catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 19 :: 2013.10.18 — 2013.10.31


A car story

In the summer of 2000, my then-fiancée bought a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine.  He had researched the possibilities extensively and decided that the Jetta TDI’s gas mileage (about 50 mpg) would be a good investment, in spite of the hefty monthly car payments he’d be taking on for a brand new car.  I have to admit I felt pretty fancy tooling around in a shiny, European model.  Rob even removed the JETTA from the trunk and replaced it with the European name: BORA.  How nerdy-sheik.  I felt quite well-informed pulling up to the lone diesel pump at the gas station, waiting for the inevitable questions of curious onlookers who probably just thought I was a “dumb girl” filling her car with the wrong fuel.

In 2002, under the burden of the car payments and seeking a simpler life financially, we decided to sell the Bora — er, Jetta.  It sat in the garage for months in perfectly detailed condition while we hung our hopes on a single ambivalent buyer who was (maybe) willing to offer what we were asking.  In the meantime, we bought a 1988 Volkswagen Golf off a sketchy used car lot for $1,000 and promptly humbled ourselves to a dull white, two-door, conventional fuel transport.  I even tried to console myself by naming the car Jireh (for Jehovah jireh — “the Lord provides”).  It was the first and last car I ever named.  When we decided to keep the Jetta and sell the Golf, we got a call the very day we put it out in the driveway with a sign.  I felt a sense of relief that we’d be back in our cool, black diesel, even though I didn’t know how we were going to feed ourselves for the next week, much less afford the car payment.  Then, out of the blue in 2003, someone called our cell phone (while we were in the car, no less) about buying one of our parked web domain names for their party-planning business.  How much would we want for it?  We thought about it and named the balance we owed on our car.  “That sounds fine,” they said.

Ten years later, that same black Jetta TDI is still the car we share between the two of us.  It’s been west of the Mississippi more times than I can count and west of the Rockies at least three times.  It’s been to Florida, Quebec, Maryland, Virginia, Manitoba, North Carolina, Nebraska, West Virginia, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Iowa, California, Arizona, British Columbia, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Montana, Washington State, and Washington, D.C.  It’s been back and forth, back and forth to the Chicago area; to Grand Rapids, Michigan; to Goshen, Indiana.  It’s visited mechanics in several states, and one province.  The 270,000+ miles on the odometer have covered a lot of podcasts, novels, albums, conversations and life decisions.  The miles include the last leg of our trip back from Europe last fall, when the gas station attendant was having trouble counting out my change.  “It’s been a long day,” she said.  “Tell me about it,” I said as I stowed my wake-up snacks, bone tired from 24 hours of traveling by foot, train, plane and car.  “I woke up in Paris this morning.”

And 270,000 miles has covered a lot of ordinary moments of our lives: carpooling to the grocery store, transporting all manner of cargo, commuting to school, commuting to work, practicing my choral pieces while I drive, listening to the news on whatever NPR station our decrepit antenna will allow us to channel.

Those who are aware of a reality beyond the material might generally agree that it shouldn’t matter what we drive.  We humans tend to get too caught up in the superficial side of image and things like cars and clothing can take on enormously disproportionate importance.  And yet, our car has been part of our lives for over 13 years — the span of our entire marriage and then some — and the equivalent of 11 trips around the earth. 

But it’s not just longevity that makes our car a significant part of our lives.  In the interest of true simplicity and purity of heart, I would argue that it does matter what we drive — not in the sense that I should be ashamed of the worn upholstery and the rust spots that are taking over above the wheel wells, but in the sense that it’s good be thoughtful about how our everyday choices reflect our commitments.  I think of a hermit friend who, at the suggestion of the “still, small voice,” gave up her car several years ago and lets the spiritual discipline of her radius be kept in check by the range of her golf cart, public transportation and carpooling.  And I think also of our little, black Jetta and what it represents in terms of our efforts to practice stewardship and sharing.  Compared to a compact car that gets 35 mpg, we’ve saved over 2,300 gallons of fuel — or rather, shared them with our neighbors, who also depend on fossil fuel to get their kids to school, make deliveries, visit the doctor, go camping.  A four-door with a back seat has made it easy to carpool, if folks don’t mind getting cozy.  A decent stereo has made for some great music-listening moments, both on the open road and in suburban congestion.

I do believe that the world is changing — that our current dependence on oil can’t continue at current rates.  Even a highly efficient diesel that could run on vegetable oil is only a better choice for now.  Whether the transition of the coming years will be a gradual shift or a dramatic crisis, I don’t know.  But I do know that we can all be working now to cultivate the wisdom to see connections, including how a daily choice to get on a bike or in the car or share a ride or take the train can be outward reflections of our deepest values.  Such wisdom has the power to carry our communities through whatever may come with grace, resilience and hope.  That’s a lot of cargo to fit into a compact car, much less in a bike basket, but that’s the magic of small, intentional choices: they can fit in the tiniest spaces, but carry the greatest amount of love.

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