I took my first driving lesson today. I’m not counting the time that a man I was doing a landscaping project with left me in his truck, in neutral, on a hill, to jumpstart my learning process. Or the time that my boyfriend drove me to my evening bellydance class only to discover it was canceled; he took one look around the cavernous, deserted parking lot and decided he’d use the time to teach me how to execute figure eights with an engine instead of my hips. It was a giddy, pleasurable evening, but we broke up soon afterward and with no follow through, I forgot everything I’d learned.
I am thirty four years old and have never driven a car. Over the years I’ve had to explain myself thousands of times, and my story has evolved to suit my audience. (I eventually told the story so many times that I wrote it down. I’ve put it in the “Stories” section, if you want the background.) It actually pisses some people off that I don’t drive. Others think it’s compelling. Many, most of my close friends included, simply don’t notice. I’m quite skilled at finding my way nearly anywhere by foot, bike, bus, or thumb. I’ve had life-changing adventures that would never have blossomed had there been an easy, gasoline-powered alternative. And the botanist in me has never stopped believing that variety will be the saving of our species. The more diverse our strategies, the higher our likelihood of survival. So we need a handful of people who negotiate the first world without cars. I was more than happy to be one of them. I was thrilled to have carried and birthed my children as a purely pedestrian woman (I couldn’t help but think that it would have some bearing on the way their phenotype, if not their genotype, unfolded. Science may not agree with me (yet!) but the whole point of science is continual questioning, n’est-ce pas?)
There was a slight sadness today at the loss of that status. I have enjoyed seeing the world more slowly, enjoyed deliberately depriving myself of a perspective that nearly all of the adults around me share. In a sense I felt I was losing a layer of innocence. Sitting behind the wheel for the first time, stories flashed through my mind:
My friend Anja, driving us to the farmer’s market in the rickety old farm vehicle, a decommissioned ambulance painted white. Buckets of freshly harvested flowers slosh water as she shifts gracelessly in her bare feet. I can see the road sliding by through the rusty holes in the floor. She tells me the story of her friend, living wild in the Pyrenees, hauling a load of hand-chopped wood on his back. Cars stopped to offer him rides, and he would curse at the drivers, asking to be left in peace. She told the story in tones of admiration, and I felt a flutter in my belly. Would I be so audacious in my championing of the pedestrian path? Hadn’t I accepted rides over and over again? Why did his rudeness bother me, even though I understood it?
My friend and I are parked at an overlook high in the Malibu mountains. He wants to show me how he managed to sleep in his trunk the previous night, so we both climb in, huddled in the complete darkness. As we sit there in the trunk of his car we hear another vehicle pull up. Its passengers slam the doors and emerge, talking loudly. They notice our car, doors wide open, with no apparent owners anywhere, and begin to wonder what has happened to us. One of them speculates loudly “Maybe there are bodies in the trunk!” My friend and I turn to each other and grin. At the count of three, we push the hatch up and launch ourselves from the trunk, screaming, laughing breathlessly as we watch the other car lay rubber and disappear.
I am biking, alone and at night, crying quietly to myself. My lights have burned out and I know that I am practically invisible. My phone keeps ringing, but I know who it is, and do not want to answer. Cars swoop by, barely missing me, pushing me off the shoulder; sometimes the drivers pause to scream at me before moving on. Where do they want me to go? There are no sidewalks, and I have to get home. Suddenly a bright light comes up behind me, and I start instinctively to turn into the shoulder, but then I realize I hear no engine. What are these lights? I turn, but of course can see nothing but the light. It follows me, silent, for miles, lighting my way, making me visible. Finally I reach a major, well-lit street, safe. I turn to the light as it is flicked off and a biker I’ve never seen before smiles at me. “I was just following you to make sure you were safe,” he says. “You’re nearly invisible, you know.” I am too overwhelmed with disbelief and emotion to speak. He smiles and bikes back the way we had come. Who knows how many miles out of his way this stranger had gone to protect me.
In the 20-odd years I’ve been out there, biking and walking and vulnerable, many people have expressed concern for my safety. I did have one accident that left my arm useless for months; ironically, it was the result of a driver shouting at me “WEAR A HELMET”—the shock of his voice vaulted me off of my bike and into the street. But that is the worst thing that happened to me. In the same time period, friends have died in car accidents, gone into comas after running their car off the road, altered someone’s life completely by hitting them in a moment of distraction. I am terrified of driving.
But I am learning to drive. A Jungian analyst once told me that the dream of being in the passenger seat, the dream of someone else driving your car, is typically interpreted as giving the reins of your life over to someone else. (Would whoever is continually clearing their throat please stop it?!) And there is something to that. It is true that there is something passive and relaxing about being a perpetual passenger. And yet, by not driving, I have been urged so often out of my shell to create community, to start carpools or bike caravans or create entire worlds in walking distance. My natural introversion has been coaxed outward, and I have been the better for it.
Still, I am searching for the sacredness in this new skill. I want not to abuse it, but to stretch with it, to open wider. I want not to take it for granted, but to use it sparingly in search of beauty. And I want not to hurt anyone. Please, let me not hurt anyone.
- Best accident blog about accident (kitesurfbikerambling.wordpress.com)