I wrote this piece to enter into a contest, the prompt was, “the night”. Although I didn’t win the contest (I’m thinking by the sound of the form letter I received letting me down easy that I wasn’t even close, I also am imagining that Toni Morrison won the contest, I have a great imagination!), I decided I was proud of this piece and wanted to share my thoughts with you all:
In the few minutes where night and day are intertwined, before the sun rises, before the moon slips out of sight, before the working day is even underway… I hear the sound of the train whistle just a few hundred yards away. The sound lets me know the day is nearing, only minutes before my alarm goes off to jerk me into the oncoming path of a new day. I like that sound, the distant high-pitched squeal of the whistle. I can hear the train gliding down the track too, smooth, without hesitation — it knows exactly where it’s going. No need to ask for directions, it follows the track. Being a train must be an easy life — the same path every day. No thinking. No decisions. Just movement.
There was a train station right in the very center of the town I grew up in — the tracks quite literally cut the town into two sections. A train came through several times a day — long trains with so many cars that it was impossible to count them, though try we did. Everything would come to a complete stop as you could not travel from one side of town to the other when the train was coming. The loud whistle could be heard all around town — I could hear it from my house, it crept its way through the cracks in my window and would hold me breathless in my bed as my imagination soared down the tracks with it. When I heard it, I always imagined that I was jumping on board… no care in the world. Off to California because that’s where I assumed all the trains ended up… California. I imagined a huge train station right on the beach and if I was fast enough to hop the train as it passed through my town I would be taken straight to the breaking waves of the ocean, straight to the coast of California — straight to the edge of existence. I thought that if I was fast enough to hop on that train, I wouldn’t have to think anymore. The train would know exactly where to go and how to get there… no thinking, no decisions, just movement.
Listening to a train speed down the tracks is like a relaxing journey through the countryside… when you find a large shade tree and you spread a blanket out under it. You lie there with your hands clasped behind your head, your eyes squinting to block out the glow of the sun, your skin warm to the touch as a tepid breeze wafts over your exposed soul. You are calm. Your breath is quiet and deliberate — in, out… no thinking, no decisions, it just is. The sound of the train on the tracks gives me that peace.
I wonder if being a train is as soul-filled and thought-provoking as all the musicians and writers and poets who put together words about it would have us think it is — the life of a train. When I see it waiting at the station, loading all the travelers each morning, it is still dark out. The sun is still deciding when it will make its way over the horizon. The moon is often low and bright — the only light leading the train along its familiar path. If it’s raining, the moons beams glisten off the tracks underneath it — it’s sort of beautiful to look at — sparkling and shimmering as it speeds along, lighting its path on those early mornings when I wish for the sun to hurry along and takes its place above me.
I’m afraid of the dark. I know that’s probably an unusual thing to hear coming from an adult. But, I am. It’s possibly reading too many scary books or too much imagination that I put into each sound or crack I hear through the darkness. The moon is a wonderful nightlight. When it’s high in the sky and full and bright, it illuminates everything. There are no unknowns waiting to jump out because the moon has so graciously revealed their darkened hiding places. Even if I was a train, as big and strong and monstrous as a train, I think I would still be afraid of the unknown, the hidden creatures lurking out there, possibly on the tracks. There’s nothing that can stop a train, really. If it’s traveling along even at a slow pace, there’s nothing that can stop it — unless, by chance, someone wanders on to the tracks. If that happens, it stops. A screeching, halting, sparks flying, head jolting, bodies crashing stop.
I would imagine that trains are scared of the dark too, what they can’t see. It’s what they can’t see ahead of them, the unknowns in the dark, that weights the heaviest on their forward progress. Trains go on faith really, speeding faster and faster, hoping there’s no one there. It’s what we can’t see that scares us, all of us. Big, small, old, young — the unknown. What will be waiting for the train in the dark of the early morning or the still of the night — when the sun is too lazy to hurry along and the moon is too old to shine down and illuminate the tracks.
I just keep going, on faith really. Hoping none of you decide that I will be the way you do it. Can you imagine going through each day wondering if someone will decide to stop their car right in the middle of my tracks or walk diligently in front of me as I hurry to my next stop? I don’t suppose too many of you will ever have this fear, my fear. Nothing is as big and strong and fast as I am. I can destroy you in less than a second. I can hurdle objects out of my path as if they are weightless. I can get you to your house or your work or that bar downtown before you finish a whole chapter in that book you bring on me every day. And when the day ends, I’m the one you trust to get you home.
Several weeks ago, I heard the train’s whistle as I was making dinner. Like the call of the wild, I hold back my dreams of riding the rails to the edge of the world — I save my pondering of California for my pre-wake dreamland phase. But shortly after the train whistle sounded just on the other side of the row of houses behind my subdivision, I heard sirens. Lots of sirens. In small towns, we always pause, even just for a moment, and listen to the sirens — where they are coming from, where they are going, wondering what is out there that has called them into action.
