I hate flying.
For every reason you could possibly think of.
After my first [and last] flight some years ago, I swore off planes for good. Besides the stress brought on by my crippling fear of plunging thousands of feet to a grisly demise, I also get air sick. Even with motion sickness medicine on board.
I remember them bringing out a wheelchair for me when we landed, and even the movement from us rolling slowly down the ramp sent my head spinning again.
But trains, on the other hand, have always been a source of inspiration for me.
I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, about twenty minutes straight west from the city. When we were teenagers, my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) and I often took the CTA blue line straight downtown. The El (elevated train) snakes throughout the busiest parts of the city–from the shopping district to the Stock Exchange–forming a giant loop.
We spent many summer afternoons sprawled out in the grass at the band shell, listening to free jazz concerts and sometimes catching the CSO in all its glory. Photos in front of Buckingham Fountain and The Bean, when it was brand new. Garretts Popcorn on the corner of State and Madison.
Taking the train felt very grown up, and very, very freeing.
Several years later, my uncle died.
My father’s brother. He was the coolest guy, and always had a story to tell–whether you understood his thick Calabrese accent or not. I remember he let me borrow his cane when we did “And Then There Were None” in high school (I played General MacKenzie). I showed him off to anyone who would hold still long enough.
He had been sick for a while. When we received the news of his passing, I was both devastated and relieved. Relieved that he was no longer suffering, and that he was reunited with his wife.
As I no longer live in the Chicago area, I had to make the 700 mile round trip for the funeral. As much as I love my little family, I knew I needed to make this trip alone. I just was not ready to unload my grief on anyone but myself. My wife urged me not to drive, so I booked a train ticket. I brought a small pocket notebook with me, just in case I felt like writing.
Both legs of the trip were uneventful. I napped a little, spent some time in the dining car, read a book. I had the urge to write, but the strange thing was I couldn’t produce a single authentic word the entire time.
In fact, it wasn’t even until a few weeks later that the story finally spoke to me.
So I stood back, listened closely, and followed the tracks.
Turns out, it wanted to take place on a train instead of being written while riding one. [I don’t know, stories are weird]
I would get these pictures in my mind of different situations that seemed completely unrelated until I found a place where they fit together. As the story revealed itself to me, I began to understand why it had taken so long to start. It was a puzzle that, once assembled, took on the shape of my grief. I just wasn’t ready to face it until then.
I knew it could and would consume me entirely if I let it. So I created a world that allowed me to see my uncle again; the one in which he would always live.
It got me thinking about time manipulation and Cat’s Cradle (do they still play this?). The delicate dance of a single unbroken circle of string pulls one way and another, back and forth, until someone makes a mistake and it all falls apart.
Maybe I wanted to manipulate time for the sake of my grief.
Or manipulate my grief for the sake of time.
Both routes are endless loops.
Writing this story allowed me to process my feelings, as complicated as they were (are), in a safe but very visceral way.
Take a listen. Michael Robbins did an exceptional job capturing the essence of my story.