“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

04 August 2011

Driving a car and other impossible feats.

I hated learning to drive. I mean, I hated it. Most teenagers look at driving as a kind of rite of passage but I spent most of my fifteenth year thinking up reasons to skip the whole thing. It scared the crap out of me. I was nearly seventeen when I finally learned, and that was only after my parents shipped me off to driver's ed summer school. One of my (innumerable) faults: I hate being responsible for a stranger's health and happiness. Theoretically, I believe in being my brother's keeper, walking in his moccasins and all that, but realistically it terrifies me. What if you screw it up? What if you hit a biker with your door, or forget your turn signal, or miss the crosswalk sign? It's a lot of responsibility, driving. And I was pretty sure I was not ready for that.

My father was my original driving instructor, and he is not known for his patience. We would trundle out to the county fairgrounds, which were usually deserted, and he'd attempt to teach me how to shift gears manually without making my stepmom's old car cry out in pain. Needless to say, I sucked. I really, really sucked. Eventually, he would get frustrated and tell me to drive home. That was the worst part of the day, since there were actual cars to navigate and actual lives at stake. (Yes, I was and am seriously neurotic. You would think I was making Sophie's choice, when really I was just deciding which street to turn down.) Our driveway was so steep, I don't think I ever successfully pulled that little manual transmission in to park. When my father gave up on teaching me-- and on giving me a car with a manual transmission-- I was secretly relieved. I had dodged the bullet, I believed, and so had anyone who might have had to drive on the same roads with me.

But my success was short-lived. In the end, my parents enrolled me in driver's education courses at the community college. It was a boring, stodgy sort of class. The instructor droned on and on for hours about the shape of street signs and the importance of wearing seat belts. We drove around the parking lot for the first few days, and then ventured out into the quiet, suburban neighborhoods surrounding the school. And I did learn to drive. I may never be an excellent driver but I am certainly a conscientious one, and parallel parking is overrated anyway. When I finally "graduated" and received my driver's license (after two attempts at the written test, naturally), I sat out on the porch with my father and drank Capri Sun in the late-summer heat. I admitted to him that I'd thought I'd never learn to drive, that it was just too hard, that it was probably impossible. He laughed, and then he told me something I have never ever forgotten:

"Difficult is not a synonym for Impossible, you know."

It's not a revolutionary idea. I don't suppose Dad invented it. But it was a light bulb moment for me, one of those rare and perfect phrases that just sticks to your bones. Proverbial soulfood.

Without that mental mantra, there is absolutely no way I could have survived two years in a long-distance relationship, graduated from college in four years, moved 500 miles to Chicago, began an acting career, ended that career by choice, gotten married, and embarked on a brand new life as a writer. My father believes in following dreams-- all of them, wholeheartedly, no matter how often they change course. He never lied to me about life being easy but he also never allowed me to think of my dreams as unattainable. Nothing is impossible, but nearly everything is difficult. Accepting that reality marked my first step toward becoming an adult.

It's strange, isn't it? Becoming an adult? I think we all mark that particular rite of passage in our own way, at our own time. It varies so wildly. Was I an adult when I learned to drive? Hell no. What about when I moved into my first apartment? Probably not. When I graduated college? Maybe. When I got married? Well, I hope I was one before that. Some cultures set societal deadlines for adulthood (Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Shinbyu, QuinceaƱera, even a society Debut). My father was only 21 years old when I was born, which launched him into adulthood much earlier than I myself began it. Our society allows us to delay the "adult" distinction almost indefinitely. Because, it turns out, being an adult is difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.

The truth is that, at least for me, adulthood arrived gradually and with very little fanfare. I eased into it. It wasn't so much that I fought my adulthood; I didn't dream up ways to get out of it, as I had with driving, and I wasn't nearly as fearful of the consequences. Sure it sucks. It sucks hard. My adulthood grew out of my acceptance of responsibility, not only for myself but for the world at large, and responsibility is all about doing the things the universe asks of you. And it hurt sometimes. And I think it is supposed to. But isn't there something beautiful about finally taking ownership for your place in the world?

Difficult, as it turns out, really isn't a synonym for Impossible. It's a synonym for Life.

Thanks, Dad.