A story about cars and callings.
This essay cost me $186.84. Plus $130, if you count the window repair.
There’s a group of strangers blocking the sidewalk up ahead, and so I thread myself between the nose and tail of two parked cars to walk down the middle of the street instead. That’s how I notice the necklace that dangles from the rearview mirror, tugging at my peripheral vision. It’s strung with hand-painted clay beads: tiny white skulls that almost seem to be smiling, alternated with serene-faced half-moons, their edges blue and glittered. The necklace is from a gift shop in Oaxaca. From a past life of mine. It is mine. And I am seeing it so clearly now, so plainly, because there is no window where there should be a window. The window between me and my necklace is gone. It was my window. This is my car.
I look down, and the glass is everywhere — the pavement, the seat cushions, the cupholders, the floor. It is magnificent, the exuberant scattering of tiny crystalline bits. What seems colorless in the form of a solid pane turns out to be a delightful aquamarine tint. It looks like millions of tiny breath mints. Like candy. I want to reach through the windowless space and grab a handful of it, to filter it through my cupped hands like sand, to hear its shimmering trickle through my fingers.
Lauren is with me, holding the end of Tomato’s leash, saying, “Oh, baby. Oh, baby.” It is midday Sunday and pleasant outside. We were on our way to her car, parked a few meters past mine; we were heading to the Berkeley waterfront, where she was going to study and I was going to run. Regular stuff. I pass her my bag and open the door to survey the damage. The movement jostles more shards from the window frame, tumbling down towards the ground.
Someone has rifled through the container between the front seats, which I use as a trash bin, and tossed the rubble around: a disposable coffee cup, some used insulin syringes, a crumpled bag of Trader Joe’s popcorn, a crushed GoGo squeeZ apple sauce from a low blood sugar, a shredded tissue. They do not seem to have taken anything; they have merely exposed the messy remains of my body’s needs, and then run off.
A curious neighbor is standing in his front yard, watching with a sympathetic frown. “It happened Friday night,” he says.
“Oh, really?” says Lauren, and I echo, “Really?” That means it sat like this all day yesterday and all night, exposed.
“I noticed it yesterday morning. Yeah. I didn’t know whose car it was.”
“Well, it’s mine!” I say, sort of sarcastically, not looking up, still examining the wreckage.
I check the back seat, the trunk, the glove compartment, just in case. I don’t know what I’m looking for. Something stolen, anything? A note? A fingerprint or strand of hair that might help me understand who and how and why? Every time I open and close a door, more of the dangling shards tumble down. The sound is a tiny applause, or an animated chorus of wheeee!, as the window frame surrenders to nakedness.
I got my car in January 2017, halfway through my year of nomadic farm apprenticeships. I drove it all around Arizona, through California and up the coast to Oregon. The first time I damaged it was in San Francisco, where I stopped to visit family on my route north. I’d been driving in circles for approximately half an hour, trying to find somewhere to park without a 2-hour limit. It was dark and I was exhausted and I desperately needed to pee. I cursed the city over and over under my breath. I thought I found a spot and began backing the car into it, and then hit something: metal. A fire hydrant. It snagged the lip of the trunk door, leaving a dent and a small gap in the seal, so you could sometimes hear the wind whistling through it.
I didn’t mind the blemish. It was like a sweet scar that seemed to go with all the dirt and dust I gathered on my roving pilgrimage. I left the car with Dan and Micha at the farm in Oregon when I flew east for what was supposed to be a week with my parents, but turned into a few months because I broke my ankle. Then, I left it with my friend in Seattle when I flew to Oaxaca for what was supposed to be a week, but turned into more than a few months because I decided I wanted to live there. I had the car shipped to Colorado, where my sister adopted it for a year.
The second time I damaged it was in Los Angeles in 2019, only a couple months after meeting Lauren. I was just down the road from home, distracted by thinking about her as her texts bubbled up on the screen of my phone that I’d propped in the cup holder. I looked down for a sliver of a moment in stop-and-go traffic, and I smashed into the car in front of me. The sound was horrific. The other guy’s car was fine; mine was nearly totaled. I had to leave it in the neighborhood shop for weeks and weeks, for repairs that the owner, Garry, said would have cost over ten thousand dollars without insurance. “Shit happens,” he said, patting me on the shoulder like a friendly uncle.
Mid-pandemic, Lauren and I drove my car up to the farm in Oregon together. I have done this particular drive so many times — and generally traveled in my car so many times, and moved in it so many times — that I have memorized a precise jigsaw puzzle for packing it. In the left corner of the trunk, I stack the two boxes of wall decor; the suitcases of clothes go in the backseats; the books go in the small slices of floor space; the shoes fit snuggly between this tote and that one. Now, to squeeze the stuff of two people into it, I had to surrender my whole system. It was embarrassing how much this agitated me.
One day at the farm in Oregon, I had to drive to town, where there was sufficient cell service for my weekly therapy appointment via Zoom. The engine made an awful grating noise when I tried to start it. It sounded very, very broken. But it was just a battery issue, Dan explained. It just needed a fresh battery. That simple. He picked one up for me the next day and showed me how to install it.