I paused when I heard the sirens — so close to my house, so close to the train tracks.
When I was 18, a freshman in college, I was in one of my many literature classes. We discussed Shakespeare at length, the tragedy behind his writing. We discussed the mental illness that plagued Poe and Plath and so many others. I was fascinated by it all, the beauty that came from the minds of people who struggled with stress and anxiety and depression and reality to one extent or another. I remember specifically we became involved in class one day with a very tense discussion about suicide. The professor asked for a show of hands from everyone who had thought about ending their own life, whether momentarily or lengthy. My hand was the only one in class that stayed down — I looked around in bewilderment — I must have heard the question wrong… why was I the only one who hadn’t thought of suicide? The professor was equally as amazed at my neglected hand-raising, so he questioned me. He insisted I was lying actually. By that point in my life I had already witnessed the death of someone very close to me, I saw the aftereffects death had on those of us who were left behind. I knew the feeling of helplessness and pain and not knowing why and the permanence of death — death is permanent. The professor made such a big deal out of my lack of suicidal thoughts that I spent the rest of the term wishing I had suicidal thoughts… just so the others would stop looking at me as if I was completely insane.
I’ve never thought much about depression. I knew what it was. I knew people were depressed. I knew sometimes depression could pretend to give horrific answers to searching questions of life and death. It comes and goes I suppose. Life can trick us into thinking that we are, all of us, on a steady path and then it happens… a loved one dies, a child becomes sick, a bill is late. You worry about your job and if you’re doing enough. You worry about your kids and if you’re doing enough. You worry. You stop sleeping. You eat occasionally. You exercise either too much or too little. You envision yourself running away from it all — just like that… find a train and leave. We’ve all been there. This is the part I understand… now. Why didn’t that college professor ask me about this?
The Music City Star started service from downtown Nashville to the surrounding areas in September of 2006, the first passenger train in Nashville in about 30 years. In the four years since beginning, there have been two deaths associated with the train. The first was supposedly a homeless man who drunkenly wandered onto the tracks late one night… an accident. The second was several weeks ago while I was making dinner for my kids, while they were finishing their homework, while we were safe inside our homes sharing our lives and our thoughts and our words. Outside in the dark, in the unknown areas of quiet blackness of the pending night, a young man believed he was out of options.
The news reported that he walked out from the tree line that separates my neighborhood from the tracks and lay down. The train blew its whistle — over and over, the train blew its whistle. As if it were shouting at him,
Get up! Please don’t, step out of the unknown! Don’t do this… not here, not to me. The sun is just going down, I’m almost done. Why? Why are you doing this?
I think the reality of death hits us hard — especially death of a young person. In a small town, the story of an 18-year-old who laid down on the tracks to end his short life spreads quickly. The night after the screeching train whistles cry, my daughter and I were talking of the young man. She said there was a rumor that he was the older brother of a friend of hers — he was, it was true. I thought she knew. We were both silent for a while. I think the act of comforting a friend in the face of such an unspeakable tragedy shouldn’t fall on the minds of 14-year-olds — but it did.
My son and I drove past the spot it occurred… there was a cross in the ground to remind passersby. He paused and asked if that was where it happened — I told him I thought it was. He said on the school bus earlier that day when they passed the spot, all the kids stopped talking and stood slightly in their seats to look out the window at the cross. He said no one said a word until one boy said, “What an idiot”. My son said another boy immediately hit the transgressor with a great deal of force and anger. There are always people left behind… to sort through the emotions and seek out answers, even when there are none. This is the part I know too well… now.
Why did you choose me? I wanted to take you away. I screamed at you but you didn’t listen. You just lay there, without movement. The people on board were reading their books. They were planning their dinner. They were breathing and alive. They were here, not thinking… just moving forward.
That’s the problem with death and loss. We always want an answer. We ruminate on the questions, the conversations, the life that no longer exists and we skim the edges of a maddening mind to find some sort of answer — there is no answer. No answer for death. No answer for life. No answer for the “whys” and the “how comes” and the “can’t we do it differentlys”. And then we hear that whistle, calling us to hop on board, beckoning us to follow the tracks to the edge of existence — no thinking, no decisions, just movement.
I hear the whistle and I wish I could yell at him, I wish I could scream at him to hear what I hear. I hear the ocean and music playing on the boardwalk. I hear the laughter of small children and happy couples walking with their arms wistfully wound together, I hear the waves breaking at the edge of existence and I hear life. I hear life.
I want to scream at him in the dark that I hear life and his life is important! I want to scream at him in the dark that it never rains forever, that the sun will shine again, that California is just a train ride away!
