7 June 2016
I think traveling with someone is an exercise in loving and forgiving. (T., April 19th, 2016)
I met a man on a train once. I mean, I’ve met many people on many trains. But this was a different kind of story.
I met a man on a train once, and I wrote him a poem. I mean, I wrote a poem about him. I mean, a met a man on a train station platform once, in the middle of Scotland. I mean, it was the East Coast of Scotland, in the remote train station of a remote town, on the last train back to Edinburgh, on a cold March evening.
At the Leuchar’s train station, waiting for the late-night train back to Edinburgh, there is a man in an old tweed hat, possibly older than he is. He paces up the platform, has left his bike by the door to the waiting room, and stands with his toes on the overhand of the concrete above the track. He peers into the undiscernable; the darkness of fields and blackness of sky that looks like it yields nothing, could only yield nothing… the nothing that is left in silence when the day creeps closed. But he is standing there for a while, silent, frozen in stillness as though listening for something; a hum of something distant, some reason why he’s here. Minutes pass and he is alert, aware, and raises his hands to his eyes, cups the light away from his face; a pair of amateur binoculars made out of what we hold between our hands. And it is then I want to call to him, to offer, “What is it you have lost?”
But he moves a few moments later, goes back to his bench, by his bike, pulls out a book with some semblance of pages, cracks it open. And we board the train in different cabins, in different places. But I ride the journey backwards, facing where I have come from, what I have left, and I look over my shoulder every time the door clicks open.
Truth be told, a piece of me fell a little bit in love with him, out there, in the cold platform air, in the stillness of winter March. Tomorrow it will be Spring March, not today. Today I loved the way he uncuffed his trousers from his socks and rode his bike down the platform beside the approaching train. Tonight was winter March in thaw, with a tall, silent man whose green eyes measured both me and the silent darkness with a variant of wonder and care.
I met a man on a station platform once, and I sat on the train writing about him. And I took out a new piece of paper, copied it out from At the Leuchar’s train station, to … “What is it you have lost?”
And I walked down the train, and gave it to him. He told me later: I tried to keep reading the newspaper after you left, but all I kept thinking was: do these things really happen?
I mean, I had this moment once, where I was caught up in the story of a story of a moment that was happening. I could see it from the outside: a compelling story that actually happened. Do these things happen? All the time, and always.
T., what I’ve loved about reading your notes on travelling is your gesture toward observation. You are always watching, always noting, always sewing things together in your mind and with your ink and your fingers.
I listened to an interview with David Whyte this morning from On Being with Krista Tippett, while I was on the train. So much happens on trains, in those liminal spaces. He was talking about observation, but in the broader sense of letting the world filter in toward us:
I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention.
And in Galapagos, I began to realize that, because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour watching animals and birds and landscapes — and that’s all I did for almost two years — I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself. And that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence. And I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. That whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.
But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.
Half of what’s about to occur is unknown, both inside you and outside you. John O’Donohue, a mutual friend of both of us, used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world. Letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.
Whatever occurs is this meeting, this frontier.
This is a story I’ve told and retold. It has become shaped by time and memory. It is reshaped by how I tell it from where I’m standing. I’ve even fictionalised it, though the fiction hasn’t gotten very far from the truth:
It is a Sunday, and obviously March. The world is strung between seasons, hanging in a crevice of winter before turning the corner on spring. We are near the solstice, but evenings this time of year are always cold, regardless.
There are few other patrons at the Leucher’s train station tonight: she is inside: it’s just her, and a one-man queue waiting to buy a ticket. The clerk is engrossed in a magazine, and the traveler is too polite to interrupt, standing a respectable distance from the ticket window. Two other silhouettes gather by a vending machine on the platform. He is, at this moment, riding his bike across the disabled ramp between the platforms, but M hasn’t seen him yet, so let’s ignore the sound of his tires scattering gravel. For now, he does not exist.
She sits on the hard, wooden benches of the Leuchar’s train station. They are obviously repurposed church pews, she thinks. It’s not the size or shape that gives them away, but the unforgiving pressure of the wood. Her back is not meant for this rigidity, so she stands and stoops to gather her bags around her like small children who may be tempted astray.
She passes the patron, still ticketless, and gropes her way out of the waiting room. The platform is not very large, but the night’s darkness is advancing at the edges. She steps towards the tracks, looking down them towards home, to where they are swallowed and disappear fifty feet away. She is accustoming herself to the twilight when his bike approaches behind her.
Turning to face the whir of wheels, she is afraid that he will run her over, even though she is nowhere near to being in the path of his trajectory. Mostly, her reaction is from surprise and slight annoyance at a man actively riding a bicycle down a train platform. This would never be allowed in the crowded London stations, but she reminds herself of the deserted Leucher’s station and tries to avoid calling out can’t you get off and walk it?! in admonishment. He is wearing a dark jacket and tweed hat. Despite being quite tall, she assumes he is old and therefore immune to corrections.
He drifts closer and she finds that she is incorrect. He is young, and quite handsome. Amused with her surprise, he winks. She is now even further taken aback.
Once, I literally ran into him in the middle of the park. I was sitting on a bench, and I look up, and there he is in the middle of a conversation with someone. And he sees me and does a double-take.
A little later, I turn to my right, and there he is sitting on the bench next to me.
He’s going on a bike trip with his girlfriend. He said he wonders how long it will go; it might be cut short if they’re not getting along. And he thinks it may not be what they need right now because they’re already going through a rough patch.
I hear you. But listen, travel brings attention to all the difficult fissures in a relationship that familiarity can gloss over. So maybe, even if it’s bad, this will end up being a good thing.
Either way, I think it’s exactly what you need. Because travelling with someone is an exercise in love and forgiveness.
There is so much more to the story. There always is. Fragmentary episodes, small connectors, doppelgangers, and actually passing each other on the street. Marriages. Drifting contexts. The threads get looser.
I go back to riding trains, but I don’t write letters to people on the platforms. I write them in my head. And then the moment passes, and the story is all that’s left.
Whatever happens. Whatever
“what is” is is what
I want. Only that. But that.