It grows darker and darker now, for longer and longer. The sun sets as early as 5 in the afternoon, and the dawn often brings only a narrow golden band that is all too soon absorbed by the grey overhang. When we have sunshine, it is so fleeting that we rush to put our coats on and go for a walk before it vanishes. More often, the sun is a mere pewter disc, briefly glimpsed and, apparently, ephemeral.
Even if we don’t observe the liturgical season of Advent, we experience advent as a sense of something coming into being, an undisclosed incipience. This time of year, we sink into a sense of waiting and of longing, an ancient yearning for the end of so much darkness. Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen sees it as a “time for deepening” when an odd mixture of joy and despair shapes our moods and feelings – joy if we are nurtured by a loving community and despair if we find ourselves alone.
Happiness, we are told, springs from attachment – to community, to family, to friends we are fond of or to someone deeply loved. When people nurture children or fall in love,” writes Maia Szalavitz in an article about why people take opioids, “hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health.” Conversely, “when we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drug.”
In countries like Finland and Denmark, where there are as little as six hours of daylight, Scandinavians seek to ward off winter gloom by producing an atmosphere of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah), a mood of cozy, warm comfort. This can be a cup of coffee or tea or cocoa and a good book in your most comfortable chair, or it can be a gathering of friends or family for long winter talks and hilarious games.
To set the mood you need something baking in your oven, fire your fireplace and candles on the mantle, as well as evergreens and glittering ornaments fetched out from (dark) attics and basements.
“He seems very nice,” my mother would say when I brought a suitor home for her inspection, “but is he good for forty years of long winter evenings?” (Reader, he was)
The principal holiday of the season antedates Christian Christmas as the Winter Solstice, when our primitive fears that it will get darker and darker forever are alleviated by the observation that – very gradually and at first barely discernably -the year has turned and our days will get lighter and lighter from now on. And that is why candles are lit everywhere to welcome the returning light and urge it on its way; and why, in Celtic traditions, we “open wide the guesting door” to family and friends and to all those in need of the solace of company.
When I was growing up, we attended midnight service on Christmas eve. Full of every kind of expectation, we sat silently in the pitch dark sanctuary until an old chorister named Chauncey appeared at the door to sing, in a deep a capella voice,” Oh come, oh come Emmanuel” as he made his way up the aisle, swinging a dimly lit kerosene lantern. When he reached the chancel, candles sprang into light all over the church.
I used that memory in my novel Fly Out of the Darkness, so here is that take on Advent, with my wishes for your joyous advent, profound hygge, merry Christmas, and strength for the new year.
“We may not have wings or leaves” like our fellow created beings, writes Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweetgrass, ” but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land.”
This is a great motto for me when I wonder about my purpose in life since I morphed from a writer of Eco Fiction to a political/environmental columnist for a world-wide publication and a contributor to a newspaper out of Frankfort. Michigan.
So, here we go! For those of you interested in a collection of my columns on the Trump Horrors, the Rise of Republican Fascism, the Nitty-Gritty of Political Organizing, How to Handle Climate Grief, and some of the alternative ways to redeem our good green world that we yearn for in these troubled times, check out my updates to The Worlds We Long For . Then, to cheer yourself up, you can see what my zany family and I have been up to at our Betsie River cabin now that, after long pandemic absence, we are together again!
When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1958, I thought the local newpaper was named The Birmingham Eccentric because I met so many eccentrics in Birmingham.
First, there was my fiancé’s family. His father was a fan of the Grand Trunk railroad and rode it to work in Detroit, but his great passion was for buying oddball cars – Volkswagens, Citroens, and Peugots – before anyone ever heard of them.
On my first visit, however, I was met at Willow run in an all-American brand, an open top, 1932 De Soto touring car. It was a huge, heavy thing – useful, as I discovered my first Birmingham Christmas, for rescuing hapless drivers of more lightweight vehicles. When it began to snow, I thought we would settle cozily around the fire. This was not to be: we buttoned up in layers and went out to the De Soto. My fiancé and his brother stood on the running boards, but I was assigned to sit on the hood to provide traction while we drove up and down big Beaver in the blizzard, pulling people out of the ditch.
