Sometime in the early two thousands, my then husband and I converted our yellow, diesel VW bug to run on waste vegetable oil at the behest of our older son, Duncan, now 31 as I write this, and one of our two kids inheriting the planet. The warranty was up on the car, so there was no reason to deny such a behest. We hested forth, keen to do what we could to help the environment be, and hired a young mechanic specializing in these conversions to do the work. We didn’t completely get rid of fossil fuel; to make the car go, you still had to start the engine using diesel, so the original tank remained as it was. Once the engine heated to a certain temperature, the computer would switch the fuel source from the diesel tank to the new veggie oil reservoir that sat in the trunk area of the car. It worked. We loved it. It felt good to be helping the planet. The thing was that you didn’t go to a store and buy fresh, virgin olive oil. We could have I suppose, but part of the effort was to keep the perfectly good waste oil out of the garbage. We had approached a couple area restaurants about taking their waste oil, and they were happy to have us do so. Once we brought their oil home, we would put it through a process to clean the gunk out of it; any solid bits, or water. We had set up two, 55 gallon barrels in our garage. We would dump the waste oil into the first barrel through a filter. Then we would set in a wand-shaped barrel heater to heat up the oil and evaporate out any water. Once this process was done we would transfer the oil to the second barrel, sending it through second, smaller filter just to be sure. That was the oil we would pump into the car reservoir and use to make the car go, much to the amazement of our neighbours. It wasn’t a difficult procedure but it did take some time and attention.
I remember on one morning, opening the door to the garage, and noticing that the floor was of a darker colour, and shiny. I almost choked when I realized that one of the barrels had melted, and that the whole floor of the two-car garage was covered in a layer of waste vegetable oil. I closed the door, and had great difficulty forming words to alert my husband. I think I made a series of guttural horrifiers, sounds to indicate that something bad had happened with the behesting. Apparently, one of us had left the barrel heater plugged in. This wasn’t anything like being attacked in a war, or thrown in a jail, but it was a ‘thing.’ Most ‘things’ are just what you have to do every day; feed the dogs, take the kids to the dentist, or shave your legs without nicking a vein. I remember the challenge to facing this problem feeling harder, weighted in a, “that’s a lot of salad dressing,” kind of way, almost traumatic mainly because I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t prepared, but what could we do other than deal with it? I remember calming myself and thinking logically. Selling the house wasn’t an option. Soaking the oil up with rags seemed possible, but then I figured that getting a big bale of wood shavings from the feed store was the most sensible tact. We spread the shavings over the glinting floor, let them soak up the oil, then swept it up. After scrubbing the floor with an environmentally-friendly barn cleaner, things were back to normal, plus the garage had a nice wood-shaving-pine-cleaner scent. I remember odd energy around that incident. I don’t know why. Steel barrels from then on.
Most often, we would fill the car’s diesel tank at the local Co-op pumps and because it was a small town, it wasn’t unusual to find yourself filling up and chatting with someone familiar at the pump next to you. I remember having a wonderful conversation with someone on a beautiful snowy night. I think it was the next day, we were driving one of the kids to a nearby high school when the car started to stutter and buck. Black smoke was coming out of the tale pipe. It was winter so it was taking the engine a bit longer to heat up, thus more time spent drawing fuel from the diesel tank. Whatever it was, the car stopped–would run no more. We had it towed to our mechanic, leaving it there overnight as he was busy. We had no inkling of the trouble until in the dead of the night when I sat bolt-upright in bed. “I filled the tank with re-re-regular fuel!” I had been distracted by the conversation with the other man, and had chosen the wrong gas thingy. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I felt sick. We called our mechanic in the morning, me the sheepish idiot. He was able to clean out the fuel, and no harm was done to the engine, and offered comfort by telling us that they see this all the time. The thing was, and yes, this was another ‘thing,’ some time later, my husband made the same mistake, but he caught it before the tank was full and before the engine had to struggle with it. He had the car back in our garage, told me what had happened but then he had to go into the city for work. It was up to me to siphon the fuel out of the tank. I remember standing in the garage, and feeling sick from pulling on the siphon tube to get the bad fuel to run. I did not enjoy that. There are things, like fixing plumbing, or shingling a roof that take some doing, but there is a feeling of accomplishment, of doing a good job. Here, I’ll humor you by saying that I felt like ‘a sucker,’ but there was more of a deeper dissatisfaction, a loneliness of task–one that was really horrible. However, I did it. I wanted the car to run, and we didn’t want to spend the money having the car towed, plus–plus this was doable. We knew it would work.
It was one thing to tell people that I could fly a plane, change a tire, hum most of the Music Man, and make Yorkshire pudding. Siphoning fuel was something I would try pawn off on the next guy. Cleaning up the oil from the garage floor was close. I suppose the thing is that I learned some new details about myself. I pushed my psyche a little further and we found new boundaries, new perspectives on our abilities. Getting around to realizing the gift from those experiences took a while, and then also poor me, right? Poor, poor me.
Witness: On the day I began this essay, August 23, 2023 I took a break to go to the gym early in the afternoon. I had been thinking about certain past relationships, so was…annoyed. I did some stretching but got to the weights quickly so I could vent some of my…annoyance. I had a loaded weight sled and was pushing it along the astro-turf towards the front entryway. I stopped to catch my breath and noticed an older woman with a walker struggling to navigate her way in through the outer door. I ran to help and held the inner door open for her and her husband who was supporting her from behind. We began talking, and she commented that her day was not going well. As I watched her move into the gym I asked if she had had a hip replacement. There was a pause while both the lady and her husband looked at me. “Brain tumour” was the response.
Poor me and my gas siphoning. I went from being angry at my own situation, to weeping over the challenge facing the woman and her husband. I wept the sled back along the turf to the other end. I know this sounds flakey as hell, but it was as if the universe sent the woman in an effort to get me to pull my head out of my ass. I was fully aware of the contrast in narratives. I was grateful. I was grateful to have experienced the events around that car; I had only recently thought of it. I was grateful that so much time had passed, during which I had learned so much, but yes, I falter–I was angry…er, annoyed, and feeling sorry for myself. This woman stutter-steps into the gym and I wake-the-hell up. I observe myself, I witness my shift and am grateful to have had the skills to do that.
We are all different. This makes our lives interesting, lives that as individuals we are charged with doing our best to figure out and to find ways to appreciate no matter the suffering. This is no secret, in fact we can go back to the stoic mindset of “Amor Fati,” a Latin term meaning “love of fate,” or “love of one’s fate.” I like to think that each of us represents a slightly different recipe of human and when we are brave enough to risk exploring our deeper selves, our effort contributes to an overall energetic foundation that powers the cosmos; we serve by delving deep. We fuel by finding. You could say that we serve by suffering and then exploring that suffering. We are better off considering whatever hardship as an opportunity instead of a finite punishment. This is difficult in the moment, and at some points can prove to be too much of an ask for some. The sweet spot is to make friends with the paradigm in the light of Amor Fati, there as you find yourself deep in the trenches. Yes, you might be more aware of your mortality than you would like, but even that is part of it all, at someone, or something’s behest.