The Soul Of My Life
Every night, I boarded the train. It arrived as I drifted off to sleep. I could hear it coming. The rhythmic sound it made and the longing call of its whistle. Every night, I would travel to places I had been before. I would disembark the train and the conductor would nod, as if he knew me. He would remind me the return train arrives in three hours. I hurried off the train, I wanted to return to who I was before. I wanted to watch my fears, bad choices, and the blatant disregard for myself again and again. I wanted the opportunity for a second chance. And somewhere between dreams and reality, it was being offered.
I rubbed my eyes and looked around. Clouds illuminated the black stoic train. It was busy with people walking around asking for directions. The conductor would tilt his face back and laugh, and tell people they would recognize their exit. People were anxiously awaiting their trips. Every person was traveling alone. The voice of a man echoed through the station, "Passengers, please find your seats." I cautiously climbed the steps to my window seat. Huge windows lined both sides of the train. One side was a busy city, the other a rural landscape, soon it lured into a rainbow of color as the train headed down the tracks. The clickity-clack calmed my nervous heart. It seemed a minute, yet a lifetime, and my stop was next.
The stable was siting off in the distance. No one was there. The train pulled to a stop. The conductor held my hand as I stepped off the train. He adjusted his hat and said, "We will return in three hours. Enjoy your time here, you have the power to make it stay." I nodded ambivalently, not sure what he was talking about. I walked to the gate, and out of nowhere my beloved Irish Setter, Sham, ran to me wagging his tail. I dropped to my knees to greet him. Tears filled my eyes. I hugged him and put his face in my hands. I looked in his eyes. I saw me looking back. He licked my salty cheek, and I stood up and said to him, "I only have three hours." He frolicked off as if it had not been decades that had passed. It was as if yesterday was today. I soon realized I was, for three hours, where I had once been before.
I had returned to my senior year in high school. I was going off to college the following fall. I was excited, and yet there was a sense of dread. My parents said we would have to sell the horse. They just could not justify the upkeep while I was away. I was heartbroken at the thought of releasing my filly into the care of someone else. I loved her. I could not wrap my head around losing her. As I walked closer to the barn, I heard her knicker and shake her beautiful head. As I turned the corner, there she was greeting me with circles in the stall and pawing with her hoof. I ran to her, wrapping my arms around her neck. Everything in my world felt right. For the next two and a half hours, I made the decision to renege on my earlier regret. This time I would choose to keep Foxy and live with the results. There would be no trip to Ingleside Stables, no leading her to the paddock, no kissing her for the last time, no walking away. There would be no walking away from what I loved. My story changed in a blink. My broken heart mended. I had one hour left and then the train would return, I had no idea how this would all play out. I just knew I had to fix it. The next hour was spent walking in the woods with Foxy, and my setter not far behind. I felt a peace that had eluded me for so many years. I heard the train coming. I hugged my horse, I hugged my dog. I told them that in some way, I would return to them. I waved a tearful goodbye and walked towards the train. The conductor smiled and said, "How was your visit?" I looked up and just said, "Thank you," and walked towards my seat. The return trip was a blur. Within minutes, I was back in my bed, just waking up. Something felt different. I felt different. I struggled for a moment to understand why.
I was constantly thinking about my strange midnight trip. It seemed so real, but was it? I could not decipher if sleep was real or a journey to where I could not go otherwise, and suddenly, the train arrived again. This time I was less afraid and more excited about where I would go. I spoke to the conductor and he nodded his head with a wink. I smiled in return. I took my seat, and within minutes a man said over the loudspeaker, "Passengers, please take your seats." The train lurched, and the colors outside the window became a blur. I watched the colors of the world become a kaleidoscope, and then the train slowed down and I recognized the spot. I was at the house I grew up in. Everything looked the way it did when I was living there. When it was mine. I sat and watched for a minute from the window of the train. My dad pulled into the driveway. Sham ran out to meet him, tail wagging. My dad walked in the door and said, "Maug, I'm home." My mom said, "Okay, dinner will be ready in a minute." The conductor walked over and said, "We are on a tight schedule; go on, it's okay." I slowly got up as if where I was going was sacred in an odd sort of way.
