Total Pageviews

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Time's Winged Chariot

                                 And at my back I always hear
                            Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
                                And yonder all before us lie
                                      Deserts of vast eternity.”  
Andrew Marvell

When they feel mortality catching up with them, some baby boomers decide to cross-train for immortality.  On a trail near Aspen, David Brooks describes an old geezer coming up behind him with a  

whoosh…like an incoming F-18. You’d turn around and see this little nugget of Spandex. It was one of those superfit old guys who’d decided to go on a fitness jihad in retirement. He’d be coming at you at ferocious speed, wearing weights on his wrists and ankles and a look of fierce determination on this small wrinkled face. You’d be huffing and puffing on the mountainside, and this superbuff Spandex senior would whiz by like a little iron Raisinette.”*                                   

              Although most of us don’t indulge in that level of geriatric athleticism, we have a tendency to declare our retirements “rewirements” and devise copious lists of what we want to do and where we want to travel “now that we have the time.” In no time at all, we replicate the 24/7 scheduling of our previous careers, indulging every minute of every day in fervent jihads of post-retirement activity.  
            All through our working lives, we understood “keeping busy” as the supreme virtue, from which it followed that not being busy was a vice—and something to be ashamed of. I’m not immune from this  misconception.  A couple of years ago I was so troubled by my frantic pace that I devised this crazy chart:

          Was all this busyness my way of avoiding the “vice” of just sitting still, doing nothing, and contemplating the meaning of life? When I curled up my toes at last, would I find that I had squandered all my precious time on less important pursuits than attending to my soul?  

There comes the day when your busy little self discovers that it can’t do anything at all. You have cancer, a stroke or a heart attack or are waiting for a liver transplant and you haven’t the strength to lift a finger. You just sit there, stunned to your core. When this happened to theologian James L. Kugel he felt extremely small, contracted to the narrow space of his failing body,  while the “background music” of his ordinary, day-to-day life fell silent. #
            When you feel really sick, your fondest hope is to be able to transcend the pain and tiredness to accomplish a single thing in the day—write a brief note, get yourself onto the porch for some fresh air, take a shower, wash one or two dishes.  There go your to-do lists; all you have left is this contracted, “be-ing” surrounded by that vast, unnerving silence.
            Sitting in my chair during my bout with breast cancer, impressed that I’d gotten there from the bed at all, I was ruminating about World War Two. In the dark of those New York City evenings I used to sit on the floor next to the short wave radio, leaning against its vibrating warmth so that I could actual feel the  thud of bombs raining down on London. But that was 1942.  This was 2002!    The decades reached back and back until I felt like a rubber band, stretched way too far. How could I have lived so long and, if I had, why? How much longer could I  keep it all up without snapping altogether?
            If we are lucky to survive deadly illnesses, we just love having another chance to fill our crowded engagement books and I phones and blackberries with with lots and lots of things-to-do today and things-I-ought-to-have-gotten-to-yesterday. But is this mindless busyness going to give us the “meaning of life,” that being so very sick made us crave so fiercely?
            I recovered, and dived right into “making up for lost time.”  But I had spent so much time, for the first time in years, not being busy in that  place where the music of daily life falls silent, that it seemed important to find some “time out.” So I cancelled my weekend newspaper delivery and turned off my computer and television on Sunday mornings to sit in my chair and read contemplatively. What I mean by that is taking in a paragraph or two of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Paul Tillich or Rebecca Naomi Remen or Karen Armstrong think about human life and the inevitability of death and what other human beings through the ages have said about these issues. Is there a God? Does life have meaning? Do we have souls? If so, what do they consist in?  Then I put the book down and think about what I have read. 
         Amazingly, I  can get my elderly mind around complexities which I never grasped before. All this is so exciting that I have joined discussion groups where such questions are also batted about:  “What is existence?”   “What is the good?  “Do we have free will?”   “What is integrity?” “What is a virtue, and what is a vice?”
            This, too, will grind to a halt someday—later, I hope, rather than sooner—and if I don’t drop dead on the spot I may find myself a little old lady sitting in a little old rocking chair at the window of a nursing home somewhere, the skin on my shoulders prickling as my feathers break through and  I  stretch my wings for that last, great wind.