A different week, Lauren and I took a brief getaway to Eugene — in search of good coffee, a break from all the Trump flags, and maybe a bookstore or two — and one of my tires went flat. We dropped the car at Goodyear while we wandered and waited. When I called for an update, the guy told me he couldn’t patch it because of the placement of the puncture, so I’d have to replace all four tires for something like…$600? But we had to get back to the farm. He filled the flat enough to get us home, and I took the car to the country tire shop the next day — the one just down the winding road, with the American flags blazing out front and six unmasked mechanics sipping Coke and punching each other in the ribs as they worked. They patched up the hole for free. No problem. “Just a nail,” they said, and sent me off. I was delighted at how my luck had turned. Almost euphoric. I kind of knew the Goodyear guy was — I’m sorry, I tried to surrender this pun, but I couldn’t — full of hot air.
What’s funny is that when Garry fixed the car after the big accident, he left a kink in the mechanics. The inside handle of the passenger door doesn’t work. I would have had him fix it, but COVID happened, and it seemed dangerous to allow anyone near me or my car at all, and then we left Los Angeles and never moved back. So now, a year and a half later, you can’t let yourself out of the passenger’s seat of my car. I have to come around from the driver’s side to open it from the outside.
In Callings, an old but brilliant book by Gregg Levoy on finding one’s true vocation by listening for the world’s nudges, Levoy writes about synchronicities as “events connected to one another not strictly by cause and effect, but by what in classical times were known as sympathies. This is the belief that an acausal affinity exists between events inside and outside ourselves—a cross-talk between the conscious and the unconscious, mind and matter, humanity and nature” (110). (For the record, this is the same way I understand the functionality of astrology. It’s a way to study the echoes.)
Carl Jung was into synchronicities. He believed them to be “related to the growth process he called individuation, which is the work of becoming ourselves and making ourselves distinct from our surroundings, from the grabby dictates of the collective and the expectations of others.” Just as much as dreams, synchronicities serve to reflect or project “something we already know but don’t know we know: the authentic self as it’s encoded in the soul” (111).
Or perhaps, Levoy posits, “synchronicities appear for no other purpose than to jostle our skepticism and open our minds to the existence of the inexplicable and the numinous in our lives,” to release us from “the tyranny of the commonplace” (113).
I understand that car mishaps are entirely random. Anyone can bust a tire. Fender benders happen every day. The fact that a stranger chose my window, out of all the windows lined up on the block, was mostly luck. Shit happens.
But that was my window. My car. My life. I can recognize the meaninglessness, even shrug at it, while simultaneously reading each incident for its meaning. Like, what does the broken door latch say about the old stories I’m still carrying around as passengers, which only I, the driver, can liberate?
Before we moved from LA to the farm last year, I had a potent dream one night in which I joked sardonically that “everyone feels a little bit dead inside.” I felt like quarantine had broken me. But I just needed a fresh, recharged battery.
My job as a writer is to delicately detangle the sympathetic symbolism that might be nested in the mess. My job as a writer. My job.
To pass my car back off to me after adopting it for that year between 2017 and 2018, my sister met up with me in Arizona. We explored downtown Tucson. We hiked somewhere near Phoenix, taking photos of towering cacti. In Sedona, we had our auras photographed. We wandered through more than a few gift shops that were stuffed with crystals and tarot decks, all reeking of patchouli.
I remember this one gift shop in sharp visual detail. The horseshoe shape of it. The glass shelves. I picked up a pendulum from a rotating display — it was some kind of an earthy green stone on the end of it, I think, or maybe a rose quartz. I gently held the chain between my thumb and index finger so the weight dangled, the way a psychic taught me to do years before.
Should I go to a graduate psychology program? I silently asked the pendulum, asked myself. After this road trip, I was moving to Santa Barbara to work at a farm-to-table restaurant, following the same curiosity that had drawn me to farming in the first place, but not sure what the end game was. The pendulum swung around counter-clockwise. No, it said. No. A clear no, no, no. I remember that this surprised me. I thought the psychology program was the thing I’d been avoiding, because of the intense commitment it required, but was maybe meant to do.
Should I go to a creative writing MFA program? It stopped circling and bounced from left to right to left to right — pending, pending, pending — and then began revolving clockwise. Yes. I stared at it. I repeated the first question, then put the thing down.
I dropped my sister at the airport and drove the car, mine again, to Santa Barbara. In 2019, I drove it to Los Angeles, where I’d enrolled in an Urban Sustainability graduate program. I could eventually pair the degree with an MFA at the same university. It seemed like a wise, middle-of-the-road option. After one completed semester and many months of agonizing, I finally worked up the guts to withdraw, because it looked right on paper, but it didn’t feel right. That’s the thing about choosing the middle of the road when life has told you what lane is yours.
