"The next installment of the Empires thing is still unfinished," I told GL as we walked along a set of trolley tracks near the shore of Lake Michigan in Kenosha, Wisconsin on a brilliant sunny day ten months ago, a few weeks after parts 1-3 were published. "I’m out of people to kill. The metaphor. All the death and trains. I’ve run out of people to kill with my big roaring crazy trains."
I had considered holding off, finishing all of it before I published a single portion of it, but knew I’d ultimately succumb to the fear and not post any of them. And so there I was, dangling, unfinished, missing that piece that tied it all together in a way that wasn’t trite. Because what was I really trying to express in this, Part 4, or as I’d told everyone who asked, "The One Where We All Hug"?
My problem, however, was that after hitting Publish on parts 1-3, that spot where we all hug seemed even further off in the distance. I had started writing on one track, and ended up on another, and I’m still not sure what happened. The emails, the calls. Never in my life had I received feedback on anything that I’d written so immediately and so emotionally charged. And that includes five years of regularly participating in political threads on Hosehead’s message board.
One woman got in touch to tell me she was thinking about divorcing her husband as a result of Part 2. A man told me that he had been contemplating suicide and Part 3 had changed his mind. He visualized the train behind him, and he stepped aside. Family and friends called and asked if I was okay, if I would be okay when it was over, and I wasn’t sure. Other family remained (unsurprisingly) silent and cold.
A series of jumpers – people who commit suicide by train – plagued my preferred Metra line. I received email update after email update, indicating that a train was stopped and others late because of a “pedestrian incident”, a phrase Metra uses to describe both accidents and suicides alike, save for one e-mail which I assume was the victim of AutoCorrect, which announced a “predestine incident”.
My friends worked those trains. My friends rode those trains daily. Each time I stepped on one, I thought about my big metaphor, and I wondered if today would be the day The Universe called me out. This, it would say, is not a tale that will float weightlessly in the air with a whisper, Beth. It was a matter of time, I felt, before I’d witness this all too closely.
And so, I didn’t feel like talking about it anymore. I still don’t.
I have memories of my childhood that nag me in an uncomfortable way. Not uncomfortable memories, mind you. Happy or neutral memories that I have trouble processing. I call or email or occasionally even tweet my mother, when those memories are nagging the loudest.
“Mom, did you buy a lot of cherries once? Like a whole station wagon load full of cherries? Did I crawl around in them?”
“Mom, was there a giant wooden stage in the park across from the Otter Tail building?”
“Mom, do you remember that side table we had in our apartment in Garrison? It had like a marble top? Did it have angels on the base? Cherubs? What happened to that?”
I am uncomfortable with these memories because I don’t know what is real and what I have constructed from stories or photos. I was so young, impossibly young, to remember these things. But I do. I remember a car full of cherries, to the point where I can smell them. I remember the rough splintery grain of the floor of a stage I’m not sure existed, I think about it when I walk across a very old wooden deck. The marble top of the table was the front wall of a fort that protected me from everything scary – I tipped the table over and hid behind it.
Wags gave me the entire series Daria on DVD for Christmas of ‘10 and in one episode, Daria relives a traumatic childhood memory after crawling into a refrigerator box. I burst into tears, and needed the comfort of something I couldn’t identify, and at 2 am that night, I woke up feeling the cold stone against my cheek. The monsters in the shadows of my toddler bedroom could not penetrate that table. A table I’m not sure ever existed.
For all of the shadow monsters, real or imagined, my memory constructs a barrier, real or imagined. For every first sensory experience I can recall, my memory has something that explains it. When I dream, or when I allow my mind to wander, I smell the cherries, I feel the wood against my feet or the marble against my cheek. When I see a candle flicker, I see the light from the flames of the gas station, and I feel the heat and smell the soot while I watched a piece of my family burn to the ground, and I remember the confusion and excitement and fear of a fireworks show that went horrendously wrong. And these three separate explosive incidents of my early childhood blur and merge a little, become one fire.
