Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Thoughts Laid Out in Black and White

I carved our names upon a tree
simple words marked a plaintive plea
The text incised on darkened wood
with trembling hand as best I could
But in so writing tears would fall
for the bark's surface was far too small
Still my hand etched away in vain
with faith that it would be seen again
hope that these small woundings of a stem
might speak to someone who passed by them
I hope they see past the mark or stain
to small etched cuts of the heart that remains
Brigid 2010

Did you ever cut your initials into a tree? (and no, it's not a great idea tree-wise). Or etch the name of a secret crush back in school days, absently in a journal, not being able to think much beyond the words that made up the name of your beloved?

Short words are easy. It's the long strings of words that can break us, or make us. In the middle of a presentation today I had a blank moment and what came to me was "I lost my train of thought".

Where did that expression come from? Though we use it for everything from absentmindedness to excusing our disjointed ramblings by its loss, it was elaborated four hundred years ago by Thomas Hobbes in a somewhat different meaning:

By Consequence, or train of thoughts,
I understand that succession of one thought to another which is called,
to distinguish it from discourse in words,
mental discourse.
When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever,
his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be.
Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently.

Hobbes was quite the thinker, probably why Bill Watterson chose the name for his sardonic tiger in my favorite comic strip.

My personal lumbering boxcars of thought, speeding on through this railway station we call the Internet, is fueled by very early mornings, and a couple of cups of coffee, needed to get me moving as my days often start well before sun has risen.

Train of thought. The term just doesn't seem to fit our new age, when abundant discourse is sent forth in the click of a mouse, words and and ideas flirting between computer terminals in nanoseconds, with voluminous paragraphs abbreviated to simple text messages. In an age where entire freight cars of words are reduced to tiny particles of matter, the term "train of thought" seems to be a disappearing trail of smoke in our vocabulary. Sonnets and poetry reduced to . ;-) and "luv ya" in our rush to our next appointment. People spend hours each day texting and twittering without as much as a spoken word to someone they care about. If Hobbes were given a blackberry instead of a quill, would he have written Leviathan?

Log trains passed behind my house when I was a child. Passed down through the forested hills where we romped, grew up, fell in love and carved our names on trees. As they traveled down those hills towards the timber mills at night, their path would cut shadows across our neighborhood. I remember as a small child how the sound would intensify as my Dad would read to me at bedtime, as shadows would slide over the wall above my bed, over the model boats and planes and trains my brother and I played with. And with the shadow came one of the first sounds of my memory, the mournful wail of a train, competing with my Dad for sound, so he would speak louder and more clearly, forcefully driving each word outward, the phrases connected and intact and uninterrupted and in that moment I discovered my love for words. And for trains.

In daytime we'd ride our bikes along the tracks, looking for diesel smoke in cold air, throbbing engines, hoping for a quick glimpse. The yard at the timber mill had more than one track running into it, and as two trains would arrive, you'd hold your breath in fear of a collision, only to have one veer off and stop, while a long line of cars safely passed. I think of the missing man formation, in which a squadron of fighter planes performs a low pass, one separating and flying off to the heavens. A ballet of mighty machinery.

I'd memorize the names on the cars going by, forming the words in my mouth while smelling the fresh smell of wood going into the paper mill. So many cars, so many words. Each leaving a memory, branding my thoughts with its impression, burning into my head with the sunlight streaming through the slats. Carrying it's load of mighty trees fallen to make paper for which the words will one day affix themselves. Paper clean and bare with promise.

Behind my house, a new train, miles of unexplored tracks to walk, tracks crossing across the landscape of this new life, when viewed from the air, almost forming letters, writing of new adventures. A poem composed of ancient ties and abandoned depots, a sad lament to the forgotten forms of old trains, to lost thoughts and the art of speaking in deep clear sentences, now reduced to emoticons and abbreviated texts. How do you reduce your feelings to 3 or four letters, and quick clips of syllables that mean so little? Words sent through space, silently with no weight.

My Dad no longer reads to me at night, but he sends me letters, real letters, though his household has email and a cell phone. The letters are written in clear, flowing script that belies his 88 years and in which he talks with steady and unflinching repose, of watching all his friends pass on, of navigating life in a body that aged long before his mind. He writes of the family and of his days of laughter and prayer, words of humor, of inspiration, of compelling faith. Sheets of paper that for years have charted a course for me through adulthood. Sheets that lie carefully tended, fragrant and dry in a drawer, where I will have them years after he's gone, abiding strength still radiating from his descriptions of love and loss, the papers having a weight to them of his life. A weight that will keep me anchored.

How do you do that with a text message, how do you convey such feelings of family in a smiley? How do you explain what it feels to live, to breathe, to love, to fly, in a twitter message? For those thoughts make up boxcar after boxcar of the steady motion of thought, sturdy boxes of space and time, their spaces containing the heavy load of lust and longing, pride, fear and desire. A train barrelling forward in steady progressions as moving clouds fly overhead and shafts of sunlight peer through sliding cars, into their depth. As others transmit through satellites and space, I watch the landscape from the viewpoint of the train. Structures of iron lace, the suddenness of buildings, clouds of morning mist all crossing my line of sight, my muscles straining with the curves through corn shrouded fields, moving with the train, thundering through empty fields of past loss into meadows washed with light. I rush into the rain as the cars gain speed, waters cleansing the windows on which I look out on life. I hurl words into the darkness of an upcoming tunnel and wait for their echo back.

