black manual stick shift in carOur grey Toyota Corolla shuddered to a stop again, wrenching my body. I looked at my dad with tears in my eyes. “I’m never going to get this!” I said.

Dad exhaled through his teeth, a little whistle coming out with his breath. He explained how I needed to listen to the car, that the noise of the engine would help guide me on transitioning from first gear to second, and so on.

As I pressed in the clutch and started the car again, I listened for the difference in revving the engine and slowly transitioned between the clutch and gas pedal. “I’m doing it!” I whispered as we picked up speed.

“Good, now press the clutch and get into second,” Dad said.

I maneuvered my feet between the pedals and achieved the transition. Soon, we headed up a hill toward a stoplight. As we approached it, the light turned red. I held my breath as I slowed the car and hit the brake.

“Now remember, you can shift into neutral so that you don’t have to hold your foot on the clutch for the duration of the stoplight,” he said, but I shook my head.

“No, I’m afraid I won’t get it moving again if I do that,” I said. My mouth went dry. My calf tightened as I held the clutch down. I stared up at the light, terrified as I knew it would change to green any second.

The green bulb illuminated overhead, and I watched the cars in front of me move forward. I tilted my feet gently between the pedals. We shuddered to a halt. I sucked in a breath and side-eyed my dad. He stared straight ahead as I started the car again. A car beeped behind us, and Dad rolled down his window to wave them around, turning our hazard lights on at the same time. The engine roared to life, and I tried to transition again, this time we rolled midway into the intersection before we stalled out.

I gripped the steering wheel now; it was slippery with sweat. My eyes felt like they’d never blink as I held them open and repeated the steps. I knew I needed to do, but we stalled again. “Dad! I CAN NOT DO THIS,” I screeched.

He banged his hands on the dashboard. “You HAVE TO!” he said. I blubbered out streams of tears as I cranked the key and worked my feet on the pedals. We roared through the last of the intersection and even as relief washed over me, the tears kept coming.

“I don’t know about this, Dad,” I said when we finally pulled up into our driveway. I can’t remember exactly what my dad said that day, but I imagine it was something along the lines of, “You won’t know unless you stick with it.” And while I’m pretty sure that teenage me handled that comment by slinking off to her bedroom, that day has stuck with me.

I did learn how to drive a manual.

Until the recent purchase of our minivan, I drove a manual car that my dad helped me buy during my junior year of college. We had that car for twelve years. It was a tiny blue Toyota Yaris, a hatchback with two-doors. My husband and I shipped that car around the world, and I mastered the transition from clutch to gas to brake across the United States, through the streets of Seoul, around the dusty streets of Morocco, and up mountainsides in Ecuador. I miss that car.

The memory of my teenage driving lesson flashed through my mind the other night while I was washing dishes.

My husband Ryan and I had just finished another talk about “what’s next.” We seem to circle around this stress-excitement-dread-filled topic at least once a week. We visit all the same questions that we don’t have any answers to yet: will we continue in the military after our next set of orders? Or will this next set of orders be our finish line? Where do we want to go at the end of military life? What do we want to do?!

We’ve been pricing homes and the cost of living in multiple states. At the same time I have also been watching videos on living long term in an RV, what positions could be open overseas, and what states will allow me to start teaching with my bachelor’s degree while I simultaneously think, Do I want to be a teacher again?

Every question and thought and conversation we have stirs my brain into a tornado. I am teenage me again, screeching ‘I cannot do this!’ and ‘I don’t know about this!’

That mental voice? It’s loud. It’s scary.

The wild part about military life is that we’ve entered each transition not knowing how to do much of it. But we’ve trusted the process.

We’ve leaned in, weathered the hardships, and figured it out. We’ve shifted to neutral, taken our foot off the clutch to rest, and then shifted back into gear when we have needed to. I’ve learned to trust myself with transitions. I’ve learned to trust us.

I don’t have answers about the next stage yet. But I will stick with it and see.

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