Train Shadow


But first, a note:

I have not been blogging lately in an effort to really reevaluate what should be publicly written about and what shouldn’t. I truly believe in writing and, to a distinct but equivalent extent, comedy as incredible tools for change. At this point in my life, I’ve surrendered myself to writing. When I was three years old, I wanted to be a writer; when I was ten, I wanted to be writer; ditto sixteen, eighteen, twenty-two, and so on and so forth. My whole heart belongs to writing, for better or worse. 

The “worse” is that I am still (and always will be) learning. Writing — like raising a child or running a political campaign — is something that must be practiced, and I have experienced significant growing pains. Back in December, I promised myself I’d write a personal essay every weekday on this blog, indefinitely. For the past two months, I’ve been feeling really sad. Honestly, writing a personal essay every morning has felt like grabbing a pair of pliers, opening my mouth, and methodically pulling out my own teeth.

But I thought that I had better do it anyway because hey — I made a damn commitment. Grasping for subject matter, I made some cheap jokes at other peoples’ expenses. Not only was that inappropriate, it was dishonest. Other comedians might excel at making fun of other people, but on me mean humor looks like an ill-fitting dress: even people who don’t know me can tell I’m uncomfortable. Hurt can’t always be undone, and for whatever extent I’ve caused that kind of damage, I’m sorry. But people have to be able to make mistakes in order to learn anything. I fundamentally believe that.

There are a lot of things I want to write about. I’ve been in Portland for two weeks, and Portland (where I was born and raised) consistently teaches me profound lessons and deepens plenty of my deepest-held understandings (or, at least, it teaches me profound lessons about plaid shirts and appropriate mustache etiquette). I am also itching to revisit my commitment to creative nonfiction, storytelling, and personal essays — distinctly not traditional journalism — in the form of (surprise!) a personal essay. But today, I have to write about being on the train. There is nothing else I could possibly write about. You will have to accept this, reader, and trust that I will get to all that needs to be said eventually.

While I was turning all this over in my head, mulling over what to post publicly on the Internet, and woefully negotiating the possibility of moving into a hole in the earth where I may never write or speak or interact with humans ever again, my sister sent me this quote, which I think applies here:

“Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don’t judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. Charity is accepting someone’s differences, weaknesses, and shortcomings; having patience with someone who has let us down; or resisting the impulse to become offended when someone doesn’t handle something the way we might have hoped. Charity is refusing to take advantage of another’s weakness and being willing to forgive someone who has hurt us. Charity is expecting the best of each other. None of us need one more person bashing or pointing out where we have failed or fallen short. Most of us are already well aware of the areas in which we are weak. What each of us does need is family, friends, employers, and brothers and sisters who support us, who have patience to teach us, who believe in use, and who believe we’re trying to do the best we can, in spite of our weaknesses.”

Now. The train. 

The morning light is stretching out in bands across the observation car, which has largely emptied out since last night. It’s 6 a.m. and we’re holding in Sacramento; the people on the train are mostly asleep. But this car contains the waking exceptions and general misfits: a bouncy, pigtailed six-year-old; a gorgeously rotund man in sunglasses and a Hawaiian print shirt eating a box of doughnut holes; and my favorite (not to play favorites, but): an angry programmer in a utility jacket wearing a long silver Star of David necklace, shouting every few minutes at his computer and no one in particular, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!”

I like how the sun works in the morning. It’s got a subtle, gentle quality about it. I think this has to do with shadows. The angle of the morning sun is not stingy with shadows.  They creep up behind trees like vast carpets or spilled paint. There is nothing unique in bringing this up. Everyone knows that lightness and darkness complement each other impeccably.

I’ve brought a book. Not a Kindle-type of book, or an iPad version of a book, or even a (lightweight, economical) magazine like I usually bring. I’ve brought an actual book. When I held it in my hands at Powell’s the other day, I realized how long it had been since I had carried around an actual book. Books take up too much space when you are traveling. You have to sacrifice them for comfort and convenience.