I walked down the steps, onto the driveway. How crazy is this? I am grown, yet to my parents, still young. Apparently, it could be any day in my junior year in high school. They will think I have been at the barn and I came home for supper. So I walked to the steps, and in awe, looked around at things I had not noticed before. Like the flowers in the wrought iron porch rails. I had seen them a thousand times, and yet never noticed the detail. I put my hand on the door and walked in, "Mom, I'm home!" The door slammed behind me. Sham ran to greet me, and my dad looked up from The Star and said, "How was school today?" I said "Fine," and added a quick "I'll be right back." I walked into my room, everything was the same. My albums stacked on the floor, Joni Mitchell on the turntable. I ran my hand across my things, my black riding jacket in the closet, my tall riding boots, the telephone still sitting on my bed. When I looked in the mirror, the shy girl looking back was prettier than I remembered. Her brown eyes looked back at me, as if to say, "Who are you?" I took a few yoga breaths and walked back into the kitchen. Mom had iced tea with lemon already at my chair, and she was calling my sister to come eat. I heard her TV shut off and her recliner fold up as she giggled and headed to the bathroom to wash her hands. I looked at my dad and said, "I need to talk to you about college." He looked up surprised. He adjusted his glasses and said, "Okay, what's up?" I told him, "I have had a dream two times in the last ten days, and in the dream I am a writer." I went on, "You know how much I love my English class with Miss Judy Norvell, maybe I really am a writer." He laughed and adjusted his glasses again, and said, "You come from generations of writers, so I would not be surprised." I said, "Really? I thought Mom's family were all musicians, and your family were teachers and stuff?" He laughed again. He looked at me with his deep blue eyes and said, "Aunt Frances is a writer, Aunt Jean is, too. And in the Brown family is a collection of readers and writers, so what does this mean?" I looked at Mom, who was listening intently, "I know you wanted me to apply to Carolina, and I told you 'No', I knew I was gifted enough, but maybe not studious enough, but I have changed my mind." The room fell silent. My dad took a bite of mashed potatoes, and he was thinking really hard. He looked at me and said, "What wonderful news. I would be thrilled to have you there." The mood changed from tense, to celebratory. I looked at my parents one last time before I had to leave. I realized how incredibly lucky I was to have them. I hugged them tightly before I left to grab the mail. They seemed surprised. I hugged my sister, and she said over and over, "So you want to be a writer?" I told her, 'Yes.' She said, "What will you write about?" I told her, "All of you." I sat down and whispered to Sham, "I know you know, tell no one." I gazed into his eyes and tears began to trickle down my face. I hugged him and said, "I'll be right back." I ran down the stairs as the train arrived. The conductor asked if I had had a nice visit. I looked at him and said "Yes, I changed my life." He smiled as I walked to my seat. As I looked out the window, I saw myself run up the steps. My long, dirty blonde hair flying in the wind. The young beautiful girl turned around and looked at me, I smiled and lifted my hand and gave a little wave. As the train pulled off, I blew her a kiss. Everything was changing.
The train arrived at my destination long before sunrise. I said my goodbyes, and remembered little else. Several hours later, I awoke to cardinals outside my window. The dogs were still snuggled in, and so I pulled the covers up and stayed there contemplating my trip. I could not believe it was real, and yet it was too vivid for a dream. I wondered how just saying I would not sell my horse or just saying I wanted to go to a different college and changing my past was even possible. And how on Earth would I know, I live in the present. So I tried to make sense of it all, and yet there was none. I finally climbed out of bed and fixed some tea. I added ice and a lemon slice. I then poured chilled kefir into a glass. I remember how I hated the taste at first, and now I love it. Is that how life is supposed to work? Do we just acquire a taste for the life we are given? You know the old cliché, "Bloom where you are planted", or do we search for our garden and plant ourselves there? Tennessee Williams so eloquently wrote, Love what you love and make no apologies. It seems settling is a kind of giving up on our one chance at life. There is just no way to know. When does longing outweigh loyalty? And when does love acknowledge the longing of another? I will never untangle the give and the take of life. All I knew was something strange was happening to me, and I was not really sure why. My childhood was far from perfect, and yet it was perfect. My life was not perfect, and yet I was happy in moments. Is that life, or do we create the perfect life rather than accepting the imperfect one? I had no idea, but I knew my dogs wanted a walk, and I had things to do. I didn't know if I should have asked the universe for help or if I should have prayed to the Divine for guidance, or perhaps I should have just ridden the train and seen where I landed. I thought about seeing my parents, my sister, my dog Sham. In and of itself, that was a miracle. To know an outcome and then change it, was a remarkable thought. One I would not take lightly.
For the next several nights, the train did not come. I fell into sleep and would wake wondering if that was it, the end of my trips to places I had already been. I thought about it, but my nights had grown quiet. Then one night, the train appeared in a fluff of steam. The conductor met me by the train. He said, "Good evening, we did not forget you. Things have been busy. Too many people. Too many regrets. It takes time to unravel them all. I am sure you must understand." I looked at him and nodded, and he said as I walked to the door, "Hey wait...What is it you want most?" I stood in the doorway, and looked off in the distance and said, "I regret not buying a farm." He looked at me again and said, "A farm?" I said, "Yes," and I turned to walk down the aisle to my seat.