Eccentricity ran in that family: the teetotalling great-grandfather had been an inventor of copper tubing devices, but when he learned, to his chagrin, that they were being used in whisky distillery, he sold the business and moved to Birmingham, where he founded his own religion. I inherited his notebooks with hand written chemical formulas down one side of the page and, upside down on the other, the tents of his oddball sect.
Did I mention that my mother-in-law dried her paper towels in the oven to use again and removed the yolks from hard-boiled eggs to feed to the squirrels? They dropped dead all from overdoses of choresterol, but maybe that was the point?
Then there was Fred the milkman, who stopped for long chats in the kitchen and knew everybody in the neighborhood. And the hermit who lived in the woods across the street. And the family friend, a quirky loner who never saw a doctor and smoked himself to death while his house fell down around him.
Birmingham eccentricity manifested itself in dizzyingly idiosyncratic housing styles: stucco bungalows next to wooden Cape Cods, mid-century glass modern next to traditional brick ranches. The houses conformed, nevertheless, in being of the same size. Tiny homes ran along certain streets, two and three bedrooms prevailed on others, while, one street over, they might run to four or five. You mostly found real mansions on streets of their own, mainly clustered near the Cranbrook Estate.
The town itself was nice, though the proprietors of the hardware and drugstore and corner market were (you guessed it) somewhat quirky. It was a perfectly ordinary place to shop- you could get an apron at Kresge’s, a modest outfit at Crowley’s, splurge on something fancier at Jacobson’s, and have a chat about books at the Birmingham Bookstore.
Recently, we had an interim minister at our church, and when I asked him if he had walked downtown he threw back his head and laughed “that’s not a place for people to shop,” he explained. Birmingham, it seems, has been turned into a high-end outdoor boutique, affordable only by the (very) rich.
I guess you can tell that I like variety and difference and that I find Birmingham’s monochrome population a serious drawback. Historically segregated by zoning ordnances and redlining, it has been slow to attract a variety of residents. That was why, when I read about the city’s new plan for multi-unit, affordable housing along our major boulevards, I posted in our neighborhood email about how excited I was at the diversity the new housing might foster.
This was not well received. I learned that I belonged to the “cancel culture.” I had to ask around about what that meant: if it is monochromatic sameness in race and income I would like to see cancelled,, I plead guilty. I was asked why I thought other (?) people might want to live among us (?). One woman was convinced that living in Birmingham constitutes the pot at the end of a meritocratic rainbow for which only the wealthy should aspire; she expected her own young relatives to live in Royal Oak until they earned the right to live here.
Fear not: though we are an endangered species, Birmingham still has its eccentrics. For example: this is me writing on a paper plate on my head:
Keep your eyes open- you might spot one coming out of the woodwork anywhere around town. There are hoarders and hermits, quirky loners and cranks, off-the-grid artists, inventors and oddballs yet dwelling amongst us.
Consider the admirably persistent artist who rose at dawn for years and years to concoct beautiful assemblages of feathers and flowers and pine cones all along the path in Linden Park. Just yesterday, I discovered that she inspired an apprentice, someone who had covered the top of a sawed off tree trunk with stones, little figures, and decorations with colorful baubles dangling over from an overarching branch. And then, just a little way further down the path, I found a poem thoughtfully encased in plastic attached to a birdhouse, telling us all about the goldfinches in the park and how they warm out hearts.
In the spring, I still had a sense of humor. I could write comic pieces about how my mask frightened the neighbors because I looked like a burglar. Now the weather is cool again, and the same outfit seems sad rather than funny.
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year – back to school, fresh writing projects, activist tasks that refresh my spirits and lead to meeting all kinds of new people. In the fall, even the “familiar strangers” of my daily encounters – sales clerks and grocery baggers, pharmacists and librarians – respond with more than their usual verve in the interactions I have always cherished.
Now it is all deliveries to my porch or the brief, unsatisfactory encounters of curb pickups.
