Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cars, brick walls, and learning to drive.

I was fifteen years old when I first sat behind the wheel of a car with the intention of driving it. My mum suggested I park her prized VW Golf in the garage. I’m not sure how the subject came up. I don’t remember asking her or even discussing driving. Maybe she figured I was just getting to that age. All I know is that I ended up sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys in my hand and with my mum in the passenger seat. A few seconds later, we would be sitting in exactly the same positions, but with the nose of the car pressed firmly against the back wall of the garage and a thin pall of dust drifting slowly to the ground.

As with all of the traumatic events in my life, the whole thing is indelibly etched into the region of my brain that holds onto things that it deems so important for my survival that, if it were capable of clutching a permanent marker, it would scribble them on my forehead. I remember my mum explaining the functions of the different pedals. I remember nodding and possibly smiling with that “don’t worry, I know what I’m doing” grin that usually precedes a disaster. I recall pushing down the clutch pedal and placing the car in gear. I then recall that I pushed down on the accelerator and slowly released the clutch. With testosterone rushing through my pimple-strewn body, I clearly remember propelling us towards the open garage door and the wall beyond.

Now I’m not someone who learns by watching or listening. I prefer to try things for myself. More often than not I will fail but eventually the neurons start firing in the right sequence and things begin to make sense. Was it Edison who said that, in the process of inventing the light-bulb, he discovered a thousand ways how not to make a light-bulb? That has always inspired me because it proves the old adage that discovery is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration. So what on Earth possessed me to think that I was going to be able to park the car on my first attempt?

So, back at the soon-to-be disaster: I had the car in first gear and we were drifting at a slow but steady pace towards the waiting garage. I felt cool and confident. I felt in control and in charge. I was the master of a finely tuned piece of machinery. I was also hopelessly deluded. At some point between the entrance to the garage and the wall, I forgot where the brake pedal was. I know that sounds dumb because, let’s face it, there are only three possible choices in a manual-shift vehicle and they were all right at my feet. But the neurons were not firing in sequence yet and I suspect the brain-cell that was holding the key to speed-reduction success was sending its message to my elbow or my ear, instead of where it should have been sending it: my right foot.

There was a moment of panic as my elbow, or maybe my eyebrow, tried to figure out how to stop a ton of metal from slamming into a brick wall. I turned to look at my mum and she turned to look at me with a wide-eyed expression of surprise and mild alarm that I can only assume I was also wearing. Time slowed to a crawl. If either of us had spoken I am sure it would have come out in a deep drawl that you hear when the film reel has jammed and is about to snap. And then we hit the wall.

The damage was minimal with just a small dent on the front bumper, but my confidence was splattered all over the brickwork so finely that I was going to need DNA sampling to confirm the identity. My mum said something about horses and getting back into the saddle but I was too shaken to get behind the wheel so soon. A few days later I did try again but this time I practiced braking outside the garage where there wasn’t a brick wall to punish my mistakes. Later I successfully parked the car inside the garage. Soon my mum would be leaving the car out every evening so that I could practice the simple act of starting a car, driving it a few feet, and stopping it without the aid of a wall.

So what did I learn from all of this that can be applied to writing? Well I already knew that I’m the kind of person who learns from making mistakes. And I already had a pretty good idea of the importance of having someone supportive by my side to get me back on track when things go wrong. And I knew that sometimes you can sit and stare at what should be obvious but still have no idea how to continue because your brain cells are trying to figure out that your right foot is not attached to your elbow.

No, if I learned anything from that experience, it is that sometimes God can put brick walls in your way for a reason. It could be that you need to smash through and learn perseverance, because sticking with things is not easy and you will almost certainly end up with dents and scratches. Or perhaps you need to stop and take a different route because the one you are on is a dead-end. Or maybe He is trying to tell you that you’ve reached where He wants you to be and it’s time to turn off the engine and just rest in Him until He says it’s time to get moving again.

These days, if I see a brick wall, I still get nervous and I have times when I panic, but I try to remember to figure out if and why God might have put it there and, more importantly, what He wants me to do about it.

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