Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Home on the Train

Sleeping next to a stranger, while hundreds of Texas and Arkansas miles roll away beneath you, is something to ponder.

Waiting for the train. July 2007.
On my last several trips to Indiana, I have taken the train.  At Christmas, I sat next to an elderly gentleman for most of the nineteen-hour ride. He had been in Louisiana visiting his sister, and once the train pulled out of the Longview station, he began to tell me stories about his work as an architect, restoring old buildings in an old city. We discussed the politics of the Methodists (his church), and of the St. Louis synagogues (his wife is Jewish). We talked about colleges, and the kinds of education that change people. He told me about his sons, settled somewhere in Nebraska. The train was cold by the time we each drifted to sleep.

In some ways, it is a kind of homeless feeling, being so physically close to a person whose history and cares you hardly know. It makes you think of the ones you would like to have near you on a journey through the night, and how far away they all are. It can even be frightening, as I once learned on a bus ride from Memphis to Indianapolis. It can make you swear that there is nothing worse than traveling alone.

Such a strange night can also teach you some things about home.  The Texas Eagle pulls into St. Louis at seven o'clock in the morning, and as the train slowed, I woke. To my surprised, I found I was covered with a man's suit jacket. My neighbor the architect was already awake, and as I rubbed my eyes, he smiled apologetically. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "But you were curled up so small and tight -- I thought you must be cold." I smiled and thanked him. The train stopped, he collected his bags and his coat, then stepped off the train.

He never told me his name, but that dear man reminded me that "home" means much more than caring for the people we love--or even the ones we know. It means watching over someone who travels alone. It means sharing what we have.  It means kindness that is bound to no province, place, nor name.

Tomorrow, I take the train again. As I travel from one home to another, I hope I will have the courage of my friend the architect, who built a little home for a stranger on a train that was speeding through the night.

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