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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12 thoughts on “Of Trains and Small Coincidences

  1. Oh, Marian. That picture is an amazing capture. Well done.

    And while I’m not an atheist (more of an agnostic maybe?), I know deeply the heartache of seeing what we are doing and the people who will have to fix it. I’m glad you had a moment where that dread could be lifted – even if it was just a moment. I’m pretty sure we need those moments as much as we need food, clothing, shelter.

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  2. Marian,
    This post. Your writing. Your voice. I want to respond to the content, but I must first address the craft. You are so understated in this, and that spareness does so much to convey your meaning. (So, OK–craft and content are never far apart.) I know you are struggling (so much to struggle with these days!) but something wonderful is happening with your writing. This has a different feel to it than some of your earlier work. There’s a shifting happening. The feeling of this, both the lightness and the weightiness of it (and I love that both are here, just as they are in life), comes more through what is not said than it what is. It comes through in the spaces between. It’s just achingly beautiful, as bone&silver said. And that photo! What a great image.

    As for the ideas and feelings: Right there with you. The world feels so fleetingly precious to me these days. I am trying to see all the beauty in it that I can. I try to hold both alarm and hope in the same hand. These past weeks, as my eyes have burned and I’ve been trapped indoors by heat and smoky air, it’s been difficult. I am so glad that you are putting your words out into this world. I needed this reminder of the whole of the picture.

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    1. Thank you, Rita. I’m struggling to find words to tell you how grateful I am to you, for seeing all that in my writing. I certainly felt it all — I had tears streaming down my face as I was tossed between the extremes of dark and light (I’m in a wringer these days) — but I didn’t imagine anyone else would. Writing has been so incredibly hard for the longest time, posts drafted and revised and edited ad nauseum and all for nought because they never get published…and this piece came to me and was done in a morning; it wrote itself.
      “I try to hold both alarm and hope in the same hand” — yes, me too. It aches; I’m desperate to do something, but it seems there’s nothing else to do.

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      1. Maybe you should publish more pieces that you don’t put through the wringer? But also: All those other things you’ve written haven’t been for nothing. The gift of this one, that seemed to come so easily, came because you’ve been doing all that work. It’s all part of the same thing. Keep going. (Though I suspect you don’t really have a choice. Most writers don’t. Not really.)

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      2. My first reaction is to say, But EVERYTHING puts me through the wringer — but of course, that’s not true. I *do* feel everything very deeply: my highs are very high and my lows are very low, but there is also an in between. It’s just that I seem to always talk myself out of writing the in-between stuff. I had, this spring, when I started to take the editing courses, decided that I would shelve the writing. My own words were leading me in circles and causing me too much pain and I would be better off if I simply gave up on them and worked with other people’s words instead. But that hasn’t been sitting well either, and I do need to find a way to keep going. Thank you for your support, Rita.

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      3. To clarify: I meant pieces that you haven’t put through your writing wringer–not pieces that didn’t put you through an emotional one. Throughout my life, I have had periods of writing and not writing. Sometimes, when I am really in the midst of things, I cannot write. It is taking everything I have to get through everything, and there’s nothing left for writing. I can now recognize when that’s happening and let writing go, knowing I will return to it when I’m able. Earlier in my life, the times off from writing were different. I stopped because I blamed writing for taking me to painful places. I felt that writing was the cause of my distress because it made me see things that hurt. It felt like it was a way of dwelling on (or wallowing in) pain. What I came to realize, though, is that those things writing was revealing to me were things I needed to see. The writing didn’t cause the pain; it uncovered it. Not writing wasn’t going to make the sources (or the pain) go away; it was just going to prolong the inevitable and (in some cases) make it worse because I was continuing to live in denial or blindness and making terrible choices from that foundation.

        I know it’s not simple. Writing can be a way of perseverating. When I focus on the craft, though, it often helps me to stop doing that. Trying to capture something in words is a way for me to go deeper into experience. As I work to find just the right words or details, I inevitably see things I didn’t previously. I do not focus on the feelings or ideas so much as I focus on the words and what they mean. Not sure if that will make sense to someone else, but that’s the best I know how to explain it. The other thing is, this kind of focus/examination cuts both ways: It can take me deeper into pain, but it also (always!) takes me deeper into joy and gratitude and appreciation. I just see more, and the world and life is always a braid of love and loss and beauty and tragedy.

        It’s clear to me that you are a writer. You’ll find your way. Listen to yourself and trust yourself to know what you need to do and when. My therapist suggested to me this spring that perhaps I need to feel more and think less. I think maybe what made this post resonate for me is that you just presented a story and enough of your thoughts that I could feel it. When she said that, my first response was to bristle. I hate being called an over-thinker! But she was right. I needed to feel the feelings I was trying to explain away before I could get rid of them. I guess I’m trying to encourage you to feel, to use writing as a conduit to those feelings and to be brave enough to let them come.

        Sending you love.

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      4. Ah, thanks for clarifying, Rita — I did misunderstand. I most definitely need to let go of the perfectionism that surrounds and stifles my writing here (and I kind of did, with this post, with a mental nod to Kate (as per her last post) when I hit publish so quickly), but that is a whole ‘nuther subject.

        I so appreciate everything you wrote here. I only started writing about a decade or so ago; before that, the words just swirled and I couldn’t see any value in writing them down — it wasn’t “productive.” Maybe it’s because I came to this so late that I feel like a pretender. Writing helped get my thoughts sorted after a messy situation this past year — it allowed me to see ALL aspects of what had happened (including an Aha! insight as to my motivations, which I failed to see until it was in black-and-white on the page in front of me). I love the way you phrased it — that writing can cut both ways, that you see more, and that “life is always a braid of love and loss and beauty and tragedy.” Now *that’s* beautiful writing. And truth, no matter how much I may wish it weren’t.

        I am most definitely an over-thinker and I get caught up in loops quite often. I recently learned that journaling is one way to deal with that. (So I must keep on with that, at the very least.) Another way is to talk things over with a trusted friend. At the time, I would never have imagined I would ever say this, but I’m so grateful for inadvertently buying a house with a set of not-to-code stairs that led me to your blog. Thank you, Rita, for listening, for sharing your insights, and for sending your love. Sending love to you, too.

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