Driving Lessons: Navigating Roundabouts And Reconnecting With Oshkosh


By Crystal Chan and Karl Christenson | October 6, 2020

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  • Crystal Chan behind the wheel and ready to take on the Fox Valley's roundabouts. (Photo by Viv Goupell)

Crystal Chan behind the wheel and ready to take on the Fox Valley's roundabouts. (Photo by Viv Goupell)

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Author Crystal Chan has lived in Chicago for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought her back to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to reconnect with her family. She shares a story of the renewed confidence she learned during a hometown driving lessons, taught by her mother.

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I was a junior in high school when my mother said to me: “Crystal, I love you very much. But when you’re turning 18, you are leaving the house. Even if you go to college in town, you’re living in the dorms. You’re not staying here.”

I cried myself to sleep that night. In the morning, though, my 17-year-old self was jubilant.

Freedom.

So I obediently did exactly what my mother demanded: When I turned 18, I went to college and I never went home to live again.

Until COVID hit.

I am an author, a compassion activist, and an organizer – but I also live by myself in Chicago. Very quickly, within weeks of the Chicago quarantine in March, with no car and no desire to take public transportation, my entire world reduced to a radius of five blocks. Enduring the stress of the headlines and the fear by myself took its toll on me. My mother could tell I was struggling, and she invited me to come home to weather it out for at least a couple months.

So I did.

That’s how I found myself back in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the age of 40. But living with my parents turned out to be one of the biggest blessings of this entire pandemic – the cooking, the conversations, the delightful surprises that happen when hearts are open. Even the grieving and anxiety, as we were together, didn’t have as much power over us in our little community.

I did, however, have to face the roundabouts.

I went to college in Appleton and I left Wisconsin before the roundabouts came in. Even though they are everywhere in Oshkosh, my visits home had only been a couple of days, so I had family members drive me around.

However, when you live there, you really do need to learn. So at the age of 40, my mother gave me driving lessons.

Author Crystal Chan. (Photo by Viv Goupell)

Author Crystal Chan. (Photo by Viv Goupell)

My mother had also given me driving lessons when I was 15. She had taught me on a stick shift. A Toyota. She had been patient and endured those grinding moments when I ground the gears and the entire car seized and shook. One COVID April morning, I said to Mom, “There shouldn’t be a lot of people on the road with the quarantine. Could we have a driving lesson today?”

So she drove through a series of roundabouts, walked me through what she looks for, when she enters, and never change lanes when you’re in it. Then we exchanged seats. My heart was in my throat. Cars whip around these things. How will I know what lane they’ll go into? What if they switch on me? What if my anxiety makes the car combust?

I needed to let people know that I am not A Knowledgeable Driver. So I put on my emergency flashers. That seemed apt.

My blood pressure was through the roof. I rolled down the windows and tried to breathe slowly as my emergency flashers ticked away, on-off, on-off. My mother was as patient then as she was 25 years ago, walking me through the process: Choose your lane early. Drive defensively. Stay in your lane. You don’t need to stop if there is no traffic.

It might be some time before this pandemic clears, but this new world isn’t all bad. We’re learning the art of slowing down, of cooking our own meals, and we are getting driving lessons all over again. Mother and daughter are back in the car as the mother teaches the art of driving with some caution, yes, but just as importantly: Moving through the world with confidence. In some mysterious way, the circle completes.

Crystal Chan

Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has given talks and workshops across...

Karl Christenson

Karl Christenson is a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio. He enjoys taking his family on cross-country holiday road trips to theme parks and eating bologna sandwiches and parking in the last spot so he can get out of there first.
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