~ from cats, dogs and nature to the flowering of body, mind and spirit ~

Saturday, January 31, 2015


A train — each car a fragment, a piece of the whole — took me away and brought me home, with fresh
insight and renewed love. A peculiar sort of journey that allowed extended periods of focus upon thought and idea, upon reality and our place within those spaces.
I’d never ridden the train before, and Amtrak was the perfect option for this particular trip because I didn’t want to drive up north during January. As the train pulled out of the Tucson station, I was pleasantly shocked at how smooth and quiet it was. While the side-to-side rocking motion was an adjustment, after a few hours I barely noticed it except for the occasional rough bit of track. Although, sleeping on the top bunk took a little more time to get used to. The 48 hours of travel between Tucson and St. Louis was peaceful and mostly solitary; I had reserved what is called a roomette in the sleeping car, and ended up spending most of my time in that little room reading, relaxing, reflecting, and writing. 
The train took me to visit my mom. Originally planned so that I could be with her during and after kidney surgery, which was cancelled a few days prior to my scheduled departure, I decided to go up to northeastern Missouri anyway. Mom, my brother, and my nieces were expecting me so we simply turned it into a social visit. I carefully selected two books for the trip; one for going and the other for returning home. I had my Kindle with me as well, but far prefer reading paper books.
Because of the initial circumstances behind the trip, my book selection for the journey up was A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves by Jane Gross. The time had not yet arrived for my brothers and me to step into a position of elder-care, but, since my dad died a few years ago and my mom was turning 77 this month, I felt compelled to do a little research on the subject. The author’s book is well-written, part memoir and part expose, but provides a bitter pill to swallow: the plight of the elderly in our medicalized, fragmented, and what I consider inhumane, approach to “sick care.” Much of what I thought I knew was wrong, and I was nearly overwhelmed by what I didn’t know.
One benefit, though, was that while I was visiting my mom and staying in her house with her, I was much more aware of the varied aspects of her current lifestyle and how quickly it could potentially change. Too many of us live in denial and I would advocate waking up sooner rather than later when it comes to this topic.
The book I chose for the return trip was Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams, another
profoundly moving and deeply disturbing book. I confess that I almost turned to my Kindle for refuge in some lighthearted fiction, but the unique quality of traveling by train with its gift of relative isolation kept me glued to these subjects of depth. There are often so many distractions at home that making steady and rapid progress through difficult subject matter can be challenging.
At first glance, the blend of topics chosen by Williams — the art of mosaic, vanishing prairie dog towns, and African genocide — seemed bizarre. But since I’m a fan of this author’s work, I was determined to read the book. I found myself quickly falling under her spell, though my heart ached throughout the process of reading; I often needed to close the book and take some deep relaxing breaths before continuing. Even the style of writing is fragmented, a fitting example of how the author is trying to make sense of the world we have developed -- and damaged.

As I rode the train home to Tucson, I could feel myself to be fragmented — an angry witness to a broken medical system, a shard of pottery in rubble, a bleached bone. And yet, I choose to allow the anger to melt, I choose to soften into love. I choose to continue finding my own way to create a beautiful, healing mosaic out of my own life and the world around me, knowing that I am also a fragment in someone else's mosaic. 
My Nieces
P.S. There's something funky going on with the text in this post -- my apologies! 


  1. I'd love to travel by train -- I have memories from childhood of the trip from Tampa, Florida to Troy, Alabama. But there is no passenger service in my area, alas.

    Your books sound worthwhile. Having survived caring for my invalid mother in law, I'm moving toward that age where my own children will be wondering what to do about me. But not yet,

  2. I enjoyed reading about your train trip, sounds like it was a good visit. Lovely picture of your nieces!

    My mom used to travel to Tucson by train to visit from California. She's 81 and lives with me now so I will certainly be checking out A Bittersweet Season.

  3. Dearest Darla,
    Things do turn on a dime, no matter what a person's age, but even more so for the elderly. I was recently back home in PA for my uncle's funeral, that morning my mother ended up in the hospital with pancreatitis. I stayed the full week to be with her at the hospital and visit my aunt in between. It was hard to return to NH… though I know my parents have planned well for their endearing years and my brother and sister live near them. Even so, life is fragile and so sacred. I'm glad I had that time with them… we found plenty of moments for tenderness and even laughter in both the hospital and the shiva house in between worry and mourning. Life and death are entwined, illness and good health too. It is good that you made that journey, read those books, learned, payed attention, were present to your family and your own tender heart.

  4. Such a great post. I would really enjoy travelling by train!

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  6. So pleased you have discovered the wonderful contemplative experience of travelling by train! And good to know your mom now safely settled - hopefully for a long time to come!


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