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Driving Lessons on the Highway to Happiness

Riding beside her date, she met a crossroads. Would she put fear in the rearview mirror and choose growth — or put the brakes on passion and adventure?

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Bex Glendining
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In 2001, my Texas friends saw me as a peculiarity. I didn’t know how to drive. They viewed me in the same way they looked at someone who thought cornbread was sweet rather than the savory style preferred in the South. I didn’t think being unable to drive — or liking sweet cornbread — was that strange. There were adults who didn’t know how to swim or ride a bicycle. I could swim while they couldn’t. But that was only because I came from an island where most people swam. My friends found it a false equivalency. Swimming or cycling was recreational. Driving was as necessary to life in Texas as breathing and knowing the plural of “y’all.” How could I be 22 years old and not know how to drive, they asked.

I grew up in Jamaica in the ’90s and moved to America as an adult. Women drivers were ridiculed in Jamaica, and men drove even if women owned the cars. My mother and grandmother didn’t drive. My mother gave up on lessons after a series of accidents diminished her confidence. I could tell she felt small every time she had to wait on someone to take her somewhere. She already had few liberties. I didn’t want this for my life.

I was stopped multiple times by people asking if I was OK. They’d shake their head in wonder even when I explained that the distance was just a few blocks by Brooklyn standards. I had to learn to drive so people would stop saying ‘Bless your heart’ to me, which I learned is Southern for ‘stupid.’

I asked my brother to teach me when I turned 16. He had a VW Bug like the one in the Herbie movies, and I had a perfect outfit to go with it. He was patient when I confused the gas and brake pedals. Then he let loose many profanities when I rammed the gear stick from first to third. He screamed at me as the smell of axle grease and hot metal wafted in. My mistakes left me fearful and embarrassed. He stopped our lessons after I revved the throttle in neutral for so long it damaged the engine. “Just find a boyfriend,” he joked. I laughed along, but my confidence was shattered.

As an adult, I scoffed at driving school. Who wants to be the awkward grown-up in a class filled with teenagers talking about prom? One friend tried to teach me after I got my permit and purchased a 1987 Honda. I proceeded to run over a sapling. Another suggested I master one driving task a week. I decided to reverse and backed into a neighbor’s truck. It cost me $1,500 to fix our cars. Learning to drive was more expensive than taking cabs to work.

Trust Is a Two-Lane Highway

A pilot I started dating felt I was going about this all wrong. He’d taught adults how to fly in Hawaii, high above volcanoes and the vast blue of the Pacific. What worked for his students was the ability to shift their focus from fear of the unknown to a sense of freedom. He said if I could connect to something other than fear, everything else would be a cakewalk. I didn’t believe him. “Trust the process,” he responded.

He said if I could connect to something other than fear, everything else would be a cakewalk. I didn’t believe him. ‘Trust the process,’ he responded.

I built my confidence mile by mile. We went on short road trips into the prairie lands west of Fort Worth. He’d talk about the highway system while explaining how engines work. He taught what each rumble and purr of the engine meant, what happened when the clutch was engaged and what a friction point was. As he drove, I’d listen to the car as the smaller cities around Dallas faded behind us. He’d pull over when I said I could “maybe do it, but only for a few minutes.” I’d buckle up. The road opened to a hazy, aged-corn-silk sky above the brown land. My fingertips tingled with anxiety. Sweat pooled on my back despite the telltale coolness that precedes a spring storm or tornado. I increased the speed on the two-lane highway. I learned to breathe in a steady rhythm as the speedometer needle moved to 60 mph. When an image of me crashing into something popped into my head, I deepened my breathing. I felt powerful and confident. “Speed is your friend,” I screamed.

My pilot boyfriend and I dated for two years — a year past the relationship’s natural end — but the lessons I learned about letting my dreams take flight stay with me to this day.

I never thought I would ever learn to drive. In my 20s, my job as a flight attendant kept me on airplanes and in places far from my Brooklyn surroundings. I used buses, cabs, the subway. Or I walked. When I transferred to the Dallas hub, I realized public transportation wasn’t available. I gave up walking the few miles to my suburban grocery store one day because I was stopped multiple times by people asking if I was OK. They’d shake their head in wonder even when I explained that the distance was just a few blocks by Brooklyn standards. I had to learn to drive so people would stop saying “Bless your heart” to me, which I learned is Southern for “stupid.”

It took a year for me to get my license. Cold panic would still wash over me when I drove. I wanted to push myself because I worried that I would become dependent on others, like my mother. I challenged myself to drive in various U.S. cities, then cross-country. I decided the ultimate test would be driving on foreign roads.

I cried from fright in London when a cousin asked me to park their car on a busy street. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, a friend needed me to drive with them to collect a vehicle in the next city. I came up with multiple reasons why I couldn’t do it. “Just remember,” they joked. “When cars get too far away, you speed up. When they get close, slow down.” A lick of salt air from the Caribbean Sea against my face was relaxing and boosted my spirits like I was back in Texas. I wanted that feeling again.

It took years for me to gain the vulnerability to learn, and more time had to pass for me to feel confident. What helped? Renting cars overseas and driving on foreign roads. Although traveling meant I could be anyone doing anything, I decided to embrace my fear of embarrassment and feeling foolish. No one was going to remember if I stalled an engine.

Twists, Turns and the Sublime Delights of a Slower Pace

 I became less self-conscious by showcasing a different side of myself. Mixing with Argentinian grad students stealing rides on Roman buses made me a better budgeter. In France, I meandered up Paris’ Boulevard St. Germain, filling my head with imagined conversations of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In Monte Carlo, I pushed the limits of my conversational French and Italian to shop in the produce markets. The sellers’ patience with my elementary language made me realize that everyone has their own hiccup. People are too busy with their own lives to sit and ponder a stalled car with a frantic woman behind the wheel. I couldn’t prove it, but I felt like I was finding my way in the world and the life I was living was abundant.

Even now, after 20 years of driving, I sometimes find my heart racing as I put the key in the ignition. I remember to breathe, relax my fingers and envision all the driving I’ve done before. My senses flood with the sight, smells and sounds of driving along cobbled streets in San Juan. I recall navigating the hairpin elevated turns up to Le Morne Rouge to see Martinique’s sleeping volcano. I appreciate a slower pace of life now. Navigating the stony, pockmarked terrain of Jamaica’s roads in an oversize truck in search of waterfalls pouring down hills and into the sea requires patience.

Overcoming the obstacles to driving only started once my purpose was clear. I could chip away at other roadblocks like going to graduate school at 41 or moving to Martinique for a few months. Driving in faraway places allows me to approach challenges from a confident place. I am calm, not panicked. I am informed, not intimidated. These are traits I use in my nondriving life where I question if I am good enough. Each time I face a difficulty, I visualize myself overcoming the shame or embarrassment of how I think people will react. I recognized that life happens on my timeline, not one manufactured by anyone else. Learning to drive was stressful, but I relished feeling engaged, happy and powerful. Now I’ve upped the ante and want to do off-road driving across the Mojave Desert. I wonder what that will teach me?