My state of Michigan has managed Covid 19 very well, and I have not caught it, but a gang of white militiamen who are furious about masks, social distancing, and (especially) bar closures laid plans to kidnap our governor. Our terrifyingly dictatorial President caught the virus, but, far from being sidelined, he has lurched back into the last weeks of his campaign with spooky intensity, wearing a superman undershirt.
There is dread in our world. There is dread for our world.
There are sleepless nights. There are tearful mornings. There are long, lonely stretches as the afternoon dark comes early.
A November without Thanksgiving and a winter without Christmas are upon us. We plan to gather around the Zoom hearth and eat our solitary feasts with some (remote) semblance of festivity. I do feel rather clever to have purchased two electric lap robes for the porch, so that I can still have friends over for a chat.
My neighbors have been more neighborly than before the pandemic: they buy me groceries, swap extra supplies, go for walks and sit on the porch. My friendship groups offer heartwarming support on Zoom, and I deeply cherish long phone calls with my dearest old friends.
But we are dying – two of us are gone now (dear Rheba just a few weeks ago) and though I have a good, solid philosophy of mortality along the lines of “What a life! What a lark,” it doesn’t keep timor mortis from my door every time I have a fever or feel a bit flu-ish.
My father was quite a recluse, as is one of my grandsons; I worry that being shut in so long might turn me into an agoraphobic. I am unused to company: last Saturday, with two real people coming over (distanced walk/with masks, distanced porch-sit/with masks) plus a densely populated Zoom meeting, I freaked out and crawled under my bed.
I have always talked to myself, but now I am talking to people who aren’t there. When dear Rheba died (as Mozart played in a Canadian hospice where she was given an injection to the heart – what verve! what courage!) I fell right over keening, like a ululting Arabian widow. Then her last words (filled in on the “motto” line of her Canadian end of life form) got through to me –
“Disturb the universe! Rejoice!”
– So I got to my feet and brought her along on my household chores, chatting all about them with her.
This morning I had a long discussion with the bathroom spider about where he planned to secrete himself while I took my shower.
I bet I am not the only senior citizen arguing with her stuffed animal about who will sleep where in my bed.
I say good morning to the squirrel and to the nuthatch, and goodnight to the moon and the stars and to my picture of the Dalai Lama.
He is just my age and has this enormously engaging grin; he seems to find everything funny.
On my daily walks, I wear a mask. But nobody else wears a mask. I have a pleasant (6 foot apart) chat with a young woman who is not wearing a mask, at the end of which she says she is a nurse anesthetist at the local hospital. I rush home to wash my mask.
I have always felt naked without lipstick. With a mask over my mouth every time I go out, I don’t need to put on lipstick.
My mask leaves me breathless whenever I walk up hill, and gets all fogged up when I breathe excitedly while birdwatching.
My engagement book reads like Wylie Coyote – Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
Zoom is intrusive: it lets a whole committee into my home office and then, when they all disagree with me, there is no place to hide.
I discover that I can mute them: all of them!
A dear old friend tells me that, deprived of her volunteer comings and goings, she went “all OCD” and cleaned her garage “right down to the gnat’s eyebrow.”
(I feel no such compulsion)
I am not changed in any way by social isolation. I am not changed in any way by social isolation. But I can no longer get into the bathtub without my rubber ducky.
You know those bras I haven’t worn? I cut one up to make two masks, but it sure feels weird to stick my nose where my nipple used to be!
As I wait on the sidewalk for my friend to come out for a (socially distanced) chat, I realize that in my tweed cap, black jacket, mask, and umbrella I look like a robber intent on coshing her. So I devise an outfit consisting of a pink windbreaker, pretty cotton mask, and baseball cap to look less threatening.
I appear so utterly anonymous that I post it as a joke on Facebook. In the park a dear friend comes running up to me. “How did you know it was me,” I ask. “Oh, I recognized you from your Facebook picture!”