There’s one car mishap I haven’t shared yet. It happened a month ago, during a terrible, too-busy week when I was trying to do everything for everybody except myself. That week’s planner pages are littered with phone and Zoom meetings, and in the margins, there’s a note I scribbled in a piercing moment of recognition:
giving giving giving
I was also participating in a month-long diabetes research study, which was looking at the effects of exercise on blood sugar. I had to wear a heart rate monitor and a special watch at all times, and I had to use two different apps to track absolutely every meal and snack, every walk and workout, every insulin dose. I did it because it was paid, and I told myself it would be easy money, which was a twisted way of trying to convince myself that simply carrying my chronically ill body through this world without recording all the work is not very, very, very hard, especially while trying to…do capitalism. My body is always, and I mean always and unavoidably, at odds with capitalism.
While running errands I didn’t really have time or energy for, just as I was turning off the street where I’d parked and onto the main road home, I collided from a sideways angle with another car that was turning into a lot. I don’t know how it happened, how we didn’t see each other. She rolled her window down. “It’s not my fault,” she said, shaking her head, her eyeliner smudged. “It’s not my fault.”
“I know,” I said, leaning out my own window. “Should we…?” I pointed at the side street, and we both reversed like we were rewinding the accident, and we drove to meet each other over there. Our cars were okay. She was rattled. I was oddly calm and also grateful. I’d been prepared for the worst.
As we stood in front of our cars with our masks on, she explained — piece by piece, like the window shards dropping — that she was crying on the phone when it happened. That she was crying on the phone with her mom. That she was crying on the phone with her mom because she’d just left the doctor, where she was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune illness. That she was just trying to get herself some ice cream.
“I understand,” I said, even though I should know that’s the wrong thing to say. I told her I had a chronic illness, too. “This is a big deal. This is so hard. I am so sorry.” She kept apologizing for being vulnerable with me. She couldn’t believe she was crying in front of a stranger. She turned away from me, towards her car, and then back towards me, and then away again, making and breaking eye contact, like she was checking that I was still there. I just stayed there. I just kept saying, “This is a big deal. It’s okay. This is a big deal.” I needed her to know that her vulnerability was brave and valid and right. That it felt hard because it was hard.
On the drive home, I was dizzied and dazzled, the way one ought to feel after being employed as a brief but significant character in someone else’s story. It was so excruciating and so exquisitely beautiful. The whole sloppy thing.
Last Friday night, the same night someone broke my car window, I broke down to Lauren over dinner. I explained, in different words, that I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost control of the wheel of my life. I do not feel vital, I said. My body has been aching for sunlight and sweat and soil and shovels; my mind has been spinning circles around itself. I have felt imprisoned by the aforementioned “tyranny of the commonplace”: by waking up to an alarm at 6:45am every day, eating the same breakfast, staring at the same computer in front of the same wall in the same house on the same street where I don’t feel like I belong. Where am I going? Am I going anywhere at all? My stale rhythms are punctuated by diabetic self-care that feels a little less like a drag when my life is generally more, you know, alive.
I have gotten stuck in so much self-doubt that I haven’t been able to get much writing done in weeks. Or maybe, I haven’t been able to get much writing done, so I’ve gotten stuck in self-doubt. Either way, it doesn’t feel good. My job is to write.
Which is why I booked the Airbnb on a horse ranch in wine country — even though I already overshot my monthly budget by paying for the window repair — and drove off for a few solo days away. As I type this, I’m sitting in a thinly cushioned chair at a desk in a stationary RV. The window blinds in front of me don’t work. It’s 93 degrees. I’m on my third can of sparkling water. I’ve been at this for hours, two days in a row. I do not feel stuck.
A non-exhaustive list of things I store in my car:
- a turkey feather
- a huge, perfect pinecone, and two tiny ones
- dry-roasted almonds and a couple more of those GoGo squeeZ apple sauces
- compostable silverware, in case of a proper picnic
- the Lizzie McGuire Movie CD
- a pair of cheap sunglasses that I literally never wear for more than a few minutes because it always turns out that I see better without them
- a back-up running outfit, tucked under the seat
- a variety of stones: the palm-sized, weighty round one, and the marbled pink one with the jagged edges, and the Dalmatian spotted one, and the one that resembles rings of salmon flesh
- a strange bone from an elk skeleton we found while foraging for Oregon chanterelles
- hand sanitizer, and more hand sanitizer, and more — all different brands and bottle types, all half-emptied
- a felted pig that my sister made by hand as a Christmas present, inspired by Lucky
- a piece of driftwood that’s shaped like a fish
- a pocket-sized book of Pema Chodron’s wisdom
- a pack of Wet Ones, which are so dried out that they’re almost crispy, but they remind me of my mom, of childhood
- bad BIC pens and ballpoints, none of which I ever actually bought myself
My car is my vessel is my body, is my body that carries the old stories as it moves towards new ones. Is my body that breaks down and steers itself off-course and smashes into life. That needs, and needs, and needs repair. That wants to do its purpose: to go somewhere.
Sometimes I believe that writing is the destination. But I think it’s actually the road.