Train of thought rushing on. Life viewed as a passing landscape in which I live in the midst yet best write about it only as it has passed my window, a memory behind me trailing in the smoke of the engine. I don't have a blackberry. I don't MySpace, Twitter or Facebook. Only on rare occassion do I text. I blog. I blog for me, to release words that need to come out at the end of the day. The stories may be too long to catch the interest of the masses looking for quick, short entertainment, of which there is plenty among the white noise of the Internet. My communications outside of here as well are lengthy strings of words, heartfelt messages splayed out on paper, their sincerity driving their movement, under my pen, the words stringing out behind me. Sometimes I hit send, somethings they just stay, hesitant to go beyond the confines of my longing.

But the words will always will be my own, the track they follow a mystery until that next bend is rounded. Words composed of past journeys on ancient rails, washed clean by wind and rain, and tempered by time. A story written to the mournful sound of a train whistle echoing through abandoned dreams and ancient memories, waiting for the echo of my words.


  1. A metaphor for life that no longer has a caboose, boxcars that are disappearing, no longer carrying hobos, like the staccato of the steam engine no longer cackling over the land.
    So true do you ring a bell and for whom does it sound. Language separated us from the rest of the animals. Will lack of language take us back to the cave.

    Language and letter/Arts and letters was a calling that has disappeared. Instant gratification is the buzz word of the day. Patience has been put away in the barn and not fed.

  2. There will always be a place for well-written words, and those who write them. Although we mourn for the humans for whom "c u l8tr" is an eloquent expression, your place is assured.

    Never stop writing, whether the response is great or small; the price of silence is too great.

  3. Great one!

    I'll second Rev. Paul and add that this one should go on your "Brigid's Classics" list.

  4. My thoughts are not as deep as yours, nor my words as eloquent, but you might be interested in the post of mine listed below which is slightly relevant to yours. (Note what prompted me to finally post it, also.)


  5. Brigid, you are a treasure.

    john l moore

  6. I love Calvin and Hobbes. And my "train of thought" gets derailed quite often due to life happening...

  7. I read somewhere that the attention span of adults (not just children) was declining rapidly-if something doesn't catch our attention in 20 seconds or so, we're on to something else. I read these posts of yours for the same reason I read Victorian literature (it's not just a book, it's a life commitment) - to practice patience, to savor each word, to live in the present and attach real significance to the language and intention of the writer, to look for the meaning in every sentence. I'm a better person for taking the time to really "listen" to the story. Thank you for writing.

  8. Letters and cards - they define the word "keepsake".

    Now, I get generic "e-cards" from friends for Christmas. One e-card, sent to a hundred people on an e-mail list.

    How sad. :(

  9. i suspected you were on the list of fellow neo-luddites making real life a priority!

    blogging can be personally gratifying, but like the rest is quite slippery with respect to time and sucking life energy away from the tangible, as well as perpetuating often the weakest of human traits.

    i haven't met anyone i truly respected that constantly invested so much of themselves into the online or digital world, media, texting, internet or otherwise.

    talk to them about quitting, and you will get a junkie's reaction.

    everyday that passes i am seeing this to be more true, it is becoming impossible to get away from in most settings. i try to chalk it up to accumulating age, but i'm not old enough for this explanation, and grew up around this technology.

    beware of the zombie process, fellow citizens.

    p.s. hope you're enjoying the weather OUTSIDE some on your trip, it's glorious now, indian summer!

  10. I text and email love to write but lost the ability with each of my stokes and although i have got a bit back my writing ends up looking as though a spider walked through an inkwell, used to be a graphic designer and had very nice hand writing but its gone as has my drawing and painting i keep trying but they dont seem to want to return.

  11. Darn it, you're a daily must read. I'm quite envious. Profuse thanks for making me richer and less hard hearted.

  12. Brigid, as you suffuse your body of work with current relevancy, it is a joy to revisit some of your earlier stuff that blew my socks off when I first read it. Kinda like bumping into an old friend with a new hairdo. BTW, killer hairdo. :-)

  13. First, Brigid, let me echo your other fans in saying that your writings ... prose and poetry ... are important to me. Your postings make a difference in my life ... each and every time.

    Now ... I fear our young people are going to do without those first hand experiences of trains. (Some of us even remember steam!) Their urban upbringing isolates them from our great memories.

    And ... thank you for acknowledging one of my favourite philosophers. Hobbes had it right ... and so did his predecessor.


  14. I still have trains here. I will record sounds sometime of the Norfolk Southern or CSX trains that are on an ambitious schedule here.

    Great analogy for the dearth of the written word today.

    I am not a master of the written word but cherish all of the words on paper from my forefathers even more because they were not either. It was a labor of love for them.

    I am in total awe of your skill in this art. I have none.


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