Mindfulness by way of a stick shift


I recently offered to trade cars with a friend who needed a larger vehicle to move items out of his parents’ house.  He would need my SUV for a week and his sleek sedan with tinted windows felt alluring and much more likely to help me feel like a hip woman who was in “the scene” than my old family vehicle does.  I jumped at the chance.  

He met me at my house the day of the car trade-off.  As he handed me the keys, I drooled over the fancy key fab and uber cool shiny metallic key chain.  Then, he uttered these words to me.  Words that would shift my perspective without any warning and without any time to renegotiate the deal.  

“You know how to drive a manual transmission, right?”

Holy. Shit.

“Oh, yeah.  No problem,” I responded with pressured speech due to a bit of a catch in my throat and tightness in my chest.  I stopped drooling.

Yes.  I know how to drive a stick shift.  I learned how to drive with a beaten up manual transmission Chevy Chevette when I was in driver’s education class at the ripe old age of 15.  The memory of those driving lessons causes me to shutter to this day…almost 30 years later.  But we were too late in the car exchange process and backing out now would cause him great strife, huge delays for travel, and inconvenience.  My desire to smack him upside the head for not mentioning this MINOR DETAIL wouldn’t really solve anything either, so we traded keys and he was on his way.

Day 1:  I practiced a few laps around the block and decided that I was just fine.  I held my head high with pride and safely navigated myself, the vehicle, and my family from our home to a restaurant across town to meet friends for dinner.  I only revved the engine a handful of times and I was certain that I could manage for the week.  I paid extra close attention to the traffic and cars around me and wasn’t able to talk on my phone since my blue tooth was not hooked up to this car.  It was an extra quiet drive with my family afraid to say anything for fear of pushing me beyond the stressed state I was already in.  Do I pay this close attention to the road when I normally drive?  Or, do I mindlessly navigate in and out of traffic returning phone calls without any thought to the cars around me at all?  

Day 2:  The car stayed in the garage and I rode my bike to a couple of places nearby.  I actually enjoyed the bike rides and wondered why I don’t ride my bike around my neighborhood more often.  When did I become so accustomed to driving that I’d forgotten how the cool air felt against my skin in the heat of the summer?

Day 3:  The car stayed parked in the garage and I never left home.  Not because I was afraid to drive (well…maybe that was part of it) but because I decided to forego all errands and spend a little time at home with my daughter who was about to start 7th grade.  How nice was that to be home ALL day with her?

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Day 4:  With middle school looming and a daughter with a strong fashion sense, we headed out for some back to school shopping. The car was hot with black leather seats and tinted windows that didn’t allow me the visual perspective I’m used to.  My daughter was miserable without the radio because who can listen to the radio when you are simply attempting to survive traffic without killing the engine or looking like a fool?  After my daughter (who has a low threshold for motion sickness in the car and a high threshold for humor) staved off nausea like a champ, I lost all ability to be annoyed with the fancy car and relished in the laughing with my tween who oftentimes has very little to laugh about with me. When was the last time we laughed this hard together?  When was the last time we’d spent this much undistracted time together?  

Day 5:  My daughter headed off for her first day of school and I confidently left the security of my neighborhood for client appointments across town.  I was good, right?  WRONG.  On my return home, an accident on the interstate forced me into stop-and-go traffic.  What had I done in the past that brought about this bad karma?  I began to beg the universe for forgiveness for my past wrongdoings.  Aloud.  In the car by myself.  I know I was a snarky teenager and I have stolen many sugar packets from coffee shops, but please just let this traffic clear…  

I successfully shifted from neutral to first about 5,000 times when I suddenly killed the engine trying to brake quickly as an SUV cut me off in an attempt to merge into my lane.  I killed it right there on the interstate. Then later, I killed it again.

At this point, I began swearing.  A litany of words flew out of my mouth as if I spoke like that all of the time.  Vulgar swear words merged together with random descriptive adjectives.  There I was, in a very fancy sports car stalled on the interstate calling other drivers things like “YOU HONEY SMOTHERED JELLYFISH A$$HOLES” like those words and that behavior flew out of me all the time.  Like their driving was somehow worse than mine and they were out to get me.  

Now, hear me when I say that some people may drive and yell like this daily.  Perhaps the privacy of their cars affords them the ability to just let loose, release some tension, and arrive home refreshed.  That’s totally cool.  I, on the other hand, pride myself in having a master’s degree in mindfulness studies from a Buddhist inspired university.  This is NOT my normal behavior.  I was out of control.  When did I forget to breathe?  When did I allow my ego to forsake my pride and become so embarrassed by a stalled car on the interstate that I lost all control?  When did I become the 44 year old woman who called anyone a “honey smothered jellyfish” anything?  

I dove deep into my own interior that wasn’t nearly as smooth as this sports car’s interior.  I decided to muster up any amount of self-compassion I could find and work this shit out.  Right there.  Right then.  

“You’ve got this, Christine.  This is your challenge for the moment, but you are capable of accomplishing great things.  You are fortunate to have a car to drive when many do not.  You are lucky your high school driver’s education teacher had the patience of a saint and actually taught you how to use this stick shift so long ago.  Make yourself and HIM proud.  Forgive yourself for the expletives and impatience with yourself and others and breathe.  Just breathe your way through this…”  I calmly and silently repeated to myself the rest of my drive home.  Then I parked the car in my garage, massaged my stressed clutch knee, rested my head on the steering wheel and thanked the universe for giving me the opportunity to right whatever wrongs I may have done in the past.  Then I made myself a Manhattan and sat and thought about Rumi’s (the 13th century Persian poet) words for a while…   “If you are irritated by every rub, how can you be polished?”

Day 6:    I stayed home.  I was polished enough yesterday.

Day 7:  My daughter and I returned the sexy sports car to my friend.  We were crunched for time so I just assured him all went well with his car while simultaneously ignoring my daughter’s facial expressions.  I drove away from his house in my SUV.  My old friend was back.  The windows and sun roof allowed a lot of light in to shine on my face.  The sun felt warm and I felt the tension lessen in my shoulders.  I pulled up to the stop light without any problems or stress whatsoever.  My daughter didn’t have to brace herself either and when she turned on the radio, we sang together all the way to our destination.  I never once thought about using my phone and I paid extra close attention to the traffic around me.

Who knew I needed a lesson in mindfulness by way of a stick shift?

By Christine Watkins


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