The book is Care of the Soul by archetypal psychologist Thomas Moore. Moore loves Jung. He loves mythology. Mostly, he loves “the soul,” which he is careful never to define or dogmatize — though the book is decidedly nonsecular. All of this makes me uncomfortable. I like hard science. If something can’t be explained via mathematical proof, then it must necessarily be fantasy. Never mind that fourth graders are objectively better at math than I am. When I say the word “proof,” I mean that I want someone in a lab coat and spectacles to tell me that “this is scientifically absolute. This fact gets my academic stamp of approval.” I couldn’t necessarily explain to you how this is any different than what other people call religion. It isn’t different. It’s the same. And still, I bristle at the word “soul.”

But last Monday, I couldn’t get out of bed. I lay on top of the covers, sobbing like someone had forced my eyes open through the whole ending of The Notebook. I knew this wasn’t a good look for me, but I felt stuck there. I felt like there was lead in the pit of my stomach preventing me from leaving my bed. I felt like the ghosts of everyone I’d ever loved and lost were lurking around my bedroom, stabbing my chest and throat with comically long invisible knives. I actually envisioned that at one point, and then I berated myself for believing that the imaginary ghosts of all my (still living) past loves had nothing better to do than stab me. I was drowning, selfishly, in bitter and self-depricating despair. Melodrama ensued.

Getting sad like that is not unusual for me. The trouble was that feeling debilitatingly sad had grown so unremarkable that it had become a sort of default mode. People call this “depression.” I didn’t want to call it that because “depression” implies ailment, and I did not want to be sick. I wanted to be better. After all, I kept hearing that anyone could achieve happiness; that being sad was a choice; and that being happy was everyone’s primary life goal. I was not depressed. I was stuck. I simply had to get unstuck.

On Thursday, still feeling (annoyingly) debilitatingly sad, I took some friends visiting from out of town to Powell’s City of Books (because, obviously). I gravitated to the psychology section, which, granted, isn’t where I typically go. I like the poetry sections and the graphic novel sections best; apparently, I dislike commitment when it comes to literature. Care of the Soul was on a shelf underneath the massive collection of Jungian interpretations. I remembered someone I admired reading a Thomas Moore book once, and I opened it up to a random page. It said, “It’s remarkable how often people think they will be better off without the things that bother them.” I closed the book, and bought it.

There are enormous stretches of any train ride in America that are impossibly beautiful. Really: you watch the trees upon trees, choking each other along these white-capped green-blue streams in golden light and you think, “There is no way this is real.” But also, you see the hundreds of miles where forest fires have decimated the woods; and dilapidated houses with muted plastic lawn furniture crackling and mangled in unkempt back yards.

Inside the train, too, there are all kinds of people. There are nuclear families in matching I Love Jesus shirts happily playing Uno in the lounge car, sure; but also, people who have lost limbs or eyes; people who are running somewhere; people who are running from something.

The experience of being on a train is like being immersed in Walt Whitman’s America. There’s space for everything and everyone: the marvelous and the hideous; the world that inspires you and the world that strikes you as broken. I feel more at home on a train than anywhere else in the world. I used to think that was because the train gave me the opportunity to really be alone — to bask in my inner introvert for a while while I watched shore birds reacting to freight noises. Now I understand that in fact I love the train because it embraces all the light and all the shadows at once. It doesn’t try to push away what is ugly or morose; the train embraces every part of life, and holds everything in its enormous train arms, and  to me, that is beautiful.

But it is not only beautiful: it is personally familiar. After all, isn’t that what I notice in myself? The dark and the light, pushing against each other, rocking me through my many moods?

I am sitting on the train, reading this book that found its way into my hands somehow, and I come across this passage: “Our work in psychology would change remarkably if we thought about it as ongoing care rather than as the quest for a cure. We might take the time to watch and listen as gradually it reveals the deeper mysteries lying within daily turmoil.” It’s as if someone has lifted the lead from my stomach and given me permission to just be sad with care, compassion, and presence. It’s as if someone has showed me that the light inside my own person swells brighter when it gets stirred up with my shadows. It’s as if someone has said, “Just be the train you want to see in the world.”