So, yesterday I decided that I needed to get my mind off the pandemic, which seems to have crept into every mental nook and crevice. When I was little, there was a lovely world I escaped to when things pressed down too hard upon my small shoulders, a world of tall grass and sunlight and the reassuring colloquies among mourning doves in the mulberry tree.
These days, I find solace in novels about life in rural England, quiet little villages where everyone knows everyone. There are cottages, of course, their front gardens friendly with hollyhocks and roses, and just enough quirky eccentricity to keep the gossip juices flowing.
There is nothing better for this proclivity than Angela Thirkell’s Barshetshire novels, which natter on about nothing at all and are indistinguishable from each other. I have shared this taste and our extensive Thirkell ttrove with a good friend, ever since we pounced upon a deceased Englishman’s collection at a local rummage sale.
So, in the present exigency, we swapped the novels we haven’t read (or have forgotten we’ve read) and I’ve been off and away at the end of each and every day of isolation, content in some English village of the mind.
But last night, with months of quarantine yet to come, I realized there was only one Thirkell left on my bedside table. And then, oh frabjous joy, I found J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country on my Kindle – an old church, a vicar, a shell-shocked World War I veteran – it would do for now. After that, it would be back to my collection of P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson, who also write the same English village novel over and over about nothing much at all.
Of course, it’s all unrealistic escapism – that’s what makes these novels so comforting in our present perils, which are much more like what went on in the Lincolnshire village my own ancestors escaped from by the skin of their teeth.
We are all locked up in our houses now – well, not exactly locked up, though it feels like it – self-isolated is the correct word. It is a weird situation for those of us who derive so much of our well-being from engaging with real live people; is it any wonder that we are beginning to converse with our teakettles?
Actually, talking to household objects isn’t all that strange. Travel writer Jan Morris, who at 90 is done with traveling, engages in “morning conversations with my toothbrush” and “night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture.” She also likes to “thank a good omelette.”
In a round of texting with my (self-isolating) friends I discovered that Sharon thanks each object as she throws it in the trash or recycles it, and that Marie was so struck by the beauty of her fried egg this morning that she took a photo portrait.
Years ago, when Yorkshire pudding was a staple of our household, I would congratulate it when it rose crisply from the sides of the pan, but I would never forget to commiserate when it fell flat.
One day, when I was about twelve years old, I let myself into our New York City apartment so quietly that my mother kept up her animated conversation with our dog Tuffy. When I asked her if she was all right, she replied that I should only begin to worry when Tuffy began to talk back.
I am beginning to worry.
This morning, the wallpaper in my bathroom, which has a pattern of tiny pink flowers on tiny green stems amid even tinier polka-dots, asked me if I couldn’t be more cheerful; but then the scale wondered if I had been eating too much peanut butter. My bed chided me that I hadn’t made it yet, but after I tidied the sheets and patted down the duvet it declared, with a kind of smug complacency, “Now aren’t I all cozy?”
Has my lack of human contact alerted me to the way these things have been carrying on all along? Maybe I should follow Poet David Whyte’s advice in “Everything is Waiting For You” to “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/ The conversation. The kettle is singing/ Even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots Have left their arrogant aloofness and Seen the good in you at last.”
When I sat down to read the cartoon issue of the New Yorker with my nice, hot cup of strong coffee one Saturday late in December, I found an article by my favorite prose writer about my favorite cartoonist. Adam Gopnik is wonderful at what used to be called a “turn of phrase,” like describing a reference book he likes as “an atypically larksome encyclopedia.” He is also good at juggling ideas in a way that gets right in amongst us:
“People who don’t want high speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains . . . these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals.”
Here he is on the difficulties cartoonist Roz Chast experienced when she cared for her aging parents until their deaths, which she chronicled in her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. She found herself “caught in a permanent meta-cycle of well-meant gestures, torn between compassion and exasperation, having to be kind when you just want to be gone.”
And on the Brooklyn of Chast’s childhood: “the world of the receding New York middle class: scuffed-up apartments, grimy walls, round-shouldered men perched n ratty armchairs and frizzy-haired women in old-fashioned skirts…marked by a shared stigmata of anxiety about the eyes.”
