life as a car without brakes

My trainer called me a car with no brakes a couple weeks ago in between sparring sessions. This seems like a bad thing, since literally being a car with no brakes would be tragic both for the car and its passengers and, here in the U.S., would result in a flurry of lawsuits and a factory recall. My trainer was saying it was a good thing though. He said it in reference to the fact that when I really go for someone, I charge like, well, a car barreling down a hill. This either results in what may be my only quality blows during a sparring session or, as is often the case, a really hard hit to the head or the gut.

Yesterday brought to a close my 31st year and today commences my 32nd. As it typically does, the end of a year is causing me to reflect a bit on my life, and today, particularly the last decade. If I could go back and tell my 21-year-old self everything I would do in the next ten years, all that I would lose, all that I would gain, and where I’d end up, I don’t know if I would have wept or laughed my head off. One decade ago, I celebrated my birthday sans alcohol with a small group of Christian friends sitting in the darkness on not yet unpacked boxes in my first apartment, which still lacked electricity. We sang worship songs together, and I rejoiced in a year of strong friendships and new adventures, a year that had, at last, brought some relief from the depression that had stalked me for the previous decade. I looked forward to the future with hopeful eyes. At the time, I was trying desperately to be a heterosexual woman, wearing tight(er)-fitting clothes, straightening my shoulder-length hair, curling my eyelashes, putting on flowing skirts from time to time—all in hope of finding a mate. My dream was to go on staff with my church, marry a handsome, or even, at that point, a not-so-handsome Christian man, and have babies. I know, I’m as surprised as you are that the girl in that apartment is the same one writing this today. Thank God that the next ten years didn’t go even a little bit how I’d planned.

As I blew out the candles on my cake on the first day of my 22nd year, I had no idea I was about to experience my first real heartbreak when my best friend started dating a boy. I didn’t know that a year later, having quit playing the harp and having been denied the opportunity to go on staff with the church because I continued to struggle with depression, I would take my first job as the manager of a coffee shop, and I’d come home each day for the next three years smelling of old coffee. I never in my wildest dreams would have guessed that 22 months later, over the course of a summer weekend retreat with two women in western Michigan, I would make my first major U-turn by coming out to myself as gay. My worldview would go from east to west overnight. I would leave the church and come out to my friends and family in a few short months. As a result, I would lose most of my friends and temporarily, some of my family. At the same time, I would start playing sports for the first time in the form of Ultimate Frisbee. This would lead to playing for the University of Michigan when I made another sharp turn, choosing to go into science and work towards a Master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Over the next eight years, I would research habitat fragmentation for crayfish, the effects of Prozac on frog development, melanoma, and a channel protein in bacteria. I would love and leave my first girlfriend. I would fall harder in love with another woman. I would ask her to marry me only to find out what it means to crash at full speed when our relationship ended a year later, after moving to Boston to start my PhD at Harvard. I would learn how to be a fighter—pulling myself from the flames, picking up the shattered remnants of what I thought I knew and beginning again anew. I would take the time to get to know myself. I would make friends again. I would run three marathons. I would fall in love again with a gorgeous, fiery Mexican. I would become a boxer and face my first opponent in the ring. I would say “good bye” to my sweet, old dog who was my traveling companion through it all, sitting beside me, her one ear up, nose pointed eagerly ahead, in spite of the carsickness and popping ears as we careened around every bend in the road and flew down each mountain.

What a decade. Looking back at it like this, I feel like a poorly drawn flip book that forces the “reader” flipping through the pages to fill in the blanks as the main character abruptly, from one page to the next, changes faces and leaps from one side of the page to another.  

Before I began writing this blog a little over a month ago, which has made me examine my life as more of an outsider, if you had said that I live my life like a car without brakes, I would have probably been a little offended. I would have insisted that I am cautious and careful in every move I make. I would have told you that I’m not a risk taker. In fact, although now I’ll admit that I take a risk here and there, I still insist that my risks are calculated. Although it might look reckless as I swerve around another corner, or make a U-turn while staring directly at the no U-turn sign, in actuality, I’ve carefully considered the turn I’m about to make. As I approach an intersection, I examine my options and weigh the consequences of turning or staying straight. But I never let the road dictate where I’m going; if there’s no road to where I want to go, I make one. Then, once I make the turn, I don’t look back. It’s full speed into uncharted territory, trusting that I’ll have what it takes—that I’m prepared for new terrain, that I’ll find fuel when I need it, that roadside assistance will be only a phone call away, and that I’ll know when to make the next turn.

So, here’s to life, full of stops and go’s, new roads, dead ends, 3-point turns, road rage, and fender benders. Here’s to driving with brakes cut full-speed into the unknown.

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