Susan Canavarro is an artist living in Florence, Oregon. Her memoir, “Fragments: Growing Up Bohemian Poor in Dementia’s House”, is available in e-book and paperback. This is her first Guest Writer appearance on our blog.

I write memoir fragments. Following a few of Robert and Jack’s writing techniques, I am working on getting rid of the passive voice, replacing weak verbs with strong, using concrete nouns, shucking armored prose, and looking for metaphor.

Eliminating the passive voice requires taking ownership of my thoughts and feelings and imagery. My ah-ha moment: taking ownership is scary. Taking ownership means I must stop being the victim. Taking ownership leads me to truths about myself like: I’m afraid to express myself with certainty because I am afraid of being wrong or stupid. So I hedge all writing, all painting, all thoughts using my passive voice. The passive voice is a great tool if you want to create a character like me in your novel. But I want to be strong, so out it goes!

Shucking armored prose is also about taking ownership. Don’t fill up the page with abstract nouns and weak verbs like, my favorite, I’ve been thinking, or I would have thought…and for god’s sake, stop with all those adverbs! I can’t always avoid armored prose, but I’m learning not to love it.

In writing The Auto/Body Connection I explored the idea of metaphor. In this piece, I wanted to find the metaphor that would infuse my writing with personal meaning. It’s not just a story about an old car. It’s the relationship that is the story.

Find Susan’s book online here:
 Fragments: Growing Up Bohemian Poor in Dementia’s House

The Auto/Body Connection
© 2012 Susan Canavarro. All Rights Reserved.

I turn 65, when life is supposed to be less stressful and free of complications, and my Honda receives a death prognosis in September, 2011.

A mechanic takes a cursory look at my leaky engine. I ask him, Well, is it going to live? He leans on the counter, looks at me with solemn eyes. He says, You’ve got three major problems: a steering fluid leak, a transmission leak, and one or two bad UV joints that need fixing.

I hang my head and sigh with the recognition that I’ve lost the battle. He says, If I were you, I’d just let it die a natural death. And I know he is implying the repairs are going to be very expensive. He knows I don’t have money to throw away on dying cars. I leave, assuming his death knell for my Honda is one of kindness and consideration for my financial situation.

But what he didn’t understand was that the cost of a newer car was beyond my means. I would not be able to afford a newer used automobile nor a new insurance policy. And I didn’t want to be stuck with an older machine which may have unknown problems to be discovered one by one. At least with my car, I know certain things: I know it has never been in a major accident. I know there are no hidden structural or mechanical problems. I know that every ailment that blooms is due to my neglect. I know what to expect with my old Honda—old cars leak.

But more important than the actual cost of a newer car, there was a personal hidden cost: losing my car meant losing my freedom and independence, and more than that, it meant losing my sense of security and safety. I love road trips, discovering new roads less traveled in the country, finding small towns along the way, exploring new beach scenes, knowing I can go anywhere, be anywhere and feel safe and secure enveloped in the comfort and warmth of my own car. I felt secure in knowing that if I had nothing else in life—no money, no place to live—I’d at least have my Honda to sleep in.

I knew I couldn’t let my car die without a second opinion. I took it to another repair shop. The mechanic looked at it, said it had a bad steering fluid leak and one bad UV joint. He estimated it would cost $638.00. Only $638 dollars? Wow, maybe this is doable! I was elated. From my saved pet-sitting earnings I could plunk down at least $500 in cash. And he agreed to carry the last bit with installment payments, so I said, Let’s do it!

However, fixing the car wasn’t a snap. The engine compartment, frozen and filthy, was full of old brown pine needles and maple leaves and dirt from having to park outside through heat and cold and wind and snow…and of course, from my neglect of the poor thing.

First, his crew worked hours just to get the parts off.  Second, since they don’t make parts for ‘86 Hondas anymore, they needed to purchase used parts. Used parts are a hit and miss game, not always in perfect condition. He bought used parts three times, he paid his crew for the work three times, and he never increased his original estimate. I knew he was losing money on my job, but he comforted me by telling me that he would fix the car…that was his job…he would work on it until it was fixed. Impressed by his integrity and compassion, I want everyone to know his name: Paul Potter – he owns and operates Potter’s Tires and Automotive on Hwy. 101 in Florence, Oregon. There isn’t a Honda dealer in the world that would do what he did for me.

After all repairs were done, I waited once again to hear that death knell—that he never wanted to see me again or work on my old car again. I imagined him saying, don’t bring it back. Not fixable. He never said those words. I asked him if he would help me keep it running for a few more years. That’s when he said a well maintained Honda should get 250 thousand miles. Uplifting words for me. With the odometer reading at 191 thousand miles, and because I drive it only about 4 or 5 thousand miles per year, my car might drive me 8 to 10 years into the future. He gave me suggestions for maintenance and I promised to bring my car in for frequent tune-ups. The least I can do is bring my future business to his shop for basic preventive care medicine. Perhaps if he catches problems early, it will cost less to fix them.

