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The Zen of Driving
The Zen of Driving is one of the short stories from Binnie Kirshenbaum's collection called History on a Personal Note. The characters of the stories try to deal with their lives and feelings, and at the same time, keep their dignity and sense of humor. The Zen of Driving tells a story of a woman with an intense desire to learn how to drive, but this wish stems from her inability to escape stifling marriage and take control over her own life.
The main character of the story under analysis (the author does not mention her name) is taking driving lessons. Although it has been quite a long time since her first lesson, her instructor, Manny, says she is not ready for the test yet. The woman also has an affair with a married man, but it does not seem to make her any happier. Meanwhile, her husband has taken up a new hobby — painting, and their house is filled with brushes, easels, books on painting, paints etc. Before marrying Julian, she used to paint, too, but she does not do it anymore.
So, the woman's greatest passion is driving. In fact, everything she does throughout the story is discusses painting with her husband, has small talks with her lover and drives. Very often, in the middle of a conversation, she indulges into dreams: "This is what I picture..." (A Zen of Driving). In her dreams, she always drives an expensive car: blue Corvette, silver Porsche, forest-green Jaguar, and every time she is driving somewhere far away from home. Thus, cars symbolize her desire to escape her current life. However, her instructor says she cannot drive on her own yet, so everything she is left to do is dream. Obviously, the woman cannot divorce her husband, but the reader does not know why. When she is waiting in a traffic congestion, some man tells her, "If you can make it out of this mess, you can drive anywhere in the world" (p. 129). So, she thinks that driving is her key to freedom, because she can go anywhere without any reason to stop.
One more symbol here is painting. The woman used to paint before her marriage, but when she met her future husband, she threw all her painting equipment away. Maybe, she knew beforehand that her family life was not going to be happy. Her husband, however, enjoys painting, although he is not quite successful in it. Interestingly, in the beginning of the story he says he has a driving license, but unlike his wife, Julian does not want to drive. At some point, the lives of the spouses become totally different, and the reader can see how they simultaneously prepare for the ongoing changes: the wife is going to take a driving test, and Julian is about to start painting. Nevertheless, while she is not ready to drive, he is definitely showing some progress in his pursuit. Thus, he is satisfied with his family life and does not want to change anything.
The reader knows that the main character has an affair, and she regularly visits her lover. Still, she is not really happy with this relationship, either: their conversations are meaningless, they never discuss their feelings and she never thinks about him when she is away. It is worth mentioning, though, that she expresses her desire to drive Mark's car, but he says it belongs to his partner, Sally, and she is not allowed to take Sally's car. Sally's car symbolizes her private life — the protagonist wants to take it, but she cannot.
To sum up, The Zen of Driving has a light tone, but it is rather deceptive, for Kirshenbaum uses symbols and imagery to describe the main character's psychological state and "heavy" thoughts: she is not happy in her marriage, and she hopes that driving can help her escape it. Nevertheless, her inability to drive on her own means she is not ready to remove her burden and find her place in the world.