In the early winter of 2012, I stood in front of my condo building and stared at my parked car. Someone had scrawled on my driver’s side window in burgundy gunk. Vandalism? I lived in Aurora, Colorado, which has a crime problem, but the area felt safe. A neighbor was a meth addict, but the worst problem he caused was lounging outside his front door and mumbling while I walked to my mailbox.
A note was stuck between the bottom of the car window and the door. The text was typed in big, official, capital letters.
A cop had discovered my car’s expired plates.
They gave me a warning, but next time they’d tow the vehicle. I looked around the parking lot and most of the spaces were empty – an almost mythological luxury in the Denver area. Was this really the best use of Aurora’s police force? Maybe, if their goal was growing a source of revenue from fines.
I scratched the gunk off my windshield, which I still couldn’t fully read, but it might have said the date and the word “violation” and “tow.” Or maybe it read, “I dig a man with a sexy Nissan Altima. Call me at…” but, darn it, I couldn’t make out the number. Driving to work, I considered my options.
My plates had been expired for a few months, but this was the first time I’d lived at a place where cops checked the parking lot. They were expired because I hadn’t passed the state-required emissions testing. I hadn’t passed the testing because my catalytic converter was busted. I hadn’t replaced the converter because I couldn’t afford it.
I parked at a strip mall on Chambers and E Smoky Hill, where I’d work that day’s shift. For over a year, I’d been a sign spinner for a company that bought gold and silver.
I dressed in a smock that looked like a giant $100 bill, stood on the street corner in front of the store, and twirled a big yellow sign that said “We Buy Gold.”
This morning a fellow sign-spinner happened to be there, which was rare.
“What up, Ken?” I said.
“Hey, Nate, how’s it going?”
“Well…” I told him about my car.
“Oh, I know a guy who can fix that for you,” Ken said.
“He can soak your catalytic converter overnight and it’ll pass inspection. I can get you his number. In the meantime, do you have any 24/7 supermarkets near you?”
“Yeah, there’s a big King Soopers on Mississippi,” I said.
“Park there overnight. They’ll just think you’re an employee!”
Ha! Perfect. Except Ken left before I got the mechanic’s number.
After my shift, I drove to the King Soopers and scoped it out, feeling as if everyone nearby was watching and knew exactly what I was up to and prepping to call the police.
Where to park? On the edges? The car would be out of the way, but might look more conspicuous because no others would surround it. But I didn’t want to park too close, either. I settled for a spot where I figured the other employees parked.
There was another problem. Months earlier, my key fob had stopped working. My driver door’s lock also didn’t work from the outside. Whenever I jiggled my key in the lock, it was like trying to drag a spoon through frozen ice cream. Nothing clicked.
Before getting out, I locked every door except the rear driver’s side – I’d use it to get back in the next morning.
If, that is, my car was still there.
I got out, pulled on my backpack, and craned my head upward. It was early winter and hours ago the sun had crept behind the Rocky Mountains. In the dark and in between other cars, mine seemed to blend in. But would it look so innocuous in the morning? Or even later tonight?
What choice did I have?
I started walking and as the King Soopers faded behind me, the street lamps’ yellow glare reflected against the dusting of snow on the sidewalk, the flakes evoking shimmering coconut shavings.
Back home, I did my Daoist standing meditation practice. A couple of years earlier, after what felt like a lifetime of misery, this form of meditation helped wash away my negative thinking and self-sabotage. I wrote about that story here.
That evening, I had to chuckle – I worked as a sign-spinner, which meant I was standing all day. Then I walked a mile home and would walk the same mile back to my car the next morning. And here I was, adding more standing to my day. Yet, it helped me.
In the morning, I got up 20 minutes early for the extra commute. After packing my lunch and doing a quick morning meditation, I marched out the door and headed west, cresting the big, long hills to King Soopers.
As I walked up the final hill, the top of the supermarket appeared like a distant ship coming to port.
Would I see my car?
If it were gone, what would I do? I wouldn’t even know if it had been towed or someone had stolen it. There sure as heck wouldn’t be a note. Not even a scrawl.
I got closer. The parking lot appeared. So did a cluster of cars. And… was that it? My Nissan?
Yes! It sat, waiting for me, seemingly amused that I was so worried.
As I approached, I fished my nonworking key fob out of my pocket and gestured as if clicking. Then I opened the rear driver’s side door, tossed my backpack onto the seat, casually snaked my arm around to the inside of my driver’s side door, and unlocked it. Then I got in.
Hey, all this might help keep up appearances in case anyone was watching me and plotting to steal my 1999 Nissan Altima.
After every work shift that winter, I parked my car at the King Soopers and walked a mile home.
Then I walked a mile back and drove to work, where I stood outside all day. For some reason, cops never inspected the cars in the King Soopers parking lot. Good thing because a month passed before I bumped into Ken again and asked for the mechanic’s contact info. When I finally got the number, the man soaked my converter and I passed inspection. I returned to my condo complex’s parking lot with beautiful new stickers on my plate.
What does any of this have to do with meditation?
How you deal with life – how you move through it – can be a meditation. Author Dan Millman wrote, “There are no ordinary moments.” Every little moment can have the value of meditation if you bring that value to the moment.
There are no ordinary moments. There are no ordinary lives, either. There’s no ordinary striving, failing, and striving again. It’s as sacred as you want it to be.
Your challenges and your responses to them are as sacred as you want them to be.
I could have grumbled and cursed my circumstances with every footfall on my way to and from my car. Mostly, I smiled. I breathed deeper. I relished every step. I turned my commute into a meditation by giving it meaning, by affirming that it deserved meaning.
“I’m making it happen,” I said to myself more than once. I had dreams to be more than a sign-spinner and while I saw that time in my life as a challenge, I also saw it as an experience to savor. Some people pay good money to vacation where they can enjoy a challenging hike in the crisp air. I made those hills of Mississippi Ave my daily hike.
By giving my challenges meaning, I grew from them.
Challenges don’t guarantee you’ll grow. You need to let them remold you – burn away your bad habits while letting your good ones, your daily disciplines, filter through the fire.
I didn’t give up my standing meditation practice, either, even if it seemed sensible to pause. To grow the most from my challenges, I needed to face them the right way. I couldn’t avoid them or give in to self-pity. And I couldn’t let my good habits slide. “Taking a break” by bingeing on some TV shows or getting lost in a social media feed wouldn’t actually give me a break, let alone make me stronger. But pushing myself to maintain my daily disciplines – like a meditation practice – gave me true rest and left me stronger.
It’s like when you get sore from hard exercise. Active recovery sometimes helps more than remaining immobilized. It’s the same with your spiritual development. When you maintain good habits, especially when challenges test your commitment, you bounce back faster and leap further.
One more insight, this one about sin – specifically, mine.
Yes, I took advantage of a parking lot and, yes, I weaseled around an emissions test. But the car has long since journeyed to Automobile Heaven. Just because you make mistakes doesn’t bar you from a spiritual path. Just the opposite – walking your spiritual path will help you avoid doing wrong and, perhaps, help others do the same.