My Honda is old and neglected. Parts are rusting and rotting and falling off or frozen in place. Green moss grows on metal behind each wheel. It looks pretty; I leave it there. Other people pick it off. Door locks no longer work. An unseen force grips the key and won’t let me turn it one way or another; my arthritis grips my fingers in a strangle hold and I can’t budge them either. The window-washer fluid hose snapped apart like someone had cut it with shears. Chronic fatigue. The black vinyl material covering the exterior metal parts is shedding dead skin like the peelings of my sun burnt knee-caps in 1984 Hawaii. The dried-up rubber seals in the doors are breaking apart, falling to the ground. With seals no longer tight, cold air and water seep in. The once-nice bumpers broke out in huge fade spots a few years back that look like the areas of skin which have lost all pigmentation due to discoid Lupus. The car’s skin, with a bad case of acne, has pits and scars and bumps of tree sap and bird crap and a few big ugly dents. Its dark blue color is now a faded navy-blue, the color drained the way my mother’s eye-color drained to gray when she grew older.

Old cars develop leaks over time like our bodies begin to leak from places we never thought we’d leak: mouth, eyes, ears, nose, and those ahhummmm unmentionables.  Neglect. There are products, such as duct tape for repairing the leaks; there are medications and exercises. Use it or lose they say about our bodies and minds. Well it’s true of cars too. Keep it lubed, drive it or lose it. So I’m driving my car everyday at least ten miles, up hills and down, whether I want to go out or not. Get it warmed up. Lube those joints, Susan. Wish I had the will to do the same with my body.

I bought a warming-wrap used by hikers and I lay it over the car’s engine under the hood at night hoping it will keep the engine warm and dry. The parts salesman thought I was nuts. The heat will just escape under the engine he said, but I thought it worth a try. And besides, what else is new?  I am a little bit nuts. And if it works, I’m a millionaire! I also spread newspapers on the windshield to keep the ice from blanketing the glass in a cold snap—nothing worse than scraping ice off with frozen hands on a chilled winter morning.  One morning I discovered all movable parts on my car frozen solid. I couldn’t open the doors without the hair dryer, wipers were stuck, ice hard and solid on my windshield. So now every winter I spray the locks, door edges and wiper-joints with a de-icer which prevents freezing of parts. I swallow Advil at night so my body won’t freeze up before the morning light arrives; Bengay on sore moving joints and parts; Orajel max-strength on the deep hole vacated by a decayed and loose filling: de-icers for my body.

I’m thinking of using duct tape to cover the exposed metal parts. Black duct tape would look just like the original black covering and it would protect the metal from rust—if the water and the freeze and thaw temperatures don’t cause the tape to crack and flake off. I duct taped the windshield-wiper water-hose together, but it didn’t hold for even one day. I used a bright red duct tape. Many colors of duct tape will soon be decorating my car in my attempt to hold it together. There is a candy-stripe red and white, a purple, hot pink, red, green, yellow, white and black and the standard silver tone. The car, my new canvas. This reminds me of a painting I did in grad school on which I wrapped duct tape around the entire canvas. It developed into one of those paintings with multiple meanings and associations. In my mind it started out as an expression of pain but it wound up as an expression of healing. Holding my car together with colorful duct tape…hmmmmm.

What’s happening with my auto is happening to my body: aging, breaking, freezing, and leaking. When you grow up with a car, so to speak, you and it become old together, all the aches and pains of the car and body are living in parallel aging worlds, but it’s as if the rust and destruction and frozen joints of one are transmitted to the other: the minute you start the car, you are jump-starting the transmutation of the rust and goo of this hunk of metal and iron into your own old muscles and organs.

The alchemy transforms it to calcium deposits, cholesterol, high blood sugar, aching back, muscle loss, waning hormones, frozen aching joints and sore muscles. Bloat. It takes a while every morning to rev up my body, to oil its engine. Grasping the walls and furniture for support, I hobble and shuffle to the computer and I don’t walk normal until I’ve swallowed a few Advil. It takes a good ten minutes to start up my car. As I pull out of the parking lot, the car spitting and coughing chugs its way to the coffee shop. Sometimes it flat-out refuses to go.

Some parts of the aging process of our bodies and our autos are due to normal atrophy that would occur no matter what we do. On the other hand, we could make them last longer with better care. Due to my neglect of the health of my body, things have fallen into disrepair or dis-ease, as my father would say, at a faster rate than they should have. These days I am holding my body together with artificial means in an attempt to keep it functioning. I call it the duct tape of adaptation, self-healing and medicine.

Somehow the old faded blue Honda has become very important to my own physical and emotional survival and to my understanding of what my life has become. It’s not just about independence and transportation anymore. We need each other. It’s a strange symbiosis. I must keep my old car going. To do that, I must take better care of my now fragile body and mind…to keep on going, to keep on being.

Find Susan’s book online here:
 Fragments: Growing Up Bohemian Poor in Dementia’s House