A Lesson in Shifting

image1There’s something you should know about me: I’m a learner. If I’m not being challenged I find a way to challenge myself. I have an insatiable desire to always be learning. This can cause trouble sometimes. I live in a state of fast-forwardlearning, learning, learning. It’s not unusual for me to sit myself down and give myself a serious talk about slowing down. And for a few days, or maybe a week I doslow down, that is. And then I inevitably buy five new books. I find three new recipes to try. I begin thorough research on a new place to travel and begin crafting a detailed itinerary for when I visit. I enroll in, (all my friends brace themselves) another class. I have a problem. I know.

I recently finished graduate school, to both my delight and dismay. I held my degree in my hands, so proud of how hard I worked. But my desire to learn remained as strong as ever. Before my time in school had ended I was already mourning the loss of lectures, and class discussions, and presentations, and research, and writing. My friends made me swear not to start my PhD until I’m AT LEAST thirty. I know they care about me and my sanity and I trust they want what’s best for me. I digress. Thirty it is. I have several years to go before I embark on that journey so in the meantime I decided to learn to drive stick. “Why?” you ask. No reason, per se. It was something I didn’t know how to do and, thus, it was a skill I wanted to learn and therefore determined to master. But there was one problem: I didn’t know anyone who was willing to risk their car and their life to teach me.

Last spring I assigned my Resident Advisors (RAs) the task of teaching me something during our weekly one-on-ones. It was a Tuesday, 10am. I was rushing to meet Madison for our usual coffee date. I’d just come from another meeting and I didn’t have my purse. I came into view, walking toward her, and she saw me: purseless.

“You need your license,” she said.

I tilted my head.

She grinned. “I’m gonna teach you how to drive stick.”

My eyes widened. I think I squealed. You’ll have to ask Madison. All I remember is rushing back to my apartment to grab my wallet. The rest is history. The proof is in the black Jetta with the manual transmission that now sits in my driveway. 

Disclaimer: I recognize that driving my RA’s car as an RD was not my best choice. The old “do as I say, not as I do” comes into play here. I do advise against driving your staff member’s vehicle.

Advisory warning: Resident Advisors, do not offer to let your boss drive your car. (But Madison, dear, I’m ever so glad you did.)

All rules and warnings completely disregarded, Madison drove us to the mall parking lot and talked me through the gears and the clutch before we switched places. I drove in rows, up and down, and then in circles, switching from 1st to 2nd, and back to 1st: stopping, starting, stalling, and starting all over again. I’m not a car person and what perhaps comes naturally to some didn’t come as easily to me. I had to pay very close attention: multitasking, watching the RPMs rise and fall, concentrating on the sound and feel of the engine. Every now and then the car would jolt to a terrifying halt followed by a horrible sound. I’d lock eyes with Madison, fear written on my face, amusement written on hers. She would assure me it was okay, that I’d simply shifted into the wrong gear and stalled. I had a bad habit of confusing 1st and 3rd and attempting to start in 3rd rather than 1st. Madison would grab the gear shift and instruct me to press the clutch and move me into 1st, gently saying, “Dear, you were in 3rd again.” Then we’d burst into laughter and I’d restart the engine.

It took copious amounts of laughter, stalling, and starting over, and then I finally got it. After that, Madison let me drive her car everywhereand I mean everywhere. I became her personal chauffeur. I drove us to get smoothies. I drove us to get coffee. I drove us to bookstores. I drove us to Target. And sometimes I just drove, no destination in mind, just driving to drive. Madison would update me on her life while I only half-listened.

Please note: It’s difficult for me to drive stick and engage in serious conversations at the same time. I simply cannot do it. My boyfriend can attest to this fact. I have instated a rule for everyone’s safety: when riding in my car you cannot ask me any hard questions or launch into a conversation on a serious subject. You can, however, be the DJ and have a dance party in the passenger seat, if you want.

Although I learned the basics rather quickly, it did take some time to iron out the skillto shift smoothly, to brake gracefully, to downshift gently. I told Madison she was brave to teach me. She told me my determination to learn amused her. It amused many, I think. Why was I so determined? I don’t know, exactly. Have you ever wanted to master something just for the sake of mastering it? Maybe that’s something only I do. Maybe that sounds silly to you. Also, why put the time and effort into learning something that’s a tad cumbersome and complicates driving in traffic? Especially when manual transmissions are going extinct. At least, they are in the US. Did you know only about 10% of cars currently in the US are manual transmissions, and that that number is decreasing each year? I know because I looked it up. An article in the The Guardian likened knowing how to drive stick to a noveltythe same type of novelty that lies in knowing how to solve a rubik’s cube. I think that’s a nice way of telling me that my newfound skill is practically useless. Crazy stick-shift lovers would disagree and give you 20 reasons we should all drive manual cars.

I am not here to make a case that you should learn how to drive stick. I am here to tell you that learning to drive stick taught me something, and it teaches me something still. If there’s something you want to learn, do it. If people look at you like you’re crazy, do it anyway. If someone tells you it’s a potentially useless skill, don’t listen. If it takes a few times to master, or maybe one hundred, keep at it. If we let it, the process of learning allows us to learn much more than whatever skill we’ve set out to master. Driving stick is not a calculated science and this proved bothersome to me. I wanted an instruction manual that told me when to shift and exactly how much gas to give the pedal and precisely how fast or slow to release the clutch. Sometimes I wish life came with an instruction manual. My new transmission definitely did not. Neither does life, I know. This is my encouragement to you: Can’t master the elusive dance between the clutch and the gas? Don’t give up. Keep trying. Stall out? It’s okay. You can restart and keep going. Shift into the wrong gear? Pause. Take a deep breath. Simply route yourself back to the correct gear. It’s a delicate maneuver, not a science. I’ve had to learn to listen to the engine, to trust my gut, to feel the road and let the skills I’ve learned guide me. I’m doing the same thing in my own life right now, holding fast to what I know to be true, what I’ve learned thus far, to who I am, who I know God to be, and also who I am in Him. Shifting gears on my drive to and from work these days is reminding me that it’s okay to let my life shift too. It’s okay that I don’t have a road map or an instruction manual. It’s okay that I don’t know where I’m going, that I can’t see what’s ahead. I’m learning to embrace life’s song, to listen to the words and to feel the rhythm, in the same way I learned the delicate maneuver and elusive dance that is driving stick. 


Pro Tips:

  1. Thankfully, I live in Anderson, SC where people don’t know how to use their horns. I hail from West Palm Beach where we use our horns and drive aggressively. If you decide to learn how to drive stick, may I suggest learning in a small town where people don’t know that horns are a thing? 
  2. When you begin, start in an empty parking lot.
  3. Don’t forget the emergency brakeit’s the equivalent to “park” for those of you who drive an automatic. Your car will roll away if you forget to use it.
  4. If you purchase a stick, no one will ask to borrow your car (or be tempted to steal it) because they won’t know how to drive it.
  5. If you want to drive a stick but are concerned about your ability to manage eating, or talking on the phone, or doing the unlawful thing of texting whilst shifting up and down, not to worry. You’ll learn quickly.

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