*David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011. 361

# See James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (and their connection to a certain, fleeting state of mind).  New York: Free Press, 2011.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Catching The Midnight Sleeper

“You went to Washington how? By train?  I didn’t know people still did that,” my friends often ask, to which I answer, “Yes, but I always take the sleeper.”
   What you do, if you live near Detroit, is get yourself to the Amtrak station in Dearborn, where a bus picks you up and zips down route 75 to Toledo and the Capitol Limited.
            The hardest part of the trip is the pitch dark drive down the Southfield Expressway, which turns itself into a concrete tunnel for much of the way. My night vision is not very good, and I am perpetually nervous that a flat tire will force me onto the practically non-existent shoulder, up against that high granite wall. So I zip along in my little blue car, coiled tight as a spring, chanting the mantra my husband would always used when I would bleat
             “Couldn’t you slow down, just a little bit?”
  And he would reply,
            “ In a situation like this, you have to keep up with the traffic.”
               From a situation like that I am always glad to arrive in one piece at the pokey little Amtrak station, its waiting room bright in the darkness and likely to be full of large, cheerful people in matched pastel pants and sweatshirts with cute sayings all over them, lugging  fluffy pillows, carry-ons, shopping bags, toddlers, and babies. These Happy Campers all chat away excitedly, in stark contrast to the mood of the attendant, a curmudgeonly fellow who crouches balefully behind his glass partition and answers all our questions sarcastically.                       
              I settle down on the tippy plastic chair and begin to feel, right down to my very pores, the beginning of a metamorphosis from a terrified night driver to wide-eyed, eager traveler.  
             If laughter is jogging for the soul, then my soul begins to stretch on the bus to Toledo, where the drivers are invariably loopy. When we have picked up our Detroit passengers and tooled off down the dark highway, this one turns on his speaker to declare:
            “Okay, all you guys now, listen up—this is important. I know it goes against how you think of yourselves as manly men, but do not stand over the toilet. Take a hint from the ladies here and sit down for number one like you would for number two. This is a bus. The toilet is in the back where it bumps all over the place. You can get tossed around.  I want  you to know, here and now, that I refuse to stop the bus and come back there to retrieve your cell phone or your credit card case or your wallet that has fallen in because you think you’re too much of a man to sit down to pee!”
            My day (that is, my night) is made.
It may be half past eleven on a dark and rainy evening, but the Amtrak station in Toledo is always bustling with people catching the Lakeshore Limited for New York or the Capitol Limited for Washington.  The Happy Campers sprawl over every seat not already occupied by their total opposites, the traveling Amish, who are not half as startled by the Happy Campers as the Happy Campers are by their large families of bearded, suspendered men folk, girls and women in homemade cotton dresses, and children so much better behaved than their toddlers, who are careening all over the station, that they seem to belong to an entirely different species.
The seating consists of extremely uncomfortable curved settees with rigid, upright backs. Over the years, I’ve mastered the art of stretching out along the slippery vinyl with my head on my overnight bag and my novel to pass the time when the train is late. Recently, however, it’s been right on time, and that’s when the real excitement begins.
            At two minutes to midnight a rumbling wells up under our feet and shakes the whole building, accompanied by the heady announcement
            “Attention! Attention! Amtrak announces the arrival of The Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, with intermediate stops at Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Pittsburgh….all passengers must step through the door and across the tracks. Please have your tickets ready. Coach passengers to your right, sleeping car passengers to your left.”
            However tired I am, I become instantly elated (here we go!) and also sharply alert, remembering the time I headed left but the sleeping car was locked, its attendant fast asleep within. I ran back down the tracks to the mail car to find help, realizing that if the train started moving I was going to have to jump for it and perhaps have a heart attack in the process.  These days, I never leave the side of the coach conductor until she can point to a cohort further down.
            Then I’m off with my rolling suitcase, amid hissing brakes and rumbling engines.
“Berth for Pratt! Berth for Pratt,” a shout from the anonymous dark that never fails to lift my tired heart.
