Friday, December 02, 2011

I'm Not Working on the Railroad

It is better to travel well than to arrive. ~ Buddha

We glided through the backsides of villages, the centers of old downtowns, along the edges of abandoned industrial zones. We slid in chasms between wooded embankments, over iron bridges spanning amber-tinted rivers, through dark brick tunnels.

What a vastly different way to spend the day. I read, napped, and gazed out the window. This is traveling by train.

When, in the week before Thanksgiving, the husband declined to give me a ride to Union Station to catch a bus to New York—I was meeting my musician daughter who had a gig in Manhattan—he suggested I take the train. The fare was comparable to what I’d spend on gas, tolls and parking. It was cheaper than flying. And much more comfortable.

As a kid I traveled regularly by train into New York City via the Long Island Railroad. Back then, the ride was clunky. The passenger trains offered bench seats and stopped at every rinky dink town on the South Shore.

And of course, in England and Ireland, I’ve used their extensive rail systems, for traveling from town to town or from one end of the country to the other. Plus, instead of being isolated in your automobile, you get to mingle with the locals.

The Crescent that I rode from Charlottesville to New York’s Penn Station offered wide, cushioned seats that reclined to a comfortable sleeping position (not just two inches like bus or airplane seats), had ample leg room and a folding table. The overhead storage had plenty of space for my suitcase and the husband’s guitar (he was loaning it to Rachel for her gig). The snack car—four cars away—served fresh hot coffee and tea, beer and wine, sandwiches such as wraps and paninis, and lots of snacks, all at reasonable prices.

The windows on the train cover the whole wall above the seats, as if to acknowledge that, hey, there is a world to see. If you prefer to sleep, you can pull the curtain. This train’s route was New Orleans to New York, so some passengers were on it for the long haul.

I, who had been stressed, hurried and anxious for weeks, felt at peace on that six-and-a-half-hour journey. I was not where I’d been nor where I was going. I had no decisions to make, no obligations to keep. Around me, a few passengers had quiet conversations. I gazed out the window, read and napped.

This passage—I did not note the source in my quote book—is about a woman traveling by ship, a journey of several weeks:

“It was an interlude when time ceased to matter. One might hear the ringing of ship’s bells or the call of the watch by night, but there was no past to be reckoned with because that lay far behind the white wake of the stern; no future, because the dripping prow still pointed toward an unbroken horizon. ‘I was never able to visualize Eternity until now,’ she wrote.”

As I write this, it comes to me that the timeless quality of this journey was like a Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Abraham J. Heschel writes that the Sabbath is holiness in time, a palace in time, a sanctuary in time, and that God commanded us to keep the Sabbath to know ourselves as eternal beings, to remember this core part of ourselves.

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath?”

That doesn’t sound like bad religion, does it?

As I anticipated this train trip, I wonder if in my heart somewhere I consecrated it. I’m using “religious” language here, but I’m not talking about God; I’m talking about just being.

Heschel writes, “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

How can I swing this Sabbath thing on a weekly basis? I need it. A day in which I nap, read and gaze out the window.

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