Listen to the Song of the Train

Lordship Lane Station, 1871 by Camille Pissarro

In the quiet darkness of night, I hear the comforting rumble of the train as I lie awake in the same little town where I grew up. My head rests now on a pillow not far from the cozy bed of my childhood, where the train’s song was a lullaby of comfort, a reminder of perseverance, and a symbol of life’s journey.

As a child, the train that ran through our town watched over me like an angel. Day or night, its approaching sound assured me life was chugging along in a steady rhythm, and I was never alone. My train angel’s steel wings sang a soothing hymn as it flew by my house, school, or secret spot in the woods.

Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’m conditioned to feel peace when I hear the distant sound clattering down the tracks. Even now, the train’s vibration sinks deep into my heart, and instantly makes me feel calm and connected. In her poem Song of the Railroad Train, Mrs. John Loye wrote, “How grand by night o’er countryside is that wild melodious strain; and music blown at eventide, is the song of the railroad train.”

No child should grow up without reading the American folktale The Little Engine that Could. The 1930s story teaches the value of optimism and hard work. At nearly sixty years old, I confess to finding strength in the little blue engine’s mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.”

Sometimes the rails we ride are long and monotonous, other times, they take us up steep hills, down plunging valleys, and through dark tunnels. When we can’t see the light, we find the hope and the will to keep going.

Trains are an easy metaphor. We’re all aboard a journey that takes us to different stations in life, some by choice and others by chance. There are love trains, peace trains, crazy trains, runaway trains, midnight trains, and freedom trains.

Along the way we’re joined by fellow passengers ~ family, friends, teachers, loves, children, coworkers, and neighbors ~ but we all begin and end our trip alone. Sometimes the train takes us right back where we began. We step off the platform carrying a lifetime of lessons, experiences, and memories collected on our sojourn.

On this night, the ambient wail and low blowing horn remind me of a salvation song. I hum along with my train angel, “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’. You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith, to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” §

A Revolution of Civility ~ 10 rules from George Washington for today

Portrait of George Washington by Thomas Sully circa 1820

America’s annual holiday in honor of George Washington came a little more than a month after an unsettling display of incivility at our nation’s Capitol. The event shook many of us to our core and increased our desperate longing for a more gracious society.

I recently picked up a book on the clearance shelf titled Civility ~ George Washington’s 110 Rules for Today by Steven Michael Selzer. According to the author, when George Washington was just fourteen, he copied 110 principles for personal conduct from a manual composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Washington titled his list Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation and carried it with him throughout his life.

As America’s first president, perhaps Washington understood that civil behavior is not just desirable but essential to a successful democratic nation. In a letter written to the people of Baltimore in 1789, Washington wrote what could easily be applied to us today, “It appears to me that little more than common sense and common honesty, in the transactions of the community at large, would be necessary to make us a great and happy nation.”

Most of Washington’s rules are as apropos in 2021 as they were 250 years ago, though a few have become less relevant. One such rule states, “Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle, put your foot dexterously upon it.” Ew, George.

Out of Washington’s 110 rules, I’ve chosen just ten (keeping his original language) that could start a revolution of civility.

  1. Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present. This was Washington’s rule number one, and if we truly followed it, the others might be unnecessary. Everyone deserves kindness and respect, and though the rules are apolitical, it does pair nicely with a nation founded upon principles of democracy.
  2. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet. This rule makes me think Washington may have spent some time as an eighth grade teacher. We should all keep in mind that our music, talking, fidgeting, pencil tapping, phone use, and other behaviors might be disturbing to others.
  3. Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty. I’ve heard it said we Americans often know our rights better than our wrongs. We are gloriously endowed with freedom of speech, but we should do so carefully, respectfully, and wisely.
  4. Use no reproachful language against anyone. Neither curse nor revile. One of the most distressing scenes from January 6 was that of a woman, old enough to be a grandmother, standing in the halls of our Capitol repeatedly calling someone a most vile name. Cursing others may be commonplace in today’s society, but civil it is not.
  5. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company. In business, politics, and our personal life, we should be careful of the company we keep. It was Washington’s pal Benjamin Franklin who said, “He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”
  6. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. I’m not sure Washington could have foreseen the abounding dishonesty paraded as truth in our society. Now more than ever, we have the responsibility to get our information from trustworthy sources and share it judiciously.
  7. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly. In the words of another great president, Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
  8. Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private. In an age when many over-share details of their personal lives, it’s still important to respect people’s privacy. It takes a certain amount of maturity and discretion to stay out of the rumor mill.
  9. Put not another bite into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls. Though poor table manners may not be immoral, they can be unpleasant. A revival of basic etiquette would go far in increasing our respect towards one another.
  10. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. This delightful quote is Washington’s 110th and final rule. Deep down we know civil from uncivil, courteous from discourteous, polite from impolite. Imagine if we all endeavored to keep that heavenly flame of our conscience burning bright. §

