By Matt Gordon
Each year, I get to stand in front of a gathering of people and share some gratitude. I’ve spoken about my wife, my kids, and my job. I’ve covered gratitude from a high-level, discussing life and breath; and I’ve gotten into the weeds and woods, talking food and turkey. This year? Well, the answer was easy, inspiring, and monumental.
This year, I’m thankful to be a van owner.
That’s right. A handful of weeks ago, I joined the sacred tribe. I now have room for dozens of little people in my daycare-on-wheels.
When we purchased our van my wife said, “If it holds up maybe MJ can take it to college?”
“Maybe MJ can live in it in college?” I replied.
Our van is far nicer than my first dorm room. If he were to nab a roommate or two, we might create a bit of passive income. Cover some book costs at the very least.
One perk of our van is its built-in DVD/Blu-Ray player.
This little benefit took me back to the van I had growing up. It had a VCR built-in. The large black box was strategically located facing upwards next to one of the captain chairs. I never quite figured out what those seats were the “captain” of, but perhaps it was spilling Dr Pepper down the VCR player? Because it occurred on every road trip that van ever went on. That VCR, bless it, guzzled far more Dr Pepper than any of us kids. There were some trips on which we didn’t even have Dr Pepper, and yet, somehow, Dr Pepper was still spilled. It was a real water-into-wine situation. Death, taxes, and Dr Pepper. There will be Pepper.
The only thing the VCR consumed more of than Dr Pepper was candy. Mostly Sweet Tarts. But really any candy would do—licorice, jaw breakers, Sprees. We’d hit a speed bump and a notorious rattle rang forth. It was like a miniature Mr. Bulky’s.
Our van had a bed in the back. More room for activities. Yep, pull a janky lever, and the seat folded roughly back into a tiny flat surface. For those with this type of van in their college or band days, I’m sure this bed was used for all manner of debauchery. For us kids, it was a flat surface for unhindered explorations by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Barbie and her minions.
I never counted—no one did—but the van had approximately 700 interior lights. The driver could pick among all sorts of settings. No matter which was chosen, only about a third of the lights ever worked. This was a tender grace. Had all the lights worked, protective lotions and specialty eyewear would have been needed. In terms of brightness, it would have been like riding inside the sun.
Our van lacked an armrest from the time Travis and Justin Darnell tried to kill one another on the way to vacation. By the time my father found a place to pull over, the boys had settled things. But there was no such mending for the armrest. We threw it out and drove on.
I’m not sure if our van had seatbelts. Nowadays, we strap our children in like they are off to Mars. A child moves out of his car seat about the same time as he moves off his parents’ insurance. At 26, he can now ride in the front seat. Back then it was the wild west. We’d often start in one seat, and, upon the van’s arrival, find ourselves having been jostled into an altogether different one. We were like popcorn kernels under heat.
I could go on. That van moved me so many places, and in so many ways. I hope our new van does the same for my own family. Which brings me to a realization.
That van was a container of memories.
A sacred vessel off to yet-discovered lands. Faraway Florida. Majestic Michigan.
It was never just a van—a motor vehicle. No more than a body is a bag of flesh and bones or a home is just four walls and a roof. Of course, those things are true. But there is a truth deeper still.
Our van is a wonder. And a transport to bold future wonders. A promise of them. And, in itself, a realization of them too.
What is your van? What are your wonders?
A curious thing happened, as I pondered those questions and inspected our new van. I pushed a button here and a button there, and new seats popped out of nowhere. Wonder is sort of like that. Behold, it springs up! Once we start looking around for wonder, we find it in unsuspected places; we find there is enough space for more to hop in and come along.
The best part of our van, then and now?
Well, there is a place for those we love most. For parents, for siblings, for kids, for pets—to pile in and go; to pile in and be . . .
As my present reality projects into my future and jettisons my mind toward the past, I recall driving my childhood van for the first time. I was four, when my name was called. It had always been my older sisters’ names before. My mother would stop atop our gravel lane to fetch the mail. Then she would call Johanna or Kerrie to her lap, and allow the moppet to steer down the big slope, through the little valley, and up, up, up again; up slope, around bend, and safely home.
It had been stormy that day, and I arrived at hill’s top alone with my mother, who dashed off to grab the mail. The clouds parted, the sun wedged itself forth, and the day turned—wet rainbows and sticky warmth. And then a smile; then a grace. My mother returned, smiled, looked my way, and graced: “Wanna drive?”
I finished jamming Sweet Tarts in the VCR with a start, and scampered squirrel-like to the waiting lap of my nurturer.
I drove. One-half terror, one-half exhilaration, I drove. Down the slope, with speed increasing, the van contained my grin, just barely.
Wanting to share this delicious moment with the one who gave it, I looked in the rear-view mirror. Instead of eye contact, I saw my mother’s glance facing downward, sorting the mail. I’m sure this was standard practice for her over the years—her feet knew the rhythm of that drive by rote, and my sisters had never had a problem managing the short commute. But I was not them. I panicked and held on for dear life—forever a formula that brings about death.
We lurched into the ditch at the bottom of the hill.
It was muddy, and with each accelerator thrust, the reluctant tires sank deeper. Muck and mire.
Some church people dragged our van out later that night, but that is not the image that stays with me. No, the image that remains is that of my mother and me, heading up slippery slope home. Together. Hand-in-hand.
When I consider the vans of my life, I’d be remiss not to think on the ditches too. The last year or two has had plenty of those for most of us. Pandemic, politics, division, cynicism, pain, diagnoses, anxiety. Loss. The gathering mud beckons and beseeches, bewildering and baffling.
Yet hand-in-hand we can walk on together. Home.
We load up and take off. Piled in and gallivanting away, from blessing to blessing. The blessing of work, of weekend, of holiday, of Tuesday, of health, of check-up, of school, of work, of game, of somewhere and nowhere, of life. And then home once more. A place to just be. To just be together. To be filled with breath and hope. And to recognize.
Speaking of recognizing sets past and present to colliding once more. My four-year-old and my mother sat in the car the other day. “Want to play a game your dad and I used to play when he was your age?” my mother implored my bright-eyed boy. “He’d pick something out and we’d count it along the way. Black trucks or white cars or signs. Want to play?”
I smiled that old grin once more as I drove along in my van. What a fitting question for gratitude. So do you? Do you want to play? Do you want to count some things along the way?
Whether you are off on an adventure or navigating a recent ditch, I hope you take some time to count some good things along the road of your life. I hope you’ll share it too, for the world needs and is made by the telling of the good things.
Our new van has a little camera. It captures those in the vehicle, and allows me to see them from my vantage in the driver’s seat. I drive on, looking at the faces aglow on the screen before me, my world entire. I smile and drive, knowing not what lies ahead, but trusting in the potential goodness of it based on all that sits behind me.