any years have elapsed since I was in Oakland as a student. But the other night, during a spell of insomnia, I found myself thinking back to those days: the people, streets, sky, smells and experiences. What triggered the memory — my Proustian “madeleine” — was the sound of a train passing in the distance. From the way it rumbled on and on, from the amount of time it shuttled through my mind, it occurred to me that it could have been a freight train. But it might have been an Intercity Notte on its way to Turin, or maybe even farther afield, to Paris, the city where I was born.
From my bed I could visualize the train’s darkened second class carriages: men, asleep, shoes off, legs stretched out on stained seats which they’d extended to the fullest length, the close smell of bodies. On a very basic level, that distant sound brought back memories of night trains I’ve taken and of places I’ve lived where trains whistled through the darkness. But it also got me thinking of how trains affect me on a deeper level.
Sound and memory travel together. Taken in a single dose, the feeling is exquisite. It is detachment and safe isolation. It gives no suggestion of its origin. It is pure. All the ups and downs of daily life become unimportant. Listening to a distant passing train fills me with an essence that is not inside me — it is me. When I hear and remember, I all but shed my mortality. The sensation is clearly connected to hearing the sound of the train, but it transcends it, too. Where does this feeling come from? What does it mean? How can I hold on to it? What does it teach me?
To explore it, I realize that I need to create a space for it in my mind. I need to let go and remember, but at the same time I need to observe my mind in action. It’s not an easy task. But the sensation of gratification that comes from this kind of work is always there. Waiting.
I think back to situations where I heard night trains pass in the distance. I shut everything out of my mind except that sound. I can physically imagine myself in my senior year dorm room bed. The train is going from California to where? East? Across the desert? Through endless train yards? I am on the cusp: eager to end school and begin a new life. To escape the past and become someone new. I move forward in time and remember myself as a young married woman. We have two children and we are living in Hoboken, New Jersey. The children sleep. I listen to the boxcars go by and wonder, “Is this where I am supposed to be?”
I travel deeper into the past: to Gladstone, New Jersey, where I lived as a young child. It is the last stop on the Erie Lackawanna line, my father’s commuter train to New York City. There is the sudden, dark awareness that my father left for work, that my mother left for good, and that all I have are my brothers (who have each other).
I lean over the abyss and look deeper still. There is my father’s mother, who was consistently present in order to help out. For much of my childhood, I think I hated her: she didn’t play, she compared me to better-behaved girls, she favored my brothers. It wasn’t her fault. Her severe manner, I know now, was influenced by her own tormented past. She was shaped by trains. Trains that crushed warmth. Trains that deported her parents.
I listen to trains the way Proust savors his madeleine cookies. And though there are differences – my memories are not soft biscuits of experience, redolent of tender feelings that unfold in a bowl of water like Japanese paper flowers — we both experience memory with the same reverence. He had nostalgia; I have a slow descent into darkness. We travel on parallel rails of longing, loss, laughter and love. We both are driven by an unseen force that hurtles us forward: shamelessly and shapelessly and on into the timeless night.