My dad felt strongly that I should learn to drive in a stick-shift car. He said it was because I needed to be able to drive anything “in case of emergency.” I think it was because he preferred me driving his rickety, mid-1970s Honda Civic rather than his swanky sedan. Shifting gears didn’t come naturally for me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get out of the driveway during my first few driving lessons. To this day, I still have a little PTSD from the sound and sensation of grinding gears.
There is a fluid grace to shifting gears well. It’s not enough to master the mechanical interplay between the clutch and gas or brake. You have to listen to the car. You have to watch the tachometer. Recognizing that moment when it’s time to shift gears is less like following instructions and more like a feeling. Even now, with 30+ years of experience, starting from a dead-stop on a hill requires a little leap of faith and a whole lot of confidence. When I was 16, it was nothing short of terrifying.
My best friend lived on my way to high school and would beg me to pick her up. Despite being a teenaged girl who would do nearly anything to avoid being alone, the gigantic hill between her house and school terrified me. It was a new-driver “perfect storm.” Picking her up required me to take one of the three main routes to school so there were always other students driving in front of and behind us on that hill. Because my best friend was a classic 16-year-old, leaving the windows up and hoping no one noticed us was not an option. I knew she would be screeching and waving frantically at everyone around us.
To make matters worse, at the top of the hill was one of those stoplights that seems to allow only 2.5 cars through at a time. This meant that I would have to navigate that panic-inducing shift from a dead-stop into first gear on a serious incline three times or more. So I told her “no.” I said “no” for weeks. But my best friend didn’t like that answer. And I didn’t like to be alone (remember, I was 16). So, eventually, I agreed, with white knuckles and sweaty palms, to pick her up.
My fear and anticipation of changing gears on that hill turned out to be way worse than actually doing so. I’ll never know if it was the threat of public humiliation or my dad’s excellent teaching skills, but I don’t remember ever stalling on one of those morning drives. What I do know is that all that practice paid off because, to this day, I am relatively unflappable in our vintage, stick-shift Miata.
I’m not sure shifting gears comes any more easily or naturally to me in life than it did in my dad’s old Honda. Here I sit, in late August, feeling the same slightly queasy anticipation that I used to feel when I thought about navigating that hill on the way to school. Will I have the stamina to handle the “it’s-still-dark-when-the-alarm-rings” early mornings when the class I teach at a local college resumes? When will I fit in my daily yoga practice or find the time to write these essays? How will I squeeze in the homework for the class I’m registered to take? Will my daughter and I finish Grey’s Anatomy before she graduates? (Seriously, will we?)
Decades of experience with late August jitters mixed with a decade or so of yoga’s mindfulness have paid off as handsomely as decades behind the wheel. As I am now able to confidently get going on a hill without freaking out, I am also able to find some inner peace this time of year. I know that, as I face a new season filled with shifts and changes, my mind has a habit of making lists of worries. I also know that not all of the worries on these mental lists are worth worrying about. (Example A: Grey’s Anatomy.) In fact, I know that most of these worries are better left un-worried as (for me at least) worrying makes mountains of smaller (mole) hills.
Like shifting gears in a car, if done mindfully, shifting gears in life can be done with fluid grace. If I stay in the moment, rather than getting ahead of myself, I know I will feel calmer. If I pay as much attention to how I’m feeling as I do to my “To Do List,” I know that I will better navigate the coming changes. If I approach these new beginnings with the same quiet confidence (and willingness to take a leap of faith) that I developed on that hill on the way to high school, I know I will be just fine.
I also know that if I do stall out once or twice, I can be grateful that I’m no longer 16 and obsessed with what people think. All I have to do is take a deep breath, turn the key and I’ll be back in gear.