From Nature, With Love

heart swans

Nature sends the sweetest Valentines. She  gives us heart-shaped gifts in the form of clouds, seashells, and adorable puppy spots. A universal symbol of love, hearts found in nature are positively sigh-inducing.

My son was very young when he proudly gave me a rock shaped like a heart. I imagine his face beaming at its discovery while playing outside, his tiny hand quickly stuffing it in his pocket for safe-keeping. He found supplies to decorate it, outlining the rock’s shape with red poster paint and carefully painting, in blue, the word love.

It’s a gift I’ve never forgotten, and so began my beloved collection of heart rocks. For more than twenty years, nature has freely offered them. Family and friends find them on their travels and present them to me knowing I will cherish them more than any souvenir.

When my husband and I go hiking, we frequently stop to pick up a rock that catches our eye, gleaming at the bottom of a creek bed or hiding in forested nooks and rocky crannies. We carefully examine it and hold it out for the other to approve. Only those with a certain je ne sais quoi make the cut. The others are given a parting squeeze and tossed back with a wish.

My heart rock collection fills a large tray in our bedroom. There are more than a hundred, some the size of my palm, others as small as a dime. Their colors are a soothing palette of nature. They came from beaches and deserts, rivers and mountains, playgrounds and parking lots. I wonder the story of each one. How old is it? Where has it been? How did nature manage to tumble and turn it until it was shaped like love?

Photographers have captured amazing images of hearts in nature from all over the world ~ a heart-shaped beach in Brazil, a heart-shaped boulder in Joshua Tree National Park, a heart-shaped island in Croatia, even a heart-shaped crater on the surface of Mars.

While such phenomenon would be a thrill to see, I’m just as happy to spy a flock of birds flying in a heart pattern or a perfect heart-shaped leaf trailing from a houseplant.

Those who open their eyes in appreciation of nature are freely bestowed her gifts. William Wordsworth wrote this lovely sentiment about her undying affection, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” §

Note: A version of this story was published on my blog and in my local newspaper last February. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Embracing the Season of Now

My mother, daughter, and I stand next to one another in front of a sunny window. The trees outside my mom’s bedroom are bare on this crisp winter day. “The trees will be so pretty in a couple of months,” I say, instantly regretting my words.

I’m learning to accept and appreciate the unmatched beauty of the moment.

It’s easy to spend our time dreaming of the next season or reminiscing about past ones. The ages of the three women in that room span more than fifty years. Each feels a certain amount of discomfort about the season in which she finds herself.

At thirty, my daughter is in full bloom. She faces the daily excitement and anxiety of a demanding profession in a bustling city. She is a newlywed looking forward to becoming a homeowner and wondering if she will also become a mother. If not unaware, she is indifferent to her skin so soft and supple, her body so long and lithe, her mind so sharp and strong.

In the window is a hazy reflection of me between my daughter and my mom. I’m part of the sandwich generation, those of us firmly in the middle of grown children we still worry about and aging parents who need our care. I’m retired now, leaving me no real identity outside of my relationships. I look a little tired and no longer young, but I am still growing.

My mother is the most deeply rooted of us. She is a towhead little girl, a beautiful bride, a young mother, a devoted grandmother, and a grieving widow. She says she never expected to live so long and that she doesn’t want to be a burden. How I wish she understood she’s no more a burden than a stately tree that’s provided solace and shade for generations.

As if my daughter and mother can read my mind, we are silent. The significance of the three of us coming together for just a moment to look out the same window is palpable.

The trees’ myriad of branches are strong, bold, and intentional against the bright blue sky. They hold both the memory and promise of fresh blossoms and green leaves, but on this cold and clear winter day they are living fully in the season of now. §