Gopnik’s take on Chast’s “Sad Buildings in Brooklyn” took me straight into a bittersweet but gentle nostalgia for the tiny Manhattan apartment where I grew up in the 1940s. It was filled with cigarette smoke, presided over by neurotic parents, with soot-encrusted sills at every window, in a dimly lit wartime neighborhood that was in every way distinctly pre-Big Apple.
Chast’s characters have escaped her sad Brooklyn for what Gopnik describes as “a kind of timeless Upper West Side of the mind,” her preferred New York neighborhood which became mine as well. I have found a place to stay in a brownstone apartment on West 81st Street and when I gaze into the windows of tiny apartments chockablock with books and dust and people having intense conversations amid take out boxes from Zabar’s, I feel poignant regret at my midwestern exile from a life I might have lived.
It seems miraculous that Chast’s sad Brooklyn buildings not only failed to overwhelm the little girl with their grimness and miasma of anxiety, but provided her with the settings and characters that gave her a successful career and a wonderful life. The key, I think, is immersing yourself in the sad oddities that life doles out, working through and with them rather than complaining about and pretending they didn’t happen. We are all broken in some way; the trick is to fill our cracks with whatever gold we can glean to create our uniquely idiosyncratic wholeness.
As we get older, silliness becomes an existential necessity. The trick is to stay silly, be silly, and find silly things to do. These days, I am knitting mice and then knitting little sweaters and skirts for them to wear; Roz Chast has learned to play a turquoise ukulele and performs (at the Carlisle, yet!) in band called the Uklear Meltdown.
As I get older, I sometimes treat myself to an upgrade when I travel— a slightly better (though far from luxurious) hotel than the motel I usually go to; or business rather than coach class on the train to Chicago. It was a bit more of a leap than that when, for the Washington-New York leg of a trip east, I bought myself an (expensive) ticket on the Acela. (This is an older blog, but I suspect itstill reflects the difference between taking the coach and the Acela)
I had first seen this marvel of a train one summer when I was boarding the Lakeshore Limited in Boston’s South Station on my way home to Detroit. The first leg of that trip involves a slow haul over the Berkshires at maybe twenty miles an hour, huffing and puffing all the way like the Little Engine that Could. But there, right on the other side of our boarding platform, sat an engine crafted out of gleaming steel, looking down at us lesser travelers with a long, streamlined nose. It was reputed, I remembered, to accomplish what in France they term TGV—“très grande vitesse”—a speed of 120 miles an hour. ” I’m going to take that someday,” I promised myself; and so I did.
I was traveling to New York City after a heart-warming visit to an old friend in Richmond, so I had to take the regional train that runs between Newport News and DC to catch the Acela. The coach seemed pleasant enough; I found an empty seat and settled down next to the window, gazing at reeds blowing in the wind in a broad, misty marshland. As the conductor approached I got out my ticket and noticed that this train continued on to New York. Ever nervous about my travel arrangements, I said
“I see that we go all the way to New York City. Can I stay on if I miss my connection to the Acela?”
“No problem, if we have a seat for you. Worst case scenario, we put you off in DC and you catch the Acela when it comes through.”
I sat there doing mental arithmetic, which I was never good at. 1.They put me off in DC. 2. The Acela, much faster than this regional, comes whistling ‘through.’ 3. If both get to New York City at 5:45, won’t the Acela accelerate itself past where I am put off before we get there? 4. This depends on how late the regional is. Recalling puzzlers like “Train A goes at 60 miles per hour and train B goes at 120 miles per hour. If a little old lady is put off of one to catch the other, how many minutes can train A be late to allow her to catch train .” Answer comes there none.
At Fredericksburg, I acquire a seat mate. At Quantico, there is an announcement that the train is now full. I resume my calculations on time/motion train A vs train B problem, but still to no avail. At Woodbridge, I climb over the knees of my seatmate, only to discover that the toilet is out of paper.
My favorite meal on Amtrak is a Hebrew National Hot Dog so full of sodium that I wonder what would happen to me if it raised my blood pressure and triggered a stroke? Nevertheless, I would really enjoy one just about now.
