Yesterday I had to back down a steep driveway to let a car pass on the one-lane road onto which the driveway emptied. When the other car passed, I tried to proceed back up to the road. But as every bike rider or car driver knows, it’s difficult to re-start once you’ve stopped on steep terrain. Try as I might, every time I took my foot off the brake, even when using the handbrake for assistance, I rolled backward rather than climb up and out.
That’s the way writing is. You’re chugging along on your current project, proceeding slowly but reasonably steadily, and something comes along and blocks your way and forces you into reverse. I knew my book launch was going to interrupt my creative momentum, but other life forces jumped on the obstacle bandwagon a couple of months ago and my writing screeched to a dizzying halt. As each noncreative day slipped by, I felt like I was about to roll further backward, distancing my work from the spark that had ignited my vision initially for a short story collection. I kept trying to hold my foot on the brake to keep things from getting worse, but the gravity of life took its toll.
Yes, the gravity of life. It’s not just cars and writing careers that sometimes get stuck on difficult terrain. Relationships do, too. One of the relationships I’ve been trying to navigate is the one with my youngest son, who just officially became an adult, legally speaking, last week. Now 18, he wants the freedom that an adult should be entitled to enjoy. But he still lives under our roof, so we expect him to abide by certain house rules and courtesies so long as he does live with us.
For example, he wants freedom regarding what time he can come home at night. We, on the other hand, need our sleep. And even if we go to sleep before we see his smiling face walk through the door (which we usually do), we wind up waking up when he arrives home. Which isn’t so bad, unless you wind up being unable to fall back asleep. Which is the case with my husband. And if he can’t fall asleep, then I can’t. But then again, once he falls asleep, I can’t anyway. So while 3rd son is enjoying his freedom well into the night, we are enjoying the blank slate of the ceiling above our heads once he returns home, worrying about whether we’ll have enough energy the next day to deal with life’s obligations.
It seems like an easy enough situation. Impose a reasonable curfew and be done with it. The question of course is what constitutes reasonable, and even when we sit down to have an adult conversation with the best of intentions, we all wind up sliding backward down the hill, with us feeling the need to exert our parental powers and him feeling the need to rebel. The more we talk about it, the further back we seem to slide into our roles from a few years ago when he was still a child.
I recently read a book called Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patten, Heen; Penguin 1999). Much of it focuses on challenges in the work environment, but its concepts can be applicable in other aspects of life. The basic premise is that conversations are difficult when each side of the discussion comes from a different perspective regarding the facts of the situation, and they’re complicated by various unstated feelings and dynamic self-perception. In other words, we each come to the table with our own stories, and unless we are willing to listen to each other’s stories, the issue at hand cannot be satisfactorily resolved.
One of my favorite quotes from the book is this:
“In a difficult conversation your primary task is not to persuade, impress, trick, outwit, convert, or win over the other person. It is to express what you see and why you see it that way, how you feel, and maybe who you are.”
I admit I didn’t keep this in mind when I tried to persuade and otherwise win over my son this morning to our side of the curfew debate. I haven’t completely internalized that quote because old habits are hard to break. But what I did do was express what I saw, why I saw it that way, and how I felt about it. And although we didn’t quite come to a meeting of the minds yet, at least I feel like we’re holding our ground on the steep slope rather than slipping farther backward. A good place to be, but only for a while. Eventually you’ve got to get out of your predicament and carry on with life.
Back to the literal hill, where I sat with my car yesterday and couldn’t figure out what to do: I was at an impasse. I couldn’t just continue letting my car slip backward because my tail lights and rear bumper were heading straight for a rock and a nicely landscaped area. To slide further back would have been damaging to my car and the property. So I did the only thing I could think of to do. I swallowed my pride and called my husband, who happened to be in his own car directly behind me on said driveway.
I set my cell phone on speaker as soon as he answered.
“I’m stuck,” I said. “I can’t get back up the hill.”
There was a brief pause. “Use your handbrake,” he said.
Oh please, I thought. Obviously I was using my handbrake. I’m not that stupid. “I am. And its still not working. Whenever I release my foot from the brake I slide further back.”
There was another pause as I impatiently waited for him to hurry up and become the !@#$% knight in shining armor that would save this pathetic damsel from her distress. Mind you, this is not my normal modus operandi. I do not like asking for help. I especially do not like asking a man for help on something like driving, which of course women have been criticized about forever. Not even my husband. Especially not my husband–it’s a matter of principle. But I had no other choice. There was no room between my rear bumper and the big rock for pride.
Finally, he spoke.
“You know you’re in reverse, right?” he said.
What? I looked down at the gearshift. For some inexplicable reason, I was in fact still in reverse, from when I had backed into the driveway. Shit. Unbelievable. Unbelievably stupid.
That’s the thing about getting impossibly stuck. You may not be so stuck after all. Sometimes you just need a different perspective, even if it means being vulnerable in the process. Even if it means admitting you’re wrong, or worse, stupid.
I shifted into drive and gracefully transferred my foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator as I slowly released the handbrake. The car lurched forward. Upward. As in: not in reverse any more. I inched to the crest of the hill, then pealed out of the driveway onto the one-lane road before anyone else came along, while any remaining fumes of self-dignity trailed out through my exhaust pipe.