There’s nothing like a learning something new to show you the truth about yourself.

Long-time readers may recall a post titled, “What To Do When You Feel Like Giving Up.” It’s the story of how, last July, I faced the challenge of learning to water-ski. This year, I have to say: water-skiing ain’t got nothin’ on learning to drive a stick-shift. (Even though we’ve moved to Alabama, I don’t talk like that. Yet.)


Learning stick-shift has been like traveling back in time — once again, I am 16, and I have no idea how to drive a car. My first ‘lesson’ with my husband was sensory overload, with so many decisions to make. But after our third lesson, I was making significant progress, and we decided that I was ready to start driving around town.

Everything was going well … that is, until I missed 3rd gear and shifted directly from 2nd into overdrive. (Driving tip: Never, ever do this.)

The car made a terrible noise. The smell of burned rubber wafted in. I pulled over, shaken, but I got back on the road, determined. And I was doing better, shifting successfully from 2nd to 3rd. But then I stalled at a stoplight. I took a breath and tried again. Another stall. Why wasn’t the truck cooperating?

The truck, as it turns out, was doing all it could, since it was still in 3rd gear. (I’d forgotten to shift back to 1st.) Suddenly, it was all too much. I imagined people laughing as they drove by; I hated reinforcing a stereotype about women who can’t drive. And my husband — my strong, smart, patient husband — he probably thought I was a total ditz. “Could you drive us home?” I asked, my voice small.

Tears of shame started pouring down my face as we switched seats.


Where was my tenacious spirit? In that moment, I couldn’t find it. But I was given grace to see something even more valuable: the depth of my husband’s love. He wasn’t judging me at all, even when I was judging myself. And he didn’t give up on me, even when I was ready to give up on myself.

That helped me to do the next right thing, which was to be kind to myself for the rest of the day. I made the radical decision to tend to my body, mind, and spirit as though they belonged to a beloved friend from L’Arche (a faith-based non-profit where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together).

I turned on the Olympics and pretended that I was watching them with Theresa* (she would have loved the gymnastics as much as I did). I clipped my nails as though they were Leo’s; I prayed for help as though I was Pedro: with gusto. I started feeling better. And doing these things helped me to remember: I didn’t get impatient with my friends when they were learning. I only got impatient on the (rare) occasions when they didn’t try.

I told myself, Honey, you don’t have to be perfect just yet. You just have to try.

Moreover, living at L’Arche taught me the importance of letting go of expectations — what seems like it ‘should’ be easy for someone to learn may, in fact, be very difficult for them. We are complex beings; just because we can remember the biographies of every President and First Lady doesn’t necessarily mean we can wash up by ourselves, for example. And in my case, learning to drive a stick-shift was going to require a little extra time.


The next day, I called my friend Tammy. She’s the brilliant designer behind both my books, someone I trust with my greatest joys and my deepest sorrows. I summoned my courage and told her about my driving fiasco. In turn, she told me about a time when she’d stalled again and again while trying to drive a stick-shift car off a campsite … in front of lots of people she knew.

Really? I said. Really, she replied.

I felt tremendous relief, hearing her admission. Telling a story that says, ‘I’ve been there,’ is one of the most powerful gifts we have to give. If Tammy, one of the most capable people I know, had had trouble driving stick … then perhaps I could forgive myself for struggling.

As we hung up, I thought of Anne Lamott’s lines in Traveling Mercies:  “I tell you, families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to pardon anyone. Even yourself, eventually. It’s like learning to drive on an old car with a tricky transmission:  if you can master shifting gears on that, you can learn to drive anything.

This afternoon, I’ll be driving to yoga, and I have a feeling it’s going to go well … both in the driving and in the sense of forgiving myself for needing ‘extra’ time to learn.

After all, I’ve been practicing.


What challenges are you facing this summer? Join the conversation in the comments!

*Names have been changed.

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  1. Erin August 6, 2012 at 2:41 PM - Reply

    I wanted to let you know that “Theresa” is indeed enjoying the Olympics (this past week, her first question upon getting home or waking up has been “are the Olympics on?”) – but she chooses running and swimming over the gymnastics when they’re on two different channels. But she enjoys it all.

    • Caroline McGraw August 6, 2012 at 3:44 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Erin – that makes me smile. 🙂 I hope you’re doing well!

  2. LB August 6, 2012 at 3:06 PM - Reply

    I was sent out in a work truck (stick shift) after a 5 minute lesson. There was this intersection nearby where about 7 different roads converge. Guess where I stalled it! All by myself. I’m not sure if that was better (no one there who knew me) or worse (because there was no one to help!)

    • Caroline McGraw August 6, 2012 at 3:46 PM - Reply

      Oh my goodness! That is rough, LB – thank you for sharing. I hope future outings proved less stressful (and I applaud your courage for going out in the first place)!

  3. Brooke (Books Distilled) August 6, 2012 at 3:39 PM - Reply

    Go you! When learning to drive stick at 16 I think I stalled out at least twice a day for like three months. Keep on keepin on!
    Owe you a phone call (I’m IT in our game of tag!).

    • Caroline McGraw August 6, 2012 at 3:46 PM - Reply

      Haha I love it! And you’re such a pro now. Can’t wait to connect. <3

  4. Katie August 6, 2012 at 4:51 PM - Reply

    That same thing happened to me when Mike was teaching me how to drive stick just a few months ago in the middle of Chicago. Not the most patient drivers here, but I got the hang of it eventually!

    • Caroline McGraw August 6, 2012 at 7:47 PM - Reply

      You go, girl! Thanks for sharing, KP – and I’m glad you were able to have a beloved person as your teacher, too.

  5. Tiffany August 6, 2012 at 10:28 PM - Reply

    I’ve been there too! I remember learning to drive stick in the parking lot of my high school. I was with my new boyfriend (aka nick 😉 and I was so nervous. I hated driving in west orange because of all the hills. I say it took me years to feel like I knew what was doing. Great story Cari! I really felt like I was there 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw August 7, 2012 at 1:05 AM - Reply

      Haha I love it! Thank you, Tiff – I really appreciate that. 🙂

  6. Metod August 7, 2012 at 12:35 AM - Reply

    Caroline, I loved this post. I always thought that girls who can drive manual cars are cool.
    Go for it…you’ll master shifting those gears in no time!
    When I was in military service I ended up as a driver of a jeep. They gave me a day of training and the next day I got to drive some officer to the big town. OMG, was I ever scared. We’re not supposed to show the fear in the army, but that jeep was full of horror that day 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw August 7, 2012 at 1:08 AM - Reply

      I guess I’m getting to be one of the cool girls now! 🙂 And what a great story – I can only imagine how frightening that must have been! & yes, I will definitely keep going until I learn – thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Liz August 13, 2012 at 4:55 PM - Reply

    What a wonderful website and what a wonderful post. I am a special needs mom who didn’t meet my weight loss goal last week. The leader gave me the same advice you outlined in your post. What would you say to a friend who didn’t meet her goal…of course I would be kind and offer words of encouragement I replied. Well why cant you do that to yourself she said. Look forward to visiting your site again soon. Liz

    • Caroline McGraw August 13, 2012 at 5:54 PM - Reply

      What a great connection! Thank you so much for your sharing and affirmation, Liz. Very glad to have you here – and rooting for you as you move forward with your goals! 🙂

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