Traveling mercies

When everything in your life goes wrong at once, something big and lovely is about to get born.

Published December 18, 1997 9:24AM (EST)

Broken things have been on my mind as the year lurches to an end, because
so much broke and broke down this year in my life, and in the lives of the people
I love. Lives broke, hearts broke, health broke, minds broke. On the first
Sunday of Advent our preacher, Veronica, said that this is life's nature, that
lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we'll
never meet. She said the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the
emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take
the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room,
until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice
and graham crackers. And then she went on vacation.

"Traveling mercies," the old black people at our church said to her when
she left. This is what they say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling
mercies: Be safe, notice beauty, enjoy the journey, God is with you.

Besides the big brokennesses in people's lives this year, I've noticed
all sorts of really dumb things breaking lately. Since Advent began
at the end of November, I've had a dozen calls reporting broken cars,
water heaters, a window, even a finger. So I was on the lookout for something
wonderful to happen, because of this great story I heard recently about dumb
things going wrong: Carolyn Myss, who writes about healing, went to Russia a
few years ago to give a series of lectures. Every single aspect of getting to
Russia that could go poorly, did. Then in Moscow it turned out that her
reserved room at the hotel had been given to someone else. She ended up
sleeping on a stranger's floor. Two mornings later, on a train to her
conference on healing, she began to whine at the man sitting beside her about
how infuriating her journey had been thus far. It turned out that he worked
for the Dalai Lama. And he said gently that he believed that when a lot of
seemingly meaningless things started going wrong all at once, it was to
protect something big and lovely that was trying to get itself born -- that, in
other words, perhaps it needed for you to be distracted so it could be born

I totally believe this to be true; and I especially believe it when other
people's things are breaking down. When it's my stuff, I believe the cause is
that I'm a bad person. For instance, when the new car I was leasing had a
complete nervous breakdown a month ago, a friend helped me get the lease
rescinded, but while trying to figure out what to drive next, I rented what
was billed as a quality used car. Two days later, when it broke down by the
side of the road, I did not find it very inspiring: I did not look around to
see what lovely thing was getting itself born. I was just deeply disturbed. I
decided I was jinxed, that I had bad car karma. This was right after Advent
began, when all around the world people awaited the celebration of the birth
of the King to a raggedy homeless family. It was also in the days just
before the great rainy weather of El Niqo began.

Now I'm not sure why, looking back at all those broken cars, with the
rains about to come, it seemed like a good idea to buy a used Volkswagen convertible. Maybe it was the realization that the luxury tank I'd leased in an effort to
feel safe had -- quelle suprise -- failed me. That there was no safety out
there -- that it was going to have to be an inside job.
Or maybe it was because so many things had broken or been so troubling this
year that I just wanted to feel lighter. Or maybe I wanted to have a little

I'd always loved Volkswagens. I learned to drive on a 1962 VW bus. I've
had a number of VW's over the years. They're cheap and they run forever.
Remember in "Sleeper," when 200 years from now Woody Allen and Diane
Keaton come upon an old '60s VW bug rusting away in a cave, with the key still
in the ignition, and the car starts right up?

This is what I wanted: something cheap and reliable that didn't waste
gas, something funky and smart, a little rusty, a little banged up, like me.

However, I didn't set out to get a convertible; I mean, what with El Niqo
and all. I started thinking about old Volkswagen Jettas, because they're
sporty but in a touching, hippie way, like Pete Seeger wearing new Reeboks.
They're supposed to be a great car. Then, on the day the rains began, I heard
about a '92 Cabriolet, which is basically the convertible form of the Jetta.
This one only had 39,000 miles on it, five speeds and white fake-leather seats.
Teal green, a white naugahyde top, a nice sound system and it was
inexpensive. I called the owner, who was Iranian. She was selling it for her
uncle, who lived in Southern California.

It seemed like a great deal. The Iranian woman and I took the car for a
ride and it drove like a dream. I could afford it without needing a bank
loan and it would run forever. I took it in to a deeply anal, obsessive
Volkswagen diagnostician, and even he said it was a terrific car.

