A Train of Thought

I’m good at sipping coffee and stating the obvious. Sadly, what I find charming, drives my family crazy. They much prefer I sip in silence. When I filtered these skills into a personality test, it appears I have a knack for writing, with a proclivity for teaching, or social work. I’ve been labeled an INFP, wonderful, I always wanted to be a walking cliche.

When I was a young child my parents gave Nancy and I a train set for Christmas. It was really a gift for my Dad who spent more time than Nancy and I put together arranging the tracks, rigging up an aftermarket motor for speed, in fact it was so powerful on sharp curves our little train could derail itself. That was my Dad, mischievous, enterprising, one who lived on the edge. Every Christmas our little train came to life around the Christmas tree, it followed me when I married, and has been a source of entertainment for my own children. 

She went along very well till she came to a steep hill. But then, no matter how hard she tried, she could not move the long train of cars. She pulled and she pulled. She puffed and she puffed. She backed and started off again. Choo! Choo! Walter Piper

It seems like only yesterday when my life went flashing by as if I were on a bullet train. No damn stops, just get to where you’re going, and pray we don’t get derailed on the sharp curves. 

“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.” Anna Funder

As an exhausted parent I was looking for the shortest distance between two points with little or no time for mulling over the meaning of life. Train stations are like primitive households, they’re noisy and confusing, with complicated schedules, lots of people coming and going, someone’s always singing in the annex, and there are never enough bathrooms. If you manage to board the right train, a small world moving through a large world, pray you don’t miss your exit, and wake up at the end of the line with no idea where you are. 

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsh

In sticking with the train analogy (because I can’t be derailed) I believe finding the right platform is of the upmost importance. This is the foundation for everything else, it opens doors to very specific destinations, and once you take off it’s difficult to migrate to another line. 

Not impossible. Impossible is nothing, says Muhammad Ali.

You can always gather your bags, get off at the next stop, find a connection, and head out in a new direction. It’s just a train, not your destiny, I read that somewhere. 

“What thrills me about trains is not their size or their equipment but the fact that they are moving, that they embody a connection between unseen places,” says Marianne Wiggins. To me this sounds a lot like parenting, there is always this ‘unseen’ space between the person your child is now, and the one they are becoming, or simply the ‘unseen’ space between present and future, the important connection I believe is family. Alex Haley says in every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, bridge to our future.

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train,” says Oscar Wilde. One day I looked up from the fascinating book I’ve been reading on the train, my kids are having kids of their own, moving about the country (world), and now they want my old train set. Well that’s to be expected, because trains tap into some deep American collective memory, says Dana Frank.

“Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don’t stop at your station.” Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Now decades into the process I’m slightly better at identifying the right platform. I’ve started connecting the dots and a bigger picture is beginning to emerge. Life takes you places you never anticipated on going, often I’m enchanted, beguiled, amused, but I’ve also landed in hostile territory, where I felt isolated, scared, and unwelcome. I think the important piece to acknowledge is we’re not alone and there are always options. “Slowly the cars began to move. Slowly they climbed the steep hill. As they climbed, each little steam engine began to sing: I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can,” Walter Piper. 

We don’t all come from the same place, with the same experiences, and abilities. Life is not fair. If you were lucky enough to have a decent upbringing you are lucky enough. Emotional intelligence is one of the strongest indicators of a successful life, and much of this is learned behavior, meaning the ability to procure your own happiness regardless of what side of the tracks you were reared. Emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not heart over head, I believe it is where the two tracks merge.

Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy. -Dean Koontz

I remember traveling through Italy with dear friends, we decided to use the train for a day trip from Tuscany into Rome, but the trains don’t run on time in Italy, they are unpredictable, and must be observed for weeks before patterns begin to emerge. We didn’t have the time or the patience, so we braved the unknown, and by the grace of God, we arrived at our destination. On our return trip home we boarded the train and fell into the first seats we came upon, exhausted from a day of sightseeing, not speaking the language, we had no idea where we landed. 

When the conductor found us sleeping comfortably in first-class we were promptly chastised, and sent to the pauper’s car in the back of the train, with all the other weary travelers, to finish out the ride on threadbare seats arranged for quantity not quality.

We learned that first class seats are reserved in advance, even though the pristine cabin seemed to mock the less prestigious cars, I noticed it was isolated, empty, with no one to lean on, something to keep in mind. 

Life is a train ride, and at the many stations along the route, people important to us debark, never to get aboard again, until by the end of the journey, we sit in a passenger car where most of the seats are empty. Dean Koontz

My advice to my younger self, holding court in the dining car, with four small children, a support dog, and a partner who often ended up on another line, would be this; get off the damn train and spend some time exploring your options. Is this train even going where you want to go? What are the possibilities? Is there a plan? What is your endgame? 

“Remember, the moment you accept total responsibility for everything in your life is the moment you claim the power to change anything in your life.” Hal Elrod

So after decades of riding trains, sipping coffee, stating the obvious, what is my endgame? I have to agree with Hal Elrod who says love the life you have while you create the life of your dreams. Don’t think you have to choose one over the other. Today I sort of feel like a hobo,  jumping trains, scanning the landscape, looking for cool places to land. I have to end with a quote by Paulo Coelho, “our life is a constant journey, from birth to death. The landscape changes, the people change, our needs change, but the train keeps moving. Life is the train, not the station.” If we design our own destiny, I say be a little mischievous, enterprising, live on the edge, this is how we construct a most gratifying life, choo choo wisely. 


I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we’ll track our destines. 

Anecdotes:

  • I hate mean people. People who just pick at you and try to force you into a train wreck. Method Man
  • When I was a kid, I went to the store and asked the guy, Do you have any toy train schedules? Steven Wright
  • Emotional intelligence is a way of recognizing, understanding, and choosing how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it determines the majority of our daily actions. Research suggests it is responsible for as much as 80 percent of the “success” in our lives. J. Freedman





2 Comments

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  1. I enjoyed reading this article, Cheryl!From discovering how you were using the word \”train\” to the anecdotes you included to your practical, down to earth philosophy, I loved the article.Excellent writing.

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  2. Thank you Yvonne, while researching for this post I discovered writing communities who routinely use trains as inspirational places to write! I love that trains are so embedded in our cultural memories that many of us can relate to this train of thought. I appreciate you dropping by Living in the Gap and taking the time to comment. Hope to see you again soon.

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