I have to believe that this is quite common, these blurry early life memories. And yet, knowing everyone probably has the same sort of story, sometimes when I am daydreaming and my thoughts bounce from one of these things to another, when I am in a conversation or I have a dream and I am suddenly struck by some memory within myself that I’ve never consciously acknowledged before, when I hear a song or experience a smell that triggers something, it is unbearably uncomfortable. The vastness of what exists inside my own mind terrifies me, and it’s compounded by the fear that much of it was never real at all.
In the middle stages of my third attempt at working things out with Duke (I have to believe that Elaine Benes was correct, that breaking up is like tipping a soda machine, you have to rock it a few times first) I read an essay in the New York Times and pre-ordered the book shown above. When it finally came out, Amazon shipped it to the address I’d ordered it under – Duke’s house, where I was no longer living.
The following Saturday, April 24th, 2010 (I don’t know why it feels important to document that, but it does), I took the train into the city, taking advantage of my connections and spending the ride in on an unused car in the back, alone. I read my book, plowing through it at a ridiculous speed, considering carefully both the cliché and the cut of each of the author’s revelations.
On the trip home, I texted my brother. “We’re going to write a song, and record it on this train. We’ll bring guitars and video cameras and we’ll have this car all to ourselves again. We’re going to create something on the train.”
I sent dozens of emails to myself that day, notes I was taking though I didn’t understand. It culminated at a crêperie that afternoon when I turned my emails into a sheet of paper covered in random words with vague connections under the following headings: Trains, North Dakota, Relationships, Love, Church of Wags, Travel, Music, and Art. A stop on each line was a phrase, the words “it is”. Nothing was wrong anymore, nothing was right anymore. It is. It was. I had passed through some kind of tunnel and on the other side was a comfortable acceptance of every word on every list on this page, every aspect of my life.
I wrote part one that night. Then I fell asleep, waking in the middle of the night convinced that I was dying, feeling a blazing light traveling through my veins like a bullet train, and I laid there for a few seconds understanding that this was finally it, this was the stroke I’d been waiting for since my first MRI in my early teens, a dozen MRIs and CTs and EEGs ago,. I didn’t even make a move to get help, because I understood it, there wasn’t time, this was it. But a few seconds passed, and then a few more. And I was still alive. It is. I am.
The next night, over the phone, I told the guy I was seeing at the time about it, and I was sobbing. I told him I didn’t know what it was, but that something had entered my body that night, some kind of entity or energy, and I thought I was dying, and I didn’t. And it all meant something, it all meant that I am, it is. I exist. I could hear the impatient ambivalence in his voice, was I done talking about this craziness yet? And that was it for him. He wasn’t anymore.
I told two people about what happened to me in that 24 hour span, how a book and a train and a Ben Gibbard song and a crepe and a two-word, four-letter phrase and a night terror of my own death changed me. One didn’t listen. The other held me and cried along with me and sat across from me at a table at Starbucks while I pounded out an incoherent screed that took me days of editing to bring in under 3,000 words per post.
I looked at my life. What was and what wasn’t.
Working with what I know to be true, working with what is, is not always my strong suit. I’d go so far as to say that it’s rarely my strong suit. This goes beyond the creative license, the 40% Rule that applies to most of my stories, which are true enough. It’s not about the stories I tell you, it’s about the stories I tell myself. The world I build, of memories and fears and worries and realities, which blur together.
I’m not the greatest spokesperson for self-help, or even professional help, and certainly not pharmaceuticals. I have quit more programs, walked out of more doctor’s offices, and cold turkeyed more psychotropics than I could track with a spreadsheet. And yet for several months in 2010, two words were the only medicine I needed: It is.
But it fell away, I lost it. The longer I put off writing about it, the more fear I built up about talking about it, the less I believed in it myself. It was a mantra that I wore out privately, and was ashamed of publicly.
In the past couple of months, I’ve had a new mentor, a person tangentially related to my job, who teaches people how to attain prosperity through concepts like the law of attraction. He represents everything I hate about motivational speaking and self-help, and yet every damn thing he’s said to me works for me. I shook his hand and had a conversation with him on Tuesday and walked away in tears, because every time I hear him speak, I feel that light in my veins again, I wonder where the energy is coming from, and if I’ll survive it. I understand what it is to be in a cult, and I don’t mind it, because he has changed the way I think, and the way I think hasn’t been working out so well for me for much of my life.