As I sat on the train, I thought about my life. I married in my early twenties. We were so excited about love that we never considered the landscapes in our mind or the longings in our hearts. But it wasn't long before we realized what lured us was a different sense of reality. For decades, I moved in and out of neighborhoods that were comfortable for my groom, but virtually impossible for me. For decades, I was trapped by zero lot lines, neighbors, and the endless rows of houses. I could not breathe, as the world was constantly closing in on me. My husband could not really understand, and pleaded with me to be like other women. I tried to play the role, but I wanted the home inside my head instead of dying in someone else's reality.
My thoughts were interrupted, the train was going faster than usual. I got this very claustrophobic feeling of dread. The sound of the tracks were a disappearing sound of chaos. I had heard it all before. As a young girl, I once loved a horse, he would always run for home. No matter how far away I was from the barn, he would tuck his hind legs, and with all the power he could muster, he would fly home oblivious to the fact that I was on his back. No matter how tightly I pulled on the reins, he would only run faster. More often than not, I would end up far away from the barn on the ground. He would never look back. It created in me this fear of losing control. Yet to really live, we must, in some way, lose control and make a dash for what we desire, no matter how perilous it might be in the arriving. So this feeling of fear was taking me over. The train was getting louder. My hands were sweating as I pulled on the seats in front of me while slowly moving towards the locomotive. I had failed to notice that on this night, I was the only passenger on the train. My heart was pounding. I suddenly made a run for the conductor, grabbing seat backs to keep my balance as the train continued to lurch forward. He was heading my way, and we met face to face. I yelled at him over the noise of the flying train, "Do something!" He looked at me in a very strong way and said, "No, you do something, this is your life, not mine. It is obviously running away with you." I started crying and yelled, "What are you talking about?" He yelled back louder, "Only you can stop it!" I felt that very panicked feeling I had felt so many times before. As I moved forward he screamed at me, "It's your life!" I diligently proceeded towards the engineer, clawing every step of the way. The train was careening down a hill. I moved faster. i made a dash through the corridor tender car. I finally arrived at the door to the locomotive. I started banging and yelling, "Please open up!" The door finally pushed open, and the engineer was huddled over the dashboard, his eyes frozen at the front window. The world was whizzing by. I screamed at him, "Stop this train! Please stop it!" He looked at me, "The brake is stuck!" I made a fast but careful race to the controls. I yelled, "Is this it? Is it? Is it? Answer me." In a voice of terror he said, "Yes, push forward." I grabbed the brake lever and pushed, and pushed, it would not budge. As terror took over, I grabbed it once more, and yelled, "Stop my life!" As if the sun had just peeked from a black storm cloud, the train started screeching. The air brakes were heaving. The runaway train was reacting to my voice. It was straining and smoking. It sounded like a world was collapsing around me. It was sliding into a halt.
I felt this weird warmth on my face. I heard birds chirping. I tired to open my eyes. I was no longer on the train. I sat up in bed, and I was somewhere else. Someplace I had never seen. I slowly woke up and looked around. My dogs were still curled up on the bed. There were big windows lining the walls, almost floor to ceiling. A fan was rhythmically spinning above my head. I slowly walked to the windows and opened the shutters. The sun poured into the room. In front of me were endless pastures and an old gray barn. There were flowers blooming in the yard. I was trying to figure out where I was and how I got there. I vaguely remembered the night on the train. I found my clothes hanging over a chair in the corner of the room. I quickly put them on and left the room to find a door that opened outside, it was an old Dutch door. Above the door etched on a piece of old wood hung a message, "Just for you." Everything I had envisioned for a lifetime was right there in front of me. I opened the door and walked outside feeling eerily peaceful.
Several years later, I was in San Francisco. I became lost walking through my favorite city. I was on one of those streets where the past meets the present. I could feel the stirring of old souls pass me on the streets. I imagined it was all those hearts that were left here so many years before. The blue hour was approaching, and I had no idea where exactly I was. I crossed an old train track, and as I walked up the hill, I heard a very familiar sound. A train was approaching in a flurry of smoke and steam. It slowed to a stop. There was a young blonde headed girl gazing at me from a train window. I looked harder at her as I turned to face the train. I recognized her. She smiled a very innocent smile, and waved a small hello. She blew me a kiss. As I started walking towards the train, it started moving again. The young girl disappeared. A few cars back, the conductor was talking to a passenger; he looked up from his conversation. He saw me and winked. The train picked up speed, and quickly disappeared into the newfound darkness. Off in the distance I heard the beautiful sound of the train whistle as it ricocheted across the hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. I paused to listen and then turned to keep climbing the hill towards my life. The soul of my life, all the longings that lure me. They lure me home...
– Patty Brown