A story about our lights, for dark times
For Asa with a good flame.
Waiting for a train on a wood plank platform high above Sedgwick Street, another train passes going the opposite way. At the back of very last car, standing outside of the closed caboose door, is a man. He doesn’t look authorized to be there. In fact, he looks a little giddy at being out-of-bounds, and it’s with this sneak-induced delight that he waves at the throng of us waiting on the opposite side. He waves with something that looks like hope that someone will recognize the forbidden awesomeness of the position he has put himself in: with his own tiny balcony and a perfect view of the sunset and silver rails spilling out behind him.
So in a moment of self-congratulatory generosity that costs me nothing but still feels a little like a “risk,” I wave back. And a smile breaks out over his whole body… just for getting that one wave. And as his train disappears around the bend, he makes a heart shape over his heart with his hands, and then throws them out like rays of light radiating from his chest, and hollers “Thank you!” Now I’m smiling with my whole body too, and I blow him a kiss and we both keep waving until we can’t see each other anymore.
A gulf of distance makes joyful communion with a stranger feel safer. A lot of our digital landscape is built around this fact. But I think trains have something to do with it, too. For over 20 years I’ve taken trains across the U.S., from L.A. to Chicago, New York to Arizona, whenever I had time to go by ground instead of by air. I’ve done it maybe 50 times because it’s magic.
In all this time, I only made out with a train-stranger once. And to be fair, it was pretty Before Sunrise-esque, following three days of deep conversation and quiet shoulder-to-shoulder reverie spanning thousands of miles of multicolored canyons, snowy mountains, starry deserts, and endless morning prairies. But there have been many other strangers… maybe hundreds… with all sorts of political and religious, cultural and economic backgrounds, who I’ve shared the pleasure of deep, beautiful conversations with, and this is because people tell each other the truth on trains. Inside of a closed context with a clear beginning and end, where there is nowhere to go and nothing better to do, people come unguarded and share their real love, real pain, and real questions.
I’ll mention a few from the last day of a three-day trip from Chicago to San Francisco, starting with Ron. He felt familiar when I saw him smoking at a station break at some little town in Utah. Not familiar like I’d known him before, but like I’d know him later in the day. Sure enough, in a crowded viewing car that afternoon, Ron asked if he could sit at my snack table, and I said yes because yes is easy in liminal terrain. He was an older man taking the train alone to his dad’s funeral, and he showed me a photo album of his father’s amazing life, filled with newspaper clippings of notable moments. I learned that his dad was a physicist who was responsible for some beautiful things that I won’t mention here because I don’t want to identify him. Ron told me that his family asked him not to come to the funeral because he cries too loudly, and when I heard that, I reached across the table without thinking, and he took my hands, and wept. It wasn’t too loud at all.
Later in the day I met Patricia, sitting across the aisle from my seat. She was an environmental geologist and a “Land Man” for mining companies, which means she helps people find precious gems and minerals. She told me how to find gold, and I will tell you. “Gold” she said, “already exists everywhere on earth, but it isn’t a mineral that can grow here. That’s because it can only be created at temperatures that happen on the sun. So, all of the gold we have on earth was made on the sun, and the particles are very evenly distributed in every place (and in every person). Finding gold then, is a matter of seeking its consolidation. For consolidation,” she said, “you need three things: 1. a strong, stable container (like a mountainous rock structure), 2. a conducive material for its attachment (like lime stone or sand stone), and 3. an intrusion (like the entry of water or lava). Then,” she said, “it’s simply a matter of time to let the precious metal gather in enough quantity.”
At dinner, I met Carl and Rose, an MIT professor and his wife whose job I don’t remember. They were traveling for him to receive cancer treatment at City of Hope, and I was lucky enough to be able to tell him I’d had a surgery there myself that saved my life. He told me that his job is to teach learning, which he says is the very hardest thing to teach. “Ultimately,” he said, “I find that learning requires three things: 1. a strong stable container, or a learning environment where students feel safe to try things and take chances, 2. conducive material, or nourishing content offered by good minds before and around us, and 3. an intrusion, or a problem that needs solving. Then,” he said, “it is simply a matter of time before people’s innate, sparkling intelligence gathers to solve what needs to be solved.”
After Carl went to bed, Rose sat up with me, and quietly told me the story of a rainmaker who drew a circle around himself in his prayer for water. He swore not to step outside of that circle until the rain fell. She said she is standing inside of her own circle now.
The next day, I sat with Aseef, who leaned forward with his ringlet silver hair falling in his face and his elbows on his knees in the club car. “There are many different approaches,” he said touching each finger to its opposite, “but the simplest way to find peace with another person is to see them with your heart. Some believe that relating from your heart makes you ignorant or naive. But this is not so. We are all educated idiots. We’re taught to analyze, defend a point of view, and argue for what we want. But we can’t know anyone that way. It’s like with a dog. When people light up over seeing a dog, they’re meeting that dog with their heart.”
I told him I appreciated that, because I think he’s right that talking about listening with our hearts can sound naive, and I like that he speaks about it with seriousness. He paused for a moment and then leaned back and looked at me and said, “Listening with your heart isn’t a light thing. It is the deepest thing. It is listening to God. In our hearts, we all have something like a flame, which can get snuffed out if we don’t protect it and tend to it. But if we can keep it alive, it can grow to burn brightly enough to light our way to people who need us, and we can all warm each other’s lives.”
Walking through the empty dining car at the end of that trip, almost to San Francisco, the sun that made all the world’s gold was shining low and golden over the bay. Everyone had gone back to their seats to pack up, preparing to disembark. The stable container of the dining car, where so many of us came to sit and eat and listen to each other for hours, sharing some warmth, solving the problems of the world, was empty and silent. I walked the length of it, feeling every quiet footfall on the carpeted floor, and then sat down in a soft, empty booth to watch little dust particles floating around the cabin, sparkling in the low sun. The tied-back curtains swayed softly as the train rocked gently from side to side, and with every sway, my body filled up with gratitude like gold dust… like the honey-colored light… and I whispered: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
This was written with the prompt “Burn” for Write Club, which is part of a lively tradition of Live Lit and Storytelling shows that glittered up Chicago’s favorite gritty bars and theater stages over the last 15+ years, featuring local literati alongside emerging writers and your mom. These shows are joyful, welcoming, community-building events that understandably vanished during the pandemic, because squishing hundreds of strangers into rooms to share mics and laughs and sometimes potluck dinners was ill advised. Some of those shows are tiptoeing back into existence lately, with thoughtful precautions in place to protect the more vulnerable among us. My first time back on a stage since the pandemic was with Write Club last week, and it was a ridiculous joy. After the show, an eight-year-old boy I’d never met worked up the courage to come up and tell me that he loved this story, so here it is for him.