  The attendant heaves my bags up the stairs saying “number five, to the right,” or “E, upstairs and to the left.”  I find my room, draw the curtain, and sit my suitcase on the (in room) toilet, contorting myself into my pajamas and wrestling the sink down to brush my teeth before jamming my suitcase in the narrow space between bunk and door, to a muted chorus of groans and laughs through the wall as the Happy Campers attempt these maneuvers for the first time in their lives. 
These are snug little rooms which, in daytime, contain two easy chairs and a little table, with a bottle of water provided, and free coffee, and orange juice out in the corridor.
 At midnight, I usually find the lower bunk opened out with one thin blanket (I always travel with a second), two pillows, and, if it’s my lucky day, a  square of chocolate-covered mint.
            There are last shouts of “all aboard,” then the tumble and lurch of departure, and we chundle chuck, chundle chuck out of Toledo, our whistle bleating with an odd mixture of confident assertion and diffident wailing as the engine cleaves the darkness. I climb happily into my bunk, tension draining from my every muscle as, rocking along, I experience a wonderful state of mind induced by going somewhere purposefully without exerting the least personal effort.
            “There are some people,” writes my all-time favorite novelist Margaret Drabble, “who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery, as though each displacement of the body were a displacement of the soul”*
            That is exactly how I feel every time. I have been coiled up like a spring and feel my soul unclinching, eager for new experiences and discoveries. It’s no mere notion, either, since it happens that way every time I get on a train.
            I have woken at night to watch thousands of stars over Sandusky; homebound, I have greeted the dawn over that bay’s gleaming pewter, where great blue herons glide close to the water on their enormous wings.  In the early hours I have marveled at a little Pennsylvania town washed with light and shadow, exactly like Edward Hopper has painted “Dawn in Pennsylvania.”                   
               It isn’t just the scenery that stretches my soul. The meals, free with your sleeper ticket, take place in a dining car where the waiter always seats you with perfect strangers.
            One of the signs of passing youth,” writes Virginia Woolf, “is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them,” a tendency that seems to pitch older train travelers (younger ones, I have noticed, are more likely to be silent and sullen)  into interesting conversations. Over those (real) linen tablecloths, (fake, plastic) flowers, and copious breakfasts, I have participated in some stunning colloquies.
             We are negotiating the Cumberland Gap and I am deep into my French toast, orange juice, and coffee when the man sitting beside me says
“Look over there! We’re in Hastings—that’s where I grew up!”
            He turns out to be a Presbyterian minister, and, at my query about whether Calvin is still an influence we eagerly plunge into theological conundrums. He doesn’t buy the traditional concepts of original sin and any more than I do, but we agree that there is plenty of evil about and you have to be alert to it. Our dining mates across the table chime in at this point. They are Christian Scientists who believe that goodness is all around us, that we are surrounded by Spirit to the extent that we don’t have to worry about getting to heaven because we are there already. They are interested to learn about my Universalist conviction that we are born good and goodness will ultimately triumph.
            I return to my berth, which the attendant has made back into a sitting room, to brood over a New Yorker article I couldn’t make head or tail of when I started it at home but which seems perfectly clear on the train, which not only calms my body and soothes my soul, but even perks up my brain. As we rattle along, I often arrive at sudden understanding of difficult concepts, and knotty family problems untangle themselves astonishingly.  
                 The morning sun strikes a little white church on a country road and, an instant later, illuminates a farm, making black and white cows stand out like porcelain figures. I am enjoying my second cup of coffee when I realize we have reached the old riverside towns strung along the upper Potomac and will be in Washington on time. I love the mixture of thoughtful solitude and human companionship my trip has combined. I ponder the dining car conversation from this morning and look forward to the long, long talks I always have with the dear old friend who has known me since I was in my baby carriage and who will be meeting me today for lunch, not after a tedious wait for my baggage at Dulles or Reagan followed by a long, dreary drive from the airport but right where we pull in at Union Station, smack dab in the middle of Washington within walking distance of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building.        

*Margaret Drabble, “A Voyage to Cythera,” A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Houghton Mifflin (New York, 2011), pp. 23-24