He tells a tale about the things we imagine, and how our thoughts frame our actions and attract people and things and opportunity to our lives. How fear and worry manifest, and those things we fear the most become the things we think about the most become the forces that drive our actions, and become real. Humans are very good at solving real problems, dealing with the real mountain lion in front of us. But we spend most of our time solving problems that don’t exist, worries and fears in our minds that keep us from accomplishing anything positive, conjuring up imaginary mountain lions we’ll never encounter until our thoughts take over our actions and our actions lead us right up the mountain.
I laid in bed yesterday, sobbing again, because it is February and crying is how I spend my Februaries. “Everything I’ve feared in my life is real,” I cried. “I made it all happen. I feared it and obsessed about it until it happened. This is all my mountain lion. The train is a mountain lion.”
It didn’t make any more sense to anybody else than it does to you, now. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
But this knowledge is so powerful to me, I can’t even describe it. It’s a different sort of bullet of light in my veins. Because I can create a new reality from the thoughts and the memories and the fuzzy things, I can decide what I want my life to be and think about it until I can’t help but act it out until it is. And instead of fearing something until it is real, I will love something until it is real. I can do that. What isn’t can become what is, on my terms the next time around.
I saw the movie Inception more than once in the theater last summer. The first time I saw the scene with the train, I inhaled sharply, and it burned my lungs. You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. And every time I had a conversation where somebody asked me if I’d seen the movie yet, I knew why they were asking, and I changed the subject.
Have you ever seen the headlight on a train? At 6:33 every weekday morning, a gate drops in Hartland, and if I’m running perfectly on time I am right there, either just ahead of it, or the only person waiting for it to pass. I memorized this time because twice, within a week, I was on the tracks when the crossing lights began flashing, before the gate lowered. Glancing to my right, I was startled by how close the train actually is when this process begins.
The headlight oscillates. It is a bright beam that scans in a pattern, back and forth across the tracks like a flattened figure eight.
The first time I glanced to my right and saw the train, I understood why people are stunned immobile. I got it. I accelerated, but man, I got it.
The second time, the whole scene took place in a room. The image I saw, the oscillating headlight scanning the darkness ahead of it and to each side, was a dark room, a door opening. I was crouched against a wall, and there was a flashlight panning from one corner to another, methodically searching for me. I looked down, as though I wouldn’t be discovered if the light never hit my eyes.
I try to cross those tracks at 6:28 am or 6:37 am. Never 6:33 anymore.
Have you ever laid in the crook of a lover’s arm and heard their heartbeat louder than anything else in the room? Louder than your thoughts, even? It’s a ceaseless rhythm, I am always a little stunned by the perfection of the rhythm of the heart. And proud of him, really, because I’m sure mine doesn’t do that, I’m sure mine isn’t that perfect. It tries, but it forgets. It gets overwhelmed by the worries, I’m sure, and off course. But not this one. Steady like a freight train.
Johnny Cash’s music is often described as steady as a freight train, sharp as a razor. It seems to me there must be a great deal of comfort in that rhythm, like a heart beat. I have an entire playlist called Trains and only some of them have lyrics about trains. Some just sound like trains to me, sharp and steady.
Babies these days have white noise generators and teddy bears that mimic a mother’s heart beating. I have a playlist of songs about trains.
“Do you remember what it was like last April, when I first started writing this?” I asked GL tonight. “Was I completely incoherent?”
“Yes,” he said. “I remember you being surprised yourself at how it pulled together.” He made a gesture with his hands of this, of disparate things sucked together, centered and united.
“Okay,” I responded, “because I’m scared that this will either be an unintelligible jumble of words, or it will make perfect sense and they will commit me.”
“Who?” he asked.
I walked to the kitchen, and there on top of my wallet, under my keys, was my horoscope from the Chicago Tribune today, which he had ripped out for me, completely unaware of what I was working on.
Take some time to imagine your future. What path will your career take? Where will you travel? Who will come along? Invent a delightful scenario.
Laying there, light creeping around the window shades, listening to the freight train rhythm of another heart, I feel the searing light traveling my veins again. Inhale. Exhale. Tops spinning. Mountain lions where they belong. This is it. It is. There are no predestine incidents. That train don’t run through here no more.