Gratitude, Impermanence, Judaism, Religion, Starting Over

Do Cars Have Souls? Cars and Karma, Revisited


Wrecked. Not my car, but it captures the feeling of my vehicular ordeal.

My family of origin has a habit of driving cars until the final death rattle, even patched together with duct tape. When, a few years ago, a brother asked me if I was still driving the same car, I found the question odd. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to get a different vehicle simply because I was tired of my Subaru Forester. It had the potential of lasting another 100,000 miles or so. To sell or trade it, even though I no longer needed a car that size, would have been unthinkable, even though the car wasn’t a storehouse of happy memories. I had banged it up a few times, once in a terrifying manner. Although I repaired and maintained it, I didn’t have much affection for the Subaru, nor did I have much love for America’s car-centric culture. Still, I believed that I was going to dutifully keep it until the bitter end.

Had I known how it was going to end, I probably would have parted with the car years ago.

As I wrote earlier, at the end of 2015 I brought my car to a garage half a dozen times for the diagnosis and repair of whatever was causing the check engine light to go on. The process dragged into 2016. After hours of waiting while the car was in the shop, hundreds of miles of driving to reset the sensors after each repair attempt, and more than a thousand dollars spent, my car finally passed the emissions test. I texted a photo of the inspection sticker to family members, announcing the end of what had been an exhausting ordeal. So I thought. Two days later, on a Sunday afternoon, I pulled out of the driveway. I drove a few hundred feet before my car stopped running.

I called AAA and had them tow it to a Subaru dealership; this time, I wanted the experts to check it. The car sat on the lot for several days, waiting for a break in the schedule. Eventually, a technician called me on a Friday.

“It needs a new engine,” said the Subaru employee.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, explode or implode. Had the check engine light been correct all along, blaring the elusive obvious that everyone missed while focusing on the emissions problem? I marveled at the strange timing of events. The engine could have failed at any moment in the preceding months or weeks, sparing me a costly and frustrating inspection process. Had my car sensed how I felt about it and decided to have the last word? Maybe it was just as fed up with or ambivalent about me as I was with it. Perhaps, more benignly, it possessed a Zen master’s neutral awareness and knew we needed to finally part company, no hard feelings, so we could each pursue different paths. Maybe it had served its purpose as an operational vehicle and needed to set its soul free. Still, I wished I had chosen to let it go when the car was still worth something, rather than letting the family script override my intuition and create weeks of hassles, expense and uncertainty.

“The good news is I found a used engine for you,” said the man at the Subaru service center. “It’s not a bad price.”

I braced myself. It was a number I couldn’t stomach or justify on the heels of recent repairs, including a set of new tires. Ouch. Maybe the time had come to transform my car karma. I could reconfigure my life so I wouldn’t need to own an automobile or learn to accept cars with gratitude rather than ‘harrumphitude’. As a first step, I decided to donate the car, its barely used Goodyears and all. I chose Chabad, a Jewish outreach organization, as recipient. Their barebones website employed quirky phrasing, eccentric punctuation and had a copyright of 2005, so I called to make sure the site was legitimate and, if that were the case, to see if they still accepted car donations.

“Yes, of course,” said a man in New York with a Russian Jewish accent as thick and round as a Rosh Hashanah challah. “We can pick up your car anywhere.”

I gave him the details over the phone.

“Very good, very good,” he said joyfully, as if facilitating car donations was as holy as studying Torah or fulfilling any of other myriad commandments, as if my defunct Subaru could still be a vehicle for the divine. “I send you e-mail and you send me VIN. OK?”

The next day, I drove my younger brother’s auto to the service center and retrieve my remaining belongings from the car. I signed over the title. I phoned Chabad and told them the paperwork was ready. Then I drove away. A few days later, I received an e-mail from them. In addition to the usual tax information, it said:

“In the merit of your generous deed, may the A-lmighty bestow his blessings upon you and all your dear ones, with the best of health, prosperity and aboundant [sic] success in all your endeavors.”

The benediction filled my depleted spiritual tank and sweetened what could have been a very bitter end.


About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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