Of Trains and Small Coincidences

I snapped this picture a couple of weeks ago, while sitting in a VIA train, stopped at a station en route to Montreal. It’s my 13-year-old son’s reflection you see in the window. (Don’t tell him I’m posting it here.) Even if you look closely, you won’t be able to make out the book he’s reading (Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, if you’re curious), but I’m hoping you’ll be able to read the words that are printed on the side of the neighbouring train, the ones which hover beside his reflection. The image — the future plus my son’s reflection — is one that snagged my breath and made me think, “Yes, well, there’s the rub, isn’t it? The sum of it all.”

As many of you know, it’s been a hard year for me. I feel the need to qualify that statement, though, to make it clear that it’s not been hard in any solid kind of way — there’s been sufficient food, shelter, and clothing, and — knock on wood — we’ve all been healthy in body. No, the hardness that I’m talking about has only existed in my head, and this — the future, and the prospects my children will face in that looming future — has largely been the reason.

A week after I took this photo we were on another train. And sitting beside us was a group of five young nuns, robed in blue. Why blue? I wanted to know. Where are you going? I wanted to know. Why did you become nuns? I wanted to know. How (these days) does one become a nun? I wanted to know.

I love stories. And I desperately wanted to hear theirs. But I didn’t ask.

The nuns were more boisterous than I would have expected nuns to be. While four of them played cards, the fifth — seated by herself in the row behind them, facing me — embroidered. This seemed a pastime that was more  stereotypically fitting for a nun, and while she embroidered, I knit. What are you making? I wanted to ask. Who is it for? I wanted to ask. She and I caught each other’s eyes a few times. Socks, I told her, silently. For my daughter.

When my hands grew tired, I put my knitting away and pulled out my book: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I nudged my son, whispered, “Look at the title of my book.” He laughed, immediately appreciative of the coincidence. I wanted to snap a photo of the book against the backdrop of the blue hem of a nun’s frock and the dangling loop of her rosary beads. I wanted to stretch my arm out and hold my book out vertically across the aisle, so this group of nuns, my fellow passengers — on the train, in this life — could see the title. I wanted them to laugh at the small coincidence, to share that moment with me, an atheist. I wanted to tell them that in the absence of a god, and in the presence of never-ceasing worries, the only thing that works to momentarily nudge the weight aside is laughter. Laughter about little ironies and small coincidences, and the small bits of human connection that come along with it.

But I didn’t.

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