Announcement resounds though the car that the café is out of 1. Sprite and 2. hot dogs.
I would like to take out my knitting, but the seats are so close together that I might find myself elbowing the nice but rather capacious lady sitting next to me. There is a lot more talking now, some of it quite loud, and children are skittering up and down the aisle. The car is beginning to feel close packed and stuffy; and what is that smell?
“We are sorry Ladies and Gentlemen,” comes the announcement, “We are out of toilet paper.”
At Alexandria, I look at my watch and discover that it is an hour before my confirmed ticket on the Acela, so I decide it will be well worth the effort to make the switch and enjoy my treat after all. I haul my suitcase into Union Station with plenty of time to lug it to the bookstore where I buy a Wilson Quarterly, a journal so full of wonky articles and well reasoned book reviews that it is always good for a train journey.
I am sitting in the waiting area absently scanning the announcement board when time/motion problem is solved:board lists hourly Acela departures. It must have been the next one I was supposed to “hop on” to, though how to achieve that without a reservation is not entirely clear. Perhaps these luxury trains never fill up entirely?
I love walking down the platform alongside a train, refreshed by air so much cooler than inside. This time, there is the gratification of glancing up at the gleaming, streamlined engine I had so envied in Boston. As we get underway through the rail yards and begin to pick up speed in Maryland, we move along the tracks like a knife through butter, so different from the regional’s bumps and grinds, Soon everything is going by so fast that I don’t have a chance to identify the duck on a particular pond or what crops are at what stage—the landscape seen from an Acela is more prototypical than particular, affording the general idea of meadow or forest, like a kind of Platonic ideal. The seats are capacious and comfortable, with a surfeit of leg room and plenty of space between, though I am without a seat mate at the moment.
Perfect, I realize, for knitting! I am working on a little yellow baby sweater for a friend’s first grandchild and need to get on with it as I am hosting her granny shower right after I get home, so I take to knitting and purling in blissful comfort. That is, until I notice rows of finely tailored trousers relaxed between seats and elegant shoes on foot rests all around me. Good heavens! My car is occupied by men in elegant, well fitting (bespoke?) suits, who must be Very Important People. I recall that the Acela is much frequented by Senators and Congressmen—Joe Biden and all that—and isn’t that Brent Scowcroft sitting across the aisle, glancing at me with mild surprise before politely averting his eyes? It must be unusual among this dapper crowd to spy a lady in red blazer, pink blouse, and pearls carrying on with her knitting.
I don’t feel unimportant to myself—Full Professor, Feminist Founder, Academic Author and all that—but I must look unimportant to them. I wonder if there is a car full of well-dressed, powerful women somewhere on this train, or can they afford it? Never mind—there are those lovely pastures streaming by and the intimate windows of cities to glance (fleetingly) into, so I turn my sweater to a purl row, though I am beginning to get awfully hungry.
Walking through the cars to find something to eat, I pass an enclosure with armchairs and little tables and a sign affixed to the glass that identifies it as a “Quiet Room—no Cellphones or Children.” There are elegantly suited women working busily at their laptops, and a dapper executive’s legs stretching out from his Wall Street Journal. I am surprised to find that the dining arrangements are the same as on the regional, just a café with no Hebrew National Hot Dogs on offer but adequate if plain sandwiches and good strong coffee. Returning to my seat, I notice right at the beginning of my car that a tiny lady, probably in her sixties, is perched on a stool busily tapping away at her laptop while urgently telling someone at the other end of her cell phone how to prepare the room for a speech she is going to make at the Hilton.
When I settle down with my Wilson Quarterly I notice that, as always on a moving train, I am suddenly capable of grasping concepts that otherwise elude me. Soon, however, I need to visit the bathroom (Toilet Paper! Clean Sink! Scented Hand Soap!) and on the way back walk slowly enough to read over the urgently busy lady’s shoulder. The masthead of her stationary reads
REPAIRING THE WORLD!
