Military Life

Coping with Change and Broken Down Cars

September 16, 2014

A few weeks ago, the car broke down. I was by myself at a gas station in the middle of a Saturday when I turned the key and nothing happened.

There was a line of idling cars behind me waiting to get gas. The drivers were getting angry, my groceries were perishing in the back seat, and I was becoming increasingly frantic.

The gas station attendant, who happened to be an angry Filipino woman that day, came storming out and demanded I push my car out of the way. The problem was, I told her, that I had not physically prepared to spontaneously enroll in the world’s strongest woman competition.

She did not find me funny.

I asked a friendly-looking older gentleman if he would mind jumping the car for me. I watched his thought process transpire across his face: first no, then maybe, then I assume he remembered he had a daughter as he let out a sigh and pulled jumper cables out of his truck.

After a minute of charging, the car started and I escaped the gas station like a bandit from a bank. Between Mike and me, we had about five more situations like this in the weeks that followed. We would cheer every time the car started; fist pumping and giving Molly high-fives that she didn’t reciprocate.

Apparently our car wasn’t starting because the starter was broken. One repair would fix our entire problem, but for some reason that one need opened the door to ten more needs and suddenly we started wondering if it was time to replace the whole car. Maybe it was time to upgrade to something fancy like a limousine or a PT Cruiser.

In my free time, I started assembling a list of hypothetical questions for a hypothetical car salesman:

“Car salesman! Is it possible to take selfies from this vehicle’s backup cam?”

“Car salesman! Is it possible to replace the invisible car phone (Bluetooth) with an actual car phone?”

“Car salesman! Does this vehicle have clap on lights?”

Mike did actual research. He looked at websites and talked to friends about what cars they would recommend. Each time we drove, both of us suggested every car we passed, which in downtown San Diego included a lot of Mini Coopers, BMW sedans, and Smart Cars that vacuum seal a regular human into a tiny vehicle.

Round and round we went, talking about all the reasons we didn’t need a new car while considering all the benefits of getting one. I began invisibly curating a public image of myself by trying on cars that mirrored positive personality traits: sporty. efficient. versatile.

Eventually I made a list of the most essential things I needed in a car: seatbelts, airbags, four doors, a trunk to carry a stroller, and a starter that starts.  And then I realized that the car I needed was the one I was driving. I didn’t have ten different needs; I had one. The starter needed to get fixed.

When I find myself in seasons of transition, the times I can sense the almost-but-not-yet arrival of change, I find it quite easy to channel my uncertainty towards obsolete and outlandish decisions.

For example, when I moved away from Colorado and began my first job in Yuma, AZ, I bought an expensive, vintage bicycle with the intention of riding it to work. I didn’t consider the 110+ degree temperatures compounded with a professional dress code. I biked to work twice.

Then as Mike was preparing for his combat deployment to Afghanistan, I spent hours researching food dehydrators and vacuum sealers because I intended to make nourishing provisions to send him in care packages. I bought one of each machine, read the instruction manuals, and then realized that professional beef jerky and dried fruit could actually be purchased at the grocery store.  The machines were promptly returned.

As we were preparing to leave Yuma, I channeled my restlessness into DIY projects. I reupholstered a used wingback chair and convinced Mike to build a homemade dining room table. The two projects yielded 100+ hours of work and a dozen arguments, plus a chair with a leg that falls off and a dining room table that sways side to side as I type these words.

Shortly after Molly was born, on my first solo trip out of the house, I went to Trader Joe’s and spent $100 on wine, chocolate, and varietal packs of hummus.  Mike helped me unpack the bags and asked in a low voice, “Are you okay?”

The list of such examples is long. To cope with change, I’ve purchased one way plane tickets, roundtrip plane tickets, and articles of clothing with distinct pleather paneling. I’ve cut bangs; adopted animals from the humane society; and left exhaustive customer service comments with Sears, American Airlines, and Time Warner cable.

Change is dangerous mostly because I seem to cope with it erratically. When I have control of next to nothing, I make decisions in small areas to compensate for the uncertainty in large areas.  Maybe that’s why I’m trying on cars I don’t need, picturing a vehicle that will take me to a destination that is still unknown.

When I married into the military, I assumed that after a while my faith would swell to a place where uncertainty wouldn’t faze me anymore, where I would experience complete tranquility in the face of complete unrest. I thought I would eventually arrive at a place of serene perspective and then stay there.

But over and over again, in each of these transitions I find that peace is not a territory you can stumble upon and then passively reside. Peace is a battleground that has to be secured over and over again.  I have to pick up my sword and fight against the tide of anxiety and apathy to arrive at the peace that is promised.

Saint Augustine famously and eloquently wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

In order to find peace I need Jesus. And even when circumstances change, even when the military orders or the baby or the new job arrives, the deep need for a Savior never resolves.  I just keep needing Him on different battlegrounds that all boil down to the same fight.

Maybe God created us with boomerang hearts that spin and spin until they finally find their way back to Him.

Maybe the spinning of these hearts is like the spinning of wheels on a vehicle that always takes us back to the same destination. It drives the prodigal home.

Maybe ten needs really boil down to one need, and one redemptive repair is all it takes to get this broken down heart running again.

Someday we really will need a new car, but today is not that day.

Today we needed to fix the starter and I trust that Jesus is fixing the rest.