Searching by Starlight

Three summers ago, we returned from a three days long Amtrak ride – Lamy, New Mexico to Albany, New York, and then a three-hour drive home – and I ran into the garden through the car headlights, before coming into the house. The hydrangea had spread magnificently; the tomatoes lay tucked in their leaves, heavy, ripe.

We had been gone for most of the summer, nearly six weeks, first to stay with my sister who was not well that summer, and then on the only trip I’ve taken with both my daughters to the southwest, where I was born. Under intense pressure that summer, by our return of the four of us, it was clear our marriage was fissured.

Nearly three years later, I was in the garden by starlight last night, the fireflies flickering so high in the surrounding treetops they merged with the constellations. Even in the dark, my feet know this path intimately.

After midnight, I finished Alice Hendan-Zuckermayer’s book, about the willing and unwilling moves of her family, driven by economics, which I know so well, and by a world at war, which I have been so fortunately spared. Why read anyway? You might as well ask why think? why desire? why LIVE? In my midnight garden, with the bursts of dandelions already going to seed, it was me and Alice. She ended her book with these lines from Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…. a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get and a time lose, a time to keep…

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On the Rails

When my daughter was eight, her teacher asked what magic power she would choose, if she could. I’d fly, of course, she said, as if, of course, what else? She wanted not particularly to travel, but to sail weightlessly, like a bird, acquiring a wide vision of her place on earth.

Not long after that, the children and I went on an extended Amtrak journey, thousands of miles, through territory we had never visited: steep and beautifully wooded West Virginia, up through the nighttime sprawl of Midwestern cities, all across the plains to the luminescent southwest.

The morning we left for a three-day leg of the journey, I braided my hair at a mirror in my sister’s dining room, wondering when I would unravel those braids, with so much yet ahead of us.

While I’d take that trip again in a heartbeat, train travel is long, encumbered to the earth with rails and wheels, grinding to halt after halt, and waiting for folks to clamber on and off, weighed down with bundles, the elderly, small children. The travel comes slow and hard-earned, in what my daughters discovered is a very large country.

Here’s a few lines about rail and America’s Great Migration in  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

… the railroads, running between Florida and New York, and the Southern Pacific, connecting Texas and California, had become the historic means of escape, the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren. It hurtled its passengers along the same route and under the same night sky as the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses leading north that had spirited slaves to freedom the previous century.

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West Woodbury, Vermont