Good for her, I say to myself, she is restoring the world like in Tikum Olam, that marvelous creation story where God sent his light into the world with such power and glory that it broke all the jars he had set out to contain it, their shards scattering all over the universe, leaving us to repair the world by gathering the thousand thousand things and returning them to their containers.
Good for the tiny lady repairing the world with her laptop, I reflect, and good for the women working on theirs in the quiet room and for all of these busy, dapper men as well, if they are of honest intent.
And good for me too, traveling far and wide to renew the warmth of friendship. And so we streak through the wetlands of New Jersey at more miles per hour than I have ever experienced on a train, until the towers of the city where I was born rise in all their splendor out of the New Jersey marshes.
“You went to Washington how? By train? I didn’t know people still did that,” my friends often ask, to which I answer, “Yes, but I always take the sleeper.”
What you do, if you live near Detroit, is get yourself to the Amtrak station in Dearborn, where a bus picks you up and zips down route 75 to Toledo and the Capitol Limited. The hardest part of the trip is the pitch dark drive down the Southfield Expressway, which turns itself into a concrete tunnel for much of the way. My night vision is not very good, and I am perpetually nervous that a flat tire will force me onto the practically non-existent shoulder, up against that high granite wall. So I zip along in my little blue car, coiled tight as a spring, chanting the mantra my husband would always used when I would bleat “Couldn’t you slow down, just a little bit?” And he would reply, “In a situation like this, you have to keep up with the traffic.”
From a situation like that I am always glad to arrive in one piece at the Amtrak station, its waiting room bright in the darkness and likely to be full of large, cheerful people in matched pastel pants and sweatshirts with cute sayings all over them, lugging fluffy pillows, carry-ons, shopping bags, toddlers, and babies. These Happy Campers all chat away excitedly, in stark contrast to the mood of the attendant, a curmudgeonly fellow who crouches balefully behind his glass partition and answers all our questions sarcastically.
I settle down on the tippy plastic chair and begin to feel, right down to my pores, the beginning of a metamorphosis from a terrified night driver to wide-eyed, eager traveler. If laughter is jogging for the soul, then my soul begins to stretch on the bus to Toledo, where the drivers are invariably loopy. When we have picked up our Detroit passengers and tooled off down the dark highway, this one turns on his speaker to declare:
“Okay, all you guys now, listen up—this is important. I know it goes against how you think of yourselves as manly men, but do not stand over the toilet. Take a hint from the ladies here and sit down for number one like you would for number two. This is a bus. The toilet is in the back where it bumps all over the place. You can get tossed around. I want you to know, here and now, that I refuse to stop the bus and come back there to retrieve your cell phone or your credit card case or your wallet that has fallen in because you think you’re too much of a man to sit down to pee!”
My day (that is, my night) is made. It may be half past eleven on a dark and rainy evening, but the Amtrak station in Toledo is always bustling with people catching the Lakeshore Limited for New York or the Capitol Limited for Washington. The Happy Campers sprawl over every seat not already occupied by their total opposites, the traveling Amish, who are not half as startled by the Happy Campers as the Happy Campers are by their large families of bearded, suspendered men folk, girls and women in homemade cotton dresses, and children so much better behaved than their toddlers, who are careening all over the station, that they seem to belong to an entirely different species.
The seating consists of extremely uncomfortable curved settees with rigid, upright backs. Over the years, I’ve mastered the art of stretching out along the slippery vinyl with my head on my overnight bag and my novel to pass the time when the train is late. Recently, however, it’s been right on time, and that’s when the real excitement begins.
At two minutes to midnight a rumbling wells up under our feet and shakes the whole building, accompanied by the heady announcement “Attention! Attention! Amtrak announces the arrival of The Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, with intermediate stops at Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Pittsburgh….all passengers must step through the door and across the tracks. Please have your tickets ready. Coach passengers to your right, sleeping car passengers to your left.”
