My second car was a white 2001 Honda Civic, and I got it weeks before my senior year of college. My first car, a Mercury Sable that I inherited in high school, had gone to pieces before it reached 100,000 miles, and its replacement proved much more durable. I drove that Civic for more than a decade, took it cross-country once and another time to Santa Fe and back, learned how to fit it with snow tires in Connecticut. During those years, it endured a couple of minor accidents but never had a breakdown, and I used it during a number of milestones in life: college graduation, first full-time job, first condominium, marriage. It logged more than 200,000 miles before my wife and I reasoned that it might be approaching the end of its prime. One day, then, we drove it to the dealership, exchanged it for $1,500 in credit, and abandoned it in the parking lot.
I realize that the above paragraph may come off as unemotional. That's the point, really. My poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Our Money's Worth," which tells the story of trading in the Civic with only a few details changed. It's kind of an anti-poem, if your definition of a poem is one that infuses a moment with dramatic epiphanies. In truth, I felt very little when I brought the car into the dealership; as the opening stanza notes, it was one of multiple errands that day. I had memories of the car, but those memories resided in my mind, not the car itself. "Our Money's Worth" appeared in the book Angels in Seven, which came out in my mid-thirties, right before my daughter was born, and serves as a farewell to a great many things in the first three and a half decades of life. The title poem is about outgrowing baseball fandom. Others are about the deaths of older family members, the passing of high school and college, even the burning of unfinished poems. "Our Money's Worth" is about resisting the impulse to view life as an epic journey and accepting that a car is simply a car. When I wrote it, almost a decade ago now, I took that indifference as a sign of wisdom. Ask me how I feel again in ten years.
So the poem is not about nostalgia. That doesn't make it cynical, at least to me. (I am acutely aware that my reading of my own poem may be very different than another person's.) Up above, I mentioned that I felt little when I brought the car in. But the little that I did feel was luck, and rightly so. I have come to understand that there are two levels of bliss in life. When things are normal, we want them to be sublime. When things go wrong, we want them to be normal. Think about your circumstances right now: Does your car have a leak under the hood? Is there a lightbulb out in your kitchen and an overdue bill to pay? If so, very likely the first three things on your mind are fixing the leak, replacing the lightbulb, and paying the bill.
Once those things no longer occupy your mind, you may begin fantasizing about taking the car on an exciting road trip or hosting a party in your kitchen. Efficiency gives us room to dream, and the Civic gave me that opportunity. Throughout all those uneventful drives and routine oil checkups, I got to mull over manuscripts, plan vacations, and otherwise make room for thoughts that engine trouble and astronomical repair bills might have crowded out. I also got the gift of life itself, which a safe and dependable car helps to provide. So I was lucky, and I had the car to thank for that.
But here's the other thing, and one that I didn't realize as much when I was younger: You can't thank a car, only a person. Someone -- some people, I should say -- did a good job of putting my Civic together. Others did a good job of repairing and servicing it over the years. I'll never know who those people were (as the poem says, "no Jim or Luke or Pedro / here in factory clothes to thank in person"), but they had a positive impact on my life. I appreciate them doing their job well. The backside, of course, is that if the car had given me years of misery, it might have been equally hard to pick someone to blame.
Every year in class, I share with my students the Grateful Dead song "Ripple." The verse that always haunts me is the one that the song's lyricist, Robert Hunter, said he was most proud of: "Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. / If your cup is full, may it be again. / Let it be known there is a fountain / that was not made by the hands of men." Perfection is usually out of our hands, which is why we reach out our cup hopefully. If we're lucky, we get it filled. In my case, I got more than a decade of luck with the Civic that I got at age 21, and then the car and I parted ways. I have no idea who got it after I did. By now, I am sure that it's been retired or scrapped. If the next owner had an easy time driving it and left it with minimal pain, then I hope that he or she felt blessed, not to mention thankful. Cars, unlike fountains, are very much made by the hands of men.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.