So I bought it. By then it was the second week of Advent, of waiting
with the rest of the world for the birth of the child whom, the Old Testament
tells us, would be called Emmanuel: "God with us."

And the rains came pouring down.

Sam loved the car, and it didn't leak at all. We tooled all over town in it,
listening to oldies on the radio, fantasizing about trips to the beach. I
decided to spring for brand new tires, in deference to the bad weather, and
the front wheels needed re-aligning anyway. So I took it to a tire shop in
Marin where there are always a million new tires stacked in front. I bought
four tires, arranged for the realignment and bonded like mad with the woman
behind the counter. Her name was Matty. She was the sister of the man who
ran the whole operation, the daughter of the man who owned it. She lent me an
old Cutlass Supreme to drive. She was my new best friend.

I picked up my car that night and said goodbye to my new best friend.
"Come back in 40,000 miles, and we'll cut you another great deal," said my new
best friend's dad. He looked like an old golf pro in a 49ers jacket.

Two days and 40 miles later, on a Saturday afternoon, Sam and I were
cruising around town when all of a sudden, at the stop sign of a busy
intersection, there was a sound from the front of the convertible. It was a bad
sound, a slippery crashing, as if it had prolapse, and all of its internal
organs were trying to fall out of its vagina. And the car wouldn't go
forward. Sam and I gaped at each other. I tried to ease the car into first,
but it made the bad sound again and would not move forward an inch. Cars
behind me started to honk. "Move your fucking car," someone shouted.
Everyone started honking. It was my own private New York City.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It would be hard to capture how I felt at this moment. I told people
later that I felt like hanging myself. It was like PMS on bad acid:
psychosis and bloat and Bad Mind. Bad Mind can't wait for this kind of
opportunity -- "I told you so," Bad Mind says. Bad Mind whispers to me that I
am a loser, that I am doomed. And Bad Mind has a tiny problem with paranoia.
"The woman you bought this car from," it whispered, "is on a plane back to
Horns honking, metal grinding under my hood, Bad Mind sharing. "I'm
freaking out," I said to Sam. I turned on my hazard lights and did Lamaze.

"Move the goddamn fucking car," someone shouted.

I did not know what to do. I tried to get the car into gear; it brayed.
"Will you pray with me?" I asked Sam. "So I can calm myself?" Sam has been
talking about Jesus again a lot since Advent began. It's very touching.

"OK," he said, "but wait a minute." Then he stuck his head out the
window, and shouted, "Stop yelling at us, you fucking assholes!"

We said a prayer together, that we find a solution, that we feel calmer.
I don't believe in God as an old man in the clouds, "bespectacled old Yahweh,"
as the late great John Gardner put it, "scratching his chin through his
mountains of beard." But I believe that God is always with us, that goodness
guides, provides, protects. If you had my friends and son, you might too.

"Do you need a hand?" a man asked a few minutes later, bending down to
peer in the window. I nodded. "OK," he said. "You steer. I'll push."

And he did. I am not going to say some dumb half-baked thing about who I
think had, in disguise, come to help us.

When we were out of the road and the man had left, I called Triple-A from
the car phone. It went dead. I looked at Sam and sighed. Then, on the screen
of my mind, Matty's face appeared. Matty, and all those tires.

"I know where to go!" I said. "To the tire shop!"

"Is there something wrong with our tires?"

"I don't think so, honey. I just know that's where we're supposed to

So, holding hands, we ran down the street in the rain. We ran until we
came to the tire shop. Matty wasn't there. But her father was.

"Remember me?" He nodded. "My car broke down six blocks away."

"Listen," he said, nicely, "we're a tire shop."

"But you fixed other things on Thursday, too."

"But nothing mechanical," he said. "We have no mechanics on duty. And
we close at 3 on Saturdays -- that's just over half an hour."

Sam peered at me with the mix of faith and worry that I felt. Finally, I
said, "I'm not trying to con you into helping us. All I know is that we were
supposed to come here. That if we came here, we would be helped."

