My friend Linda has been a part of many of my “firsts,” some of them crucial to my development, like her introducing me to daytime soap operas. We were regulars during the summer. When Dark Shadows ended its run, we moved on to The Edge of Night. In 1973, we graduated to The Young and Restless as we plopped down in her living room for its premiere. Snapper was our chosen hunk, and we loved to hate Mrs. Chandler.
There were scary firsts, too. Linda had been hired to feed a neighbor’s pet owl on a street behind ours. That sounded fun, so I went along. Instead of riding bikes or taking the sidewalk, we cut across the easement behind Linda’s house. As the sun dipped behind trees, I was terrified the grotesque, black crawdads living in mud puddles along the way would reach up with their claws of horror and hitch a ride on my socks. When we entered the house, I was soon face-to-beak with the biggest owl I’d ever seen. Okay, it was the first owl I’d ever seen. But it could have picked me up with its talons and dropped me into a huge, bubbling pit of crawdads. We didn’t stay long, and I walked much faster as we crossed Hades in the dark.
Linda was my “big sister” who lived across the street. Three years my senior, she was the coolest, and I wanted to be like her. And I especially wanted her groovy car, a beige VW Beetle. When I was 15, Linda rocked my world with, “I’ll teach you to drive my car.”
“Are you sure? I just have my permit.” I was nervous; it was a stick-shift.
“Sure, it will be fun!” Her trust in my abilities was heartwarming, if not somewhat misguided.
She drove us 10 minutes away from home. No witnesses. Then it was my turn. Since it was early afternoon, there wasn’t much traffic, which spared many lives.
I exited the passenger side with weak knees and slid behind the wheel.
Linda explained the gears to me, when to push the clutch in, and how to let off the clutch while simultaneously pushing on the accelerator. The theory of relativity was less complicated. But she made this sound easy.
“Okay, let’s go.” Love is naïve. But she had such faith in me, I started to believe in myself.
The goal was to avoid stalling, especially in an intersection, and to shift gears smoothly. I drove in a forward motion for about two feet; there was gnashing of teeth and grinding of gears. Stories of how “Kim stripped the gears” of the beloved bug echoed in my head.
“Linda, I’m sorry!”
“That’s okay. Try again.”
I tried again. I stalled 10 feet later.
I tried again. And again. And yet again.
Finally, I got the hang of it. Gears were shifting smoothly, like butter. We were cruising, windows down, the wind blowing our feathered hair. It was euphoric.
Suddenly, there was trouble in paradise. We were on a Highway to Hell; a car was coming toward us from the opposite direction.
What is he doing? What an idiot, I thought. Interesting that I assumed it was a male driver.
Within seconds, the scene before me registered in my brain, but it felt like I was driving in a vat of maple syrup. Realizing I was the idiot driving the wrong way on a one-way street, I did what any responsible driver would do. I panicked, screamed something unintelligible, and swerved, sending us up an incline of a deserted business. Thankfully, we had chosen a road less traveled so nobody was hurt, although my ears burned as I imagined the other driver’s eloquent words flying at me.
I laughed nervously, not realizing I had cruised out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.
Now, I had to drive off the incline without rolling back into traffic; our out-of-the-way-driving-school street had just morphed into the autobahn. One car after another. I put the Beetle in reverse, let off the clutch, stalled, and put on the handbrake because a car was coming. Read that last sentence repeatedly for 10 to 15 minutes and you’ll get the idea of how many attempts were made. Linda was patience incarnate. The Beetle, on the other hand, wished she were a Road Runner so she could get back home in record time; she was fuming.
I looked back down the mountain. People looked like ants. Okay, they were ants. But we might as well have been atop Mount Everest.
“I think I need help,” a mousey voice from my throat uttered. Understatement at its finest. “Can you do it?”
Linda nodded. We switched seats and in three seconds were on flat ground. She let me drive us home. Had I been left to my own devices, authorities would have found our starved, determined carcasses on that concrete mountain several days later.
This pattern of learning has continued. To say life has thrown me a few learning-curve fastballs is calling the Grand Canyon a little divot in the ground. Life is a series of firsts and new adventures.
College, career, getting married, parenthood; they all started, well, at the beginning. The unknown, ignorant beginning.
But along the way, I’ve always had those who came along beside me and patiently taught me.
In marriage, I know couples who model grace and forgiveness in their own marriages. In raising my son with autism, parents who have been on the journey longer have often held me up when my faith was too weak to stand on its own.
My most recent first, sharing my writing with an audience greater than five, has been like re-living the first day of kindergarten on a weekly basis. It is exhilaratingly terrifying. Sometimes I grind the gears; but I have several gifted teachers, some I’ve never met in person, who redirect, encourage, and tell me “try again.”
And when I get stuck, I ask God to do the driving for me. The key is knowing when to switch seats.
An original version of this post was published in At the Foot of the Cross copyright © 2011 by Sagemont Church.