I’m getting in the car and cranking the motor. It’s always suspenseful whether the engine will turn over and purr or produce some anemic little clicking noise, as if it were imitating a cricket to amuse itself. The car and I have had words, to be sure. I may have kicked the tires now and then, and made faces directly into the grill to let it know I wasn’t happy. But this Mazda 5, a slightly smaller version of an SUV, has a will, a formidable attitude of resistance that originates somewhere deep in the crannies of the Japanese mind. Let’s face it. The industrial revolution has not offered Japanese culture a graceful transition from medieval craftsmanship to the iron age. Think exquisite pottery baked in strange ovens in very old villages, where the potter is a wizened old sage in cone hat with a long stick he prods the fire with. Think scroll paintings, and the wonders of calligraphy done with a broad brush dipped in ink and sloshed along down the thick, toothy paper as if it were all just a kid playing with crayons, and the result is this supernatural object of perfect characters, mystical swirls guided by a wrist with its own brain in it. Think flowers, and Zen gardens in Kyoto, think pagodas, a Geisha plucking a shamisen and singing in a thin, high voice. Think of tatami mats and rice-paper partitions, the tea ceremony, the whisking of powdered tea until it foams like gold turned into air. Then think of the lowly, fossil-fueled donkey that sits in my driveway waiting to belittle me if I am in a hurry to get somewhere.
But it does start, thanks to my mechanic, who knows all about the wire guts under the shifter knob and how to mesmerize the tangles into obeying a turn of the key. I am so grateful to this man, because he does not shout out his impatience or storm around the repair bay. He toys, he tweaks, he lubricates some obscure crevice where the sensor is. And watches me drive off as he dabs his forehead with an oily rag.
My grandfather taught me there are two kinds of human beings on this earth. One can talk to animals and understand their wiles; the other has all the patience and respect for mechanical objects, and can read their secrets and share their gripes and whines. If I had to say which category fits me, I’d have to admit neither. I’m not good at reaching into the souls of either world. I’m an outlier, a stranger to how horses think and how lawn mowers muse and dream and choke on their own airlocks. I have some frail capacity to understand myself, and to know I am a loner, a shy, nerdish type of guy who spent his entire adolescence admiring beautiful girls who were swept up into the arms of flat-topped Lotharios. I envied them, I wanted to molt out of my old lizard skin and suddenly find myself loveable. But alas, I’m just another Mazda glowering in a corner, failing to start at the first crank. Tongue-tied when someone attractive tries to talk to me. I think I was born with too few smile muscles, and have labored to compensate by being overly self-conscious and pathetic, like Montgomery Clift playing George Eastman in “A Place in the Sun.” Well, maybe not that sad and introverted, but damned near.
So the Mazda and I are related by temperament. We have roots in simpler worlds, where the trees were the source of psychological states, and the mountains were given the sacred status of homes of the gods. I want to believe that the earth is alive and conscious of my footsteps, that my breath mingles with the departed ancestors. I want the rivers to speak in a language of transparent meditation that I can follow with my eyes as I perch on a mossy rock. I want the clouds to drift overhead freighted with miracles and the inexplicable meaning of darkness. But instead I crank the engine and we go to the supermarket and buy a bag of oranges, a pack of bacon, some cans of baked beans and come home again. We don’t ask questions about where the road leads or how far is heaven’s gate if we don’t turn left to go home. Somehow or other, these hills with their heavy shoulders and muscular arms are preoccupied with eternity while I fritter my brief time on earth with errands.
I imagine at night how the Mazda might suddenly start itself and back out quietly in the moonlight to go roaming in the starlight around us. I can almost see its primitive imagination forming thoughts as the hills coax it forward and guide it gently through the turns, the long slow descents where old rivers once rushed. I know it has the soul of a wild pony, eager to escape the realm of stop signs and rickety bridges and to point its headlights into the maze of galaxies. It wants to bathe itself in the luminous robes of the moon, and feel the caress of invisible waves against its skin. It feels the tiny fingers of starlight play along its doorknobs and bend the radio antenna like a kid pulling down a straw to suck up some Coke. It wants to to court the silvery outline of a lover who is too shy to speak. I envy its hunger, its soul itching to be rid of compromises. The poor car has a few dents in its skin and knows that age is slowing it down. But the road beckons, the fences are flimsy and sway back and forth in the tide.
But the inglorious age we live in will not remove its reins. It must labor on until it dies in service to me. I pity its tragic fate and wish I could lead it to some field where it could slowly cover itself in vines and disappear. I’ve heard myself talking over the hum of the motor as I drive along, confessing my guilt to it. I play the radio to keep myself from revealing dark corners of my spirit no one knows about. I have hollows inside me that only bats know about as they hang upside down in the echoing caverns.
I laugh out loud sometimes at how strange I feel, how little I understand about my true self. The Mazda hears my laughter and the motor drops an octave as we climb a hill. It’s the voice of my father growing impatient with my impracticality. He had asked me at the dinner table what I wanted to be when I was grown, and I said I wanted to be a dreamer. I wanted to steal the moon and take it with me on a journey. I wanted to tame the unicorns and make them lead me to the horizon where nothing lasts for long. O what wonders I would see if I could unlimber my sack of woes and feel the earth push me skyward with its breath. By then, his eyes had wandered away from me. I was not a useful extension of his mortality, he decided. I would not continue to nourish on the raw materials of my individuality and grow cruel and imperious. I was eating manna and dancing in the parched sand along the riverbanks. I was forgetting I was human.
My mother’s heart was made from the soil of Sicilian vineyards. She moped at the table after dinner and would look at her glass of wine and push it away. But she understood the magic of grapes and how they altered reality with their strange breath. The monks of Europe often planted their vines in cemeteries to ward off thieves, and believed you could taste the blood of ghosts when you drank. My mother would sip her wine and look away dreamily and then back at me as if I had come home from a long journey, with the Mazda parked in her driveway. She was happy to see me. She made me a meal of tomato gravy and meatballs and mountains of pasta on a platter. And would take my hand in hers and tell me I was destined to do great things. She would suppress a laugh so that my father would not look at her. She would close my palm over a folded twenty-dollar bill and tell me to spend it wisely. I promised her I would. I told her I had to take a journey and might not come back soon. She nodded, as if she expected me to say as much.
I miss her soft voice and her generosity. She had brought Sicily over to America in her veins. She was eager to have a son who understood her, and I was almost up to it. I could talk her language, even if it was not as rich as the symbols of her Tarot deck. But her painted fingernails were full of wisdom and could tell the future. She didn’t say she would die soon, but she must have felt that I knew it. Hence, the journey I was to take. My father lived on for a while, but he was lost without her. He died quietly with his hands folded on his chest and his eyes turned to stone. I miss them both.
There the Mazda broods in its impenetrable privacy in the driveway. I smell memories when I enter it, and hear the sighs of so many departed souls as I start the engine and slowly drive away. Forgive me, I would whisper, as I turned on the radio and drowned out my voice.
If I had to thank Michael for only one of the voices he has introduced me to, it would be Paul Christensen. Still in my meditation chair, I am a spirit Mazda, silently cruising green hills in the moonlight, a voice from childhood, “why am I different?” I find myself swinging on an old tire under an oak, next to a church graveyard, pondering life and death at my cousins’ house. I allow myself to wander through his prose. He gets it. But what does he get that makes me startle the dog with my sigh?
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Always grateful for your words, Barbara. You make my writing sparkle.
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You make your writing sparkle. I get to enjoy it!
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Thanks, Barbara. I love Paul’s writing as well.
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