Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Woman on the Train

I thought I had left the anonymous woman on the train in Inverness, but she had hidden in a little line written among other notes in a notebook lurking at the bottom of my purse:

Constable's clouds
lead oxide
cloud appreciation society
Woman on train to Inverness
For many years I have started notebooks only to find them later with the first of the pages earnestly labelled with whatever was the idea du jour followed by a depressing forest of blank pages. This page, fortunately, was on the back half of a recycled notebook from Morris. He had torn out the front pages without the apparent anxiety that it always caused me to toss out those ideas and half starts. He then passed it over to me. We are alike in such things as having way too many ideas. He has the ability to adopt a "just get on with it" attitude for some things that stop me in my tracks. I can do that for him sometimes. It's a balancing act and today he has saved me from the anxiety of empty pages and lost ideas.
"Gollans, Constable's clouds, lead oxide, and cloud appreciation society" all relate to observations of a skyscape. Gollans is a Scot's word for big lumpy clouds, the kind so often seen in Constable's paintings. Constable was famous for his clouds, which were not only beautiful but also meteorologically accurate. Constable would not have been able to paint these clouds so beautifully if not for the development of a pigment based on lead oxide. A BBC program based on the worst jobs in history detailed how lead oxide was made. The process was unpleasant and very dangerous. The health risks of lead were known back then but neurological exams were not sufficient to detect overexposure early enough for the workers, usually women. The last line, "Cloud appreciation society" refers to a neighbor's response to my praise for his photo of clouds. He is a member of the Cloud appreciation society. I meant to check out their web site.
Why did the woman on the train to Inverness slip in under these notes? She refused to be forgotten, so I will bring her out of the notebook and back into mind and share her story with you. She got on the train in Thurso. She sat at the table on the opposite side of the car. In retrospect we have the luxury of being wise, but I still cannot say what it was that drew my eye to her. The younger woman--a daughter or daughter in law perhaps--seeing her off lingered longer than most in saying goodbye but it did not seem an especially affectionate goodbye. The younger woman was anxious. I heard her repeat the word "Aberdeen" and fuss over food and a magazine for the older woman. At last, she had to leave as the train started on its way.
Alone, out of the corner of my eye, I sometimes saw the woman apparently reading her magazine. Only later did I realize that she never turned the page and yet did not seem to read that page with any great interest or intensity. I knitted and looked out the window and had a cup of tea from the refreshment cart that rolled by without much more thought about the woman until they announced that because of some problem with a northbound train we would have to change trains. I understood about half the words and so thought I would simply follow the flow of traffic off the train. The woman struggled with her suitcase. I offered to help, but she apparently did not hear me. A man wordlessly picked up her bag for her and carried it along as we all trudged up a set of stairs, walked over a trestle over the tracks, and back down again. She said something to me but I did not catch it so I smiled and shrugged.
Back on the train the man lifted her bag onto the luggage rack and found his own seat. Inexplicably, she pulled the bag down and lumbered with it nearly the full length of the car. She found a spot between two seats and tucked it into that space. She seemed relieved to have done this and looked at me with a smile of satisfaction. I smiled back a bit puzzled but with a growing awareness of something that I would have avoided if I could because it is both awkward and painful.
We live in a world where we define what is as we go along. It is a mutual understanding. We all know that luggage goes on luggage racks rather than behind seats. But what happens when that mutual understanding breaks down? I like science fiction because it makes literal narratives around the metaphors of parallel universes and shared realities. It is much easier to understand that wormholes are unstable and that time lords can break through the 4th dimension or even that an android can remind us that there are more things on this earth than are dreamt of in man's philosophy. That is easier than wondering where a woman with a suitcase on a train to Aberdeen is coming from when she hides her suitcase behind the seats.
Buddhists say that a breath can be a prayer and so as I inhaled the awareness that this woman was struggling with a different worldview, I prayed that the world would be kind to her. She sat down and the train rolled along. I saw that she would have to change trains in Inverness for a longer ride on to Aberdeen. I vowed to help her get her connection. The restlessness came on her again and she walked the length of the train looking for a place to put her small carry on bag. I watched where she put it. She said something about having it near the exit because she moved slowly. Very practical except that now she, her large bag, and her small bag, were all in different places on different parts of the rail car.
I have seen this behavior in someone I love. A wise friend shared with me a description of dementia as being on a train and you can't remember where you are going and all you want to do is to get back to the people and places that you love and are familiar but nothing looks familiar any longer. The anxiety from this emptiness, this lost feeling in an unfamiliar world can lead to desperate behaviors. Behaviors, like putting her bag between seats, that are nonsensical to observers. I hope that my loved one will meet with kindness in this world when he needs it. I hope that I may find it should I need it, and in that hope I keep track of the woman and her bags.
As we approach the station I begin to worry just how I am going to manage a woman who does not know me or know that she needs rescuing. One of the train employees shows up at about that time. She is looking for something. I point out the suitcase behind the seats. Yes, that was it. She looks at me as if to say what a cuckoo the woman is and we know that luggage goes on luggage racks. I smile a polite smile and say that her small bag is on the seat two rows behind me. The young woman rolls her eyes up but moves gently and slowly with the woman.
When I get off the train in Inverness, I look around to make sure that the young woman stays with her and ensures that she makes her connection. I watch them out of sight and then turn and make my way into Inverness but she made her way into my mind and has lingered there.


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