or grandchild or friend says something special that makes you suck in air to your toes, when your day’s work has gone especially well, then you’ll get back into the swing of island driving, one hand on the wheel, one hand free to wave.