“You just want to look beside, behind, and to your left before backing in,” my driving instructor told me. “When you’re taking the test, they don’t care if you’ve checked your rearview if you don’t also TURN YOUR BODY AND LOOK TO YOUR BACK. You can not rely on the machine solely for safety. They need to trust that YOU are safe.”
He’d said something similar the week prior, when my class only lasted about an hour. This one was two hours, and each time he put emphasis on a driving trick or a safety must, I asked the same question in response. He told the same story, as an answer. And then I giggled… again, a bundle of nerves. My instructor is retired. He does this because he cares about safety. He’s a grandfather. And I can go as slow as I want, just as long as it isn't under the speed limit. Let other people rush off to wherever they need to go, he kept repeating.
By the second class, I got used to noticing the way speed signs shift on the road. I’d be going a steady 35 MPH, feeling comfort and safety at once, and then, I was thrusted onto a three-lane highway, expected to go no higher than 55 and preferably not lower than fifty. It wasn’t as easy as putting my foot on the gas. To switch speeds as a driver, I had to also switch headspaces. I had to move from comfort to a hectic world where I can calculate time, contort figures, and ruminate on what to do next--or even, how I got into the car to begin with. Really, switching speeds demands that I stop thinking.
If you could imagine a Black woman in a Corvette, with her perfectly tamed afro blowing in the wind, that is the image I need to make clear in my head. A friend recently said to me that metaphors are good, but you can’t put too much emphasis on them. But to tell this to a person like me, who sees significance in nearly every moment, is to tell them that the work of life always pales to the vision.. Maybe it is my childhood belief in God. Or maybe it's just how I am wired, but the metaphor of switching speeds feels profound.
A few weeks ago, I wrote, driving as liberation. It was something I was willing to experience. An opportunity to lay my obstinate fears to rest. And maybe it was aspirational, like the image of the Corvette. I have to switch speeds to get there, from facing my fears to conquering them. Like a speedy car on the open road, I have to open up myself.
In a recorded 1970 interview titled, Nina: A Historical Perspective with Peter Rodis, Nina Simone famously said, “I’ll tell you what freedom means to me: NO fear! I mean really, no fear.” I have played that clip over the years, most especially when I had just ventured out on my own as a single woman living with two young children. Back then, Oak was only three and River was only seven. They felt old then because I expected them to act old, as I explored my new freedom. . But lately, that clip has resurfaced in my head. I went digging for it, replaying and listening to the pitch in her voice, the breaths that circulated through chest, the way her hands cradled her head. Maybe I needed to see how visceral freedom could be. How it exemplified itself in someone’s movement. I missed it back then. But I couldn’t miss it now.
When speeding up on the highway, my driving instructor whispered, “You’re not going to kill us, I have a brake right here.” There is a part of me that really believes in no fear. Maybe it was the development of The Mae House, having the audacity to purchase it, believe in it, restore it. Maybe it was the courage to write and keep writing. Maybe it was the gumption to take the freaking driving course.
In that same clip of Nina Simone, she notes that children have that sense of no fear. And when it comes to the depths of tween parenting I am in now, that observation couldn’t hold more weight. Whatever River is processing--accessing, as I like to think of it--is about experiencing humanity so fully it is in her bones. In the morning she creates lists, her brain swirling. In the day, we are butting heads, figuring out if I should be rock steady or hold her. She is exploding. And in the evening, she is gesticulating around her room, moving her lanky limbs like a ballerina, twisting her hands gently, singing, running, talking. She is open, and truly, it feels like she has accessed some freedom. The lack of self judgement, positioning and truthfully, the lack of fear. It isn’t lost on me that quite possibly River’s ability to do such a thing is because as her mother, I am there right in it with her, perched in the passenger seat as she drives her own car.
A few weeks back, I was blown away by the brilliant Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean, writer, and overall introspective parent. When her children were young, she was the problem solver, always there to swoop in, fix. She created perspective. “ADD isn’t something we should focus on because your academics are marvelous,'' she thought when it came to her son. “Your desire to be an artist comes after my desire for you to be on this college track, '' she pushed with her daughter. Until both the kids, on their own, let her know that her different approaches weren’t freeing. They were hindering. In her attempt to be a “good mom,” she stopped the growth that her children needed. What they needed was the knowledge that she had an extra brake--not for her to use it.
When it comes to driving life, it is speeding up. The increasing rate asks me to do things differently. It offers, only if I am willing to power behind the steering wheel and trust the knowingness and responsibility I hold behind it. Only if I am willing to feel the wind in my hair as the bridge faults beneath and scream, no fear. NO FEAR. That is what freedom means to me.