"Well," Matty's dad said finally, "there's this Mexican guy in the

My soul heaved a huge sigh of relief: Of course there was this Mexican
guy in the back, I thought, and absolutely knew that he was our connection.

"I suppose I could go get him," said Matty's father. And I smiled.

The Mexican man came out a few minutes later, tall and beautiful, in
greasy coveralls. His name was Joaquim. He asked how he could help me.

"My car broke down down the road," I said.

"I just work on tires," he said.

"I need you to just come with me and take a look."

"OK," he said. So we piled into the old Cutlass Supreme and we drove
to my car. It had stopped raining. Joaquim opened the hood, peered in, then
peered under the car. "Ohhh," he said, and what I think he said next, since I
do not speak Car, and he spoke halting English, was that some major bolt
worked loose, but that if the threads were not stripped, he could fix it.

"What do we do now?" I asked.

"We need to go get Al," he said.

Oh, I thought, of course. Of course we need to go get Al. Duhh! We
drove back and picked up Al, who was small and did not speak any English at
all. He drove us all in a dilapidated truck back to my car. Al found a
pitiful short piece of fraying rope in his glove box. It was like girl rope;
it was like a bit of rope I'd have in my purse, that you couldn't do anything
with except maybe tie up your hair. And Joaquim used it to tie my Volkswagen
to Al's crummy truck. It was like the traveling Dr. Zeus Repair Shop, à la
Rube Goldberg.

Joaquim and Sam got into the VW. Al and I started towing them. Smash crash,
it was like the Demolition Derby. And I just smiled, I couldn't have been
happier. I wasn't afraid anymore. I wasn't ashamed. I wasn't alone.

We lurched and crashed along until things finally began going more
smoothly. Joaquim and Sam were no longer bumping into us. This is grace at
work, I decided rather smugly, then turned around to discover my new car half
a block behind us, on the other side of an intersection. Sam and Joaquim had
their heads stuck out the windows and were waving to us as if they were on a
float, or the honorary Fire Marshalls in the Damaged Parade.

We went back and tied them to us again; they came untied again. And
coasted right passed us. After they'd come to a stop, Al drove up to my new
car and nudged it forward a ways. Then he caught up with it and bashed it
forward. I could see by the back of Sam's head that he was staring straight
ahead, trying to be polite. Al nosed and bashed my car all the way up the
street, into the greasy work deck of the tire shop; right past all those

The next thing I knew my car was on the lift, in the air. Joaquim and Al
peered up into its innards with flashlights, consulting in hushed tones, like
doctors. Joaquim came over to talk to me gravely, like I was the next of kin.

"We are only open for 20 more minutes," he said.

"OK," I said, magnanimously. "I can leave it over the weekend."

"No," he said. "What I mean is, come back in 20 minutes."

So I did. Sam and I played in the parking lot of a bank nearby, playing
soccer with a old tennis ball that was losing its nap. I felt entirely

It all made me think of Eugene O'Neill's line, "Man is born broken. He
lives by mending. The grace of God is glue."

When we went back to the tire shop, Matty's father gave us a bill for
$36. "Don't worry," he said. "It's a terrific car." I wrote him a check,
and slipped Joaquim and Al each a 20. You cannot under-tip Jesus.

So, back in the saddle again. It's the story of my life. The car is
running great and it's fun to drive. And I'm beginning to get an idea of
what was trying to keep me distracted so it could get itself born, but I can't
put it into words yet. All I know is that I've been happier in the ensuing few
weeks than I've ever been before. I feel quite often these days as if I'm on
a mild dose of magic mushrooms, which is the only comparison I can think of for
feeling this much wonder, this much love. Bad Mind tells me that it's
probably the result of a brain tumor, or a breakdown. But I think it's the
gift of grief, the gift of failure, of all that crying and rage -- of having
dealt with so much pain. Maybe all those tears washed me a little bit cleaner,
like an inside shower. And maybe they somehow also watered the soil
beneath me. Who knows. But I will keep you posted; more will be

And in the meantime, I'm going on sabbatical for four or five
months, to finish a book on faith. So take good care, and thanks. And
traveling mercies to you.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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