A Wabi-Sabi Volvo

My heart sank as I sat in the group room with my 10 clients on federal probation. I was working as an intern for a mental health practice leading substance abuse recovery groups for people who were reclaiming their lives after serving drug trafficking sentences. As we discussed the triggers that caused them to use, we heard the pelting of hail. We anxiously shifted in our chairs wanting to bolt out and take our rides to shelter. Instead, we talked about honesty in submitting our insurance claims the next day and my clients shared tales of acquaintances they had that they knew would drive their car across town just to have it hit by hail so they could collect money. We mutually agreed before we left session that our hail-damaged vehicles would not be a trigger to use drugs or drink beer.

The Volvo I aspire to drive.

The Volvo I aspire to drive.

I had just bought my 2006 Volvo a few months previous. I was proud that I spent a conservative amount of money on what others judge as a luxury model of upscale liberals who want to make a visible statement of their political views.   I wanted to drive the European-branded car because of its reputation for safety and durability, perhaps fulfilling another aspect of the Volvo-driving stereotype. I was working part-time as a member representative for a small business lobbying group and I traveled long distances for the position.  My husband and I purchased my Volvo sight unseen from Texas Direct in Houston and had it shipped to the eastern New Mexico town where Republicans are as common as the tumbleweeds that rolled across the region’s desert highways.

As a second-hand car, it required a few minor repairs that we addressed. But the pummeling of ice rocks gave the Volvo a forlorn look all the way around. Within a few days of the storm, I stood in line with my clients at the insurance adjuster site. I knew, though, I wouldn’t be using the funds to replace the trunk lid, the hood, or the roof. Instead, my husband and I decided to use the money to pay off the loan we had on the car.

The Volvo I actually drive.

The Volvo I actually drive.

If circumstances had been different, we probably would have made sure my Volvo was gussied up to its original sheen. But at the same time I was finishing up my graduate school internship, I was also moving to another house so my mother could live with us. A bankruptcy listing, the house needed even more attention than my Volvo to bring it to a tolerable working condition. Paying off the Volvo freed up several hundred dollars each month to pour into the house which we bought on faith that we could afford because we were following the fifth Biblical commandment of “honor your parents.”

The Urban Dictionary satirically characterizes Volvo owners this way:  “Although the cars are pricey to buy and maintain, Volvo drivers see them as works of art–well-made machinery that protects their passengers, other drivers, and even pedestrians from the hazards of the road.”

I do see my Volvo as a work of art and I have had difficulty wrapping my mind around how all the dime- and quarter-sized dents all over the car have added to its beauty. To console myself, I have embraced the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi which declares beauty to be all things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

Wabi-Sabi is a frame of mind I continue to develop for the tenuous aspects of my life which refuse to fit in the picture frames I constructed for them. My Volvo is a material manifestation of how my illusions are shattered by the reality of pell-mell running through the world.

Since the initial introduction of Wabi-Sabi through my Volvo, I’ve had other episodes of it. I parked under a tree where birds did their business on it right before I was to meet with a woman I wanted to impress. Recently, I chose a side road and a stranger’s driveway to turn around so I could be headed in the right direction. The driveway’s incline was so steep it tore off the right side of the front bumper. My husband wrangled it back into place. But repairing the bumper came several hours after driving my Volvo around town, me oblivious to the damage, and included an exhibition in the car pool line of my son’s school where many parents drive shiny BMWs, Lexuses, and Mercedes Benzes. None of those cars have hail dents or bird poop that I’ve noticed.

According to an Utne Reader article, “To discover Wabi-Sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly. Wabi-Sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through Wabi-Sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.

Today, when I drive my Volvo I realize I have put on the full armor of a Wabi-Sabi life. If I encounter people who are only living life on the surface, then they may look at me in one of two ways: either enviously or derisively. They’ll experience envy if all they see in me is the status sign the Volvo represents or view me derisively if they judge me for not repairing the external skin which betrays the fine mechanics of the interior.

Sometimes I react to the judgment and I’m tempted to say “wait, you don’t understand. You don’t know everything I’ve been through.” Then, I realize explanations make no difference to people who live on the superficialities of life. And then I remember that this desire to connect with people who aren’t capable of deep connections is also Wabi-Sabi.

And I let it go.

I Think, therefore, I AM

The only thing that’s certain is this moment I’m in. Beyond that, it’s all up for grabs. To be comfortable with the emptiness of the unknown is challenging and improbable for me. Yet what choice do I have? I have the capacity to fill up my present with thoughts of the future, yet that is nothing, too, an illusion, because my thoughts can’t occupy the space of the future. They can only occupy right now.

Understanding this dilemma can give me a freedom from my anxiety of the future if I remember the blessing in the power of the powerlessness of now.