However tired I am, I become instantly elated (here we go!) and also sharply alert, remembering the time I headed left but the sleeping car was locked, its attendant fast asleep within. I ran back down the tracks to the mail car to find help, realizing that if the train started moving I was going to have to jump for it and perhaps have a heart attack in the process. These days, I never leave the side of a conductor until he points out my sleeping car attendant waiting down the track. Then I’m off with my rolling suitcase, amid hissing brakes and rumbling engines.
“Berth for Pratt! Berth for Pratt,” a shout from the anonymous dark that never fails to lift my tired heart. The attendant heaves my bags up the stairs saying “number five, to the right,” or “E, upstairs and to the left.” I find my room, draw the curtain, and sit my suitcase on the (in room) toilet, contorting myself into my pajamas and wrestling the sink down to brush my teeth before jamming my suitcase in the narrow space between bunk and door, to a muted chorus of groans and laughs through the wall as the Happy Campers attempt these maneuvers for the first time in their lives.
These are snug little rooms which, in daytime, contain two easy chairs and a fold out table, with a bottle of water provided, and free coffee and orange juice out in the corridor.
At midnight, I usually find the lower bunk opened out with one thin blanket (I always travel with a second), two pillows, and, if it’s my lucky day, a square of chocolate-covered mint. There are last shouts of “all aboard,” then the tumble and lurch of departure, and we chundle chuck, chundle chuck out of Toledo, our whistle bleating with an odd mixture of confident assertion and diffident wailing as the engine cleaves the darkness.
I climb happily into my bunk, tension draining from my every muscle as, rocking along, I experience that wonderful state of mind induced by going somewhere purposefully without exerting the least personal effort. “There are some people,” writes my all-time favorite novelist Margaret Drabble, “who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery, as though each displacement of the body were a displacement of the soul”*
That is exactly how I feel every time. I have been coiled up like a spring and feel my soul unclinching, eager for new experiences and discoveries. I have woken at night to watch thousands of stars over Sandusky; homebound, I have greeted the dawn over that same bay gleaming pewter in the dawn, where great blue herons glide close to the water on their enormous wings.
It isn’t just the scenery that stretches my soul. The meals (free with your sleeper ticket) take place in a dining car where the waiter always seats you with perfect strangers. “One of the signs of passing youth,” writes Virginia Woolf, “is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them,” a tendency that seems to pitch older train travelers (younger ones, I have noticed, are more likely to stare sullenly down at their napkins) into interesting conversations. Over those (real) linen tablecloths, (fake, plastic) flowers, and copious breakfasts, I have participated in some stunning colloquies.
We are negotiating the Cumberland Gap and I am deep into my French toast, orange juice, and coffee when the man sitting beside me says “Look over there! We’re in Hastings—that’s where I grew up!” He turns out to be a Presbyterian minister, and, at my query about whether Calvin is still an influence, we eagerly plunge into theological discussion. He doesn’t buy the traditional concepts of original sin and any more than I do, but we agree that there is plenty of evil about and you have to be alert to it. Our dining mates across the table chime in at this point. They are Christian Scientists who believe that goodness is all around us, that we are surrounded by Spirit to the extent that we don’t have to worry about getting to heaven because we are there already. They are interested to learn about my Universalist conviction that we are born good and goodness will ultimately triumph.
I return to my berth, which the attendant has made back into a sitting room, to brood over a New Yorker article I couldn’t make head or tail of when I started it at home but which seems perfectly clear on the train, which not only calms my body and soothes my soul, but even perks up my brain. As we rattle along, I often arrive at sudden understanding of difficult concepts, and knotty family problems untangle themselves with astonishing ease.
The morning sun strikes a little white church on a country road and, an instant later, illuminates a farm, making black and white cows stand out like porcelain figures. I am enjoying my second cup of coffee when I realize we have reached the old riverside towns strung along the upper Potomac and will be in Washington on time, where there will be no a tedious wait for my baggage followed by a long, dreary drive from the airport. With a last triumphant wailing whistle, the Capitol Limited pulls into Union Station, within walking distance of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building and, I am pleased to note, my own hotel.
*Margaret Drabble, “A Voyage to Cythera,” A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Houghton Mifflin (New York, 2011), pp. 23-24