And then I hear the sirens… the reminder that my screams weren’t loud enough.
The whistle in the dark means different things to everyone who hears it. So when I drove past that spot, the place it happened, my son reached over to turn the radio down as we both looked out the window. I told him that’s where the young man forgot that the whistle means get on board, life is waiting.
Since that day my freshman year in college, I’ve had many thoughts about death and life and my own mortality and the people who would grieve me if I no longer existed and those would never know the difference — too much time spent on the ones who would never know the difference if I failed to exist one day. Why do we always spend so much time on the ones who don’t care? Our minds begin to play tricks on us…
… and then, we wander further down that darkened path and we find ourselves ruminating on the mortgage and the cable bill and the cell phone bill and the other bills coming due and that meeting at work and the reports you need to get just right. You think about your car needing new tires and if you tell your kids you love them enough and if you remembered to pick up your daughters favorite snack at the store. And you begin to feel overwhelmed by all the “did you do it rights?” and you let your mind wander down a dark street where the lights haven’t recognized the night is here so they haven’t clicked on to illuminate your journey and you wonder… “Am I doing this all right?”, “Would it all be better if someone else was doing it?”, “What if I wasn’t here?”, “Would they be better?”
Just then you hear it — that whistle in the dark and for a split second, in less time than it takes for a dogs bark to break open the silence of a still night… you see yourself walking towards the track.
Hop on or lie down?
Will you remember that the trains whistle is calling you to California?
What are you going to do? I can’t stop, make up your mind. I’m barreling down this track in the dark of this night and you have more power than I could ever hope for. Will you let me keep going or will you force me to slam everyone forward into the seats in front of them to cushion the stop as we wait for the sirens to approach us — what are you going to do?
There I am again, sitting in a literature class, eyes down as I ponder the talk of suicide that had me squirming in my seat with more uncomfortableness than if I had decided to show up to class naked, fully exposed at whom all could gawk. I wonder this time, as I remember the scene from the perspective of a 42-year-old mother of three who has forced herself to turn on a light when all I wanted was the darkness to remain, who has forced herself to get up and move when all I wanted to do was pull the covers over my head and hide, who has forced herself to look in a mirror at my own reflection when all I wanted to do was take my fist and shatter it into a million pieces. I wonder if all those hands shot up that day because they all knew the emptiness of depression, of loneliness, of a life taken over with the thoughts of “what-could-be’s”. I think that’s what happened to a young man whose life was just beginning — he must have felt the sting of this phenomenon known as depression. It can fool you. It can make you think you’re alone when you are surrounded by love. It can make you think you are cloudy when the skies of your consciousness are clear and blue. It can make you think that you’ve lost some pieces to the puzzle that is you when all you need to do is put them in the right order. It can make you think that lying down on the tracks is the only option available. I breathe deep and I don’t have to wonder why those hands went up… I realize my hand belonged with all the rest — lifted that day in complete uncomfortableness.
The trains whistle means something different to us all. To me it means the California coast is waiting for me to explore it. To that young man it meant he no longer needed to exist. To his friends and family it means they couldn’t scream loud enough to infiltrate his mind that night. I read somewhere that committing suicide is an act of cowardness — I’m sure that’s not true. It’s an act of complete aloneness, complete isolation, and complete loss of any hope for redemption. I fully understand all of those things, so maybe, I do understand why so many hands went up that day in class… and if the question was asked of me today, I would need to think about it longer. I would need more time to think about the darkness that sometimes creeps in when we hear a whistle in the dark.
We listen, ever so intently, when we hear that whistle blow in the dark of the night. It can carry us away to new places and new friends and new adventures. It can save us when we’ve lost all hope… it’s there, in the distance. Beckoning us to follow it, jump aboard. But to some, they hear the end. They hear the sweet sound of no more pain, no more isolation, no more lack of redemption — it is sweet to them. Calming to us all. No more thinking. No more decisions. Just movement.
There are just a few moments left as I finish typing. The sun is attempting to push the moon out-of-the-way. My alarm is eager to bring forth the coming day. Calm fills the air outside my window as the night slips away and the day takes over. I think about a college professor who made me think about the dark paths our minds can travel — who made me wonder why I had never thought about suicide. The truth is, I had. Maybe not ending my own life, but I had thought about a world where I didn’t exist. I hear the whistle. It’s summoning me to finish that journey. California — the edge of existence, the end of the tracks, the smell of the ocean and the ripple of the waves as they gently caress the sand, the whispers of love. The laughter of life. I hear that whistle just as the night is about to succumb to the taunting of the day. I hear it and I think about hopping on… no thinking, no decisions, just movement. The whistle in the night takes me there, still to this day.
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