This train stinks. I’m fighting to be open-minded, but I had four hours of sleep, and there’s no getting around it: the carriage’s sour metallic smell is coating my mouth and my thinking.
I hoped to find Nick and Nora Charles on board, but my seatmate faces away from me with a determined ferocity: she has no interest in me or anyone else. In less than five minutes, my romantic dreams of train travel twitch and die.
1. Bring a fine book.
I escape into my favorite waiting-for-things-to-get-better book: E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat. The cover grabs my heart: a photograph of White in an austere, wood-planked room, working at a typewriter. Beside him, an open window frames the sea.
He’s writing about the war, about how to keep baby chicks alive, about New York and hayfever and his boy. As the miles slide past, I fall under the spell of his clean nouns and verbs, his sly humor.
2. Seek conversation.
The woman who fills my coffee in the dining car tells us that she has worked on this train for a week. I think of streaking by the oil refineries and dingy suburbs, of serving sullen passengers, for seven days. She says, by the time I get home, my son will be all grown up.
Two girls in our car are on their way to a bachelorette party. They’re not worried about speaking quietly, so I hear all about their boyfriends (especially Dave, who, frankly, sounds like a jerk), a traumatic car accident, their favorite songs, expectations and plans and fear of heights.
Surrounded by voices, my own brain feels blank. I stare out the window at the city halls, the graffiti and water towers, and I rummage around in the host of questions that sprang up weeks ago. The new ideas I’ve been sifting through. I try to think.
But the lights at the workstations in my brain have gone off. All I have is E.B. White, stories about mischievous Dave, the view of crumbling buildings, and a journal filled with stale words.
3. Remember that the tracks are not infinite.
It’s a funny place to be, between two things. Betweenness takes on its own smell, its host of unique voices and ideas. But when you step out, you’re at the new place, and what was between doesn’t matter so much.
Remember that. Betweenness might shape you, but it doesn’t define you.
About five weeks ago, I ran right out of my usual way of doing things. It was as simple and irrevocable as missing a step on a stair, and not managing to find the next one, or the one after that.
I’m an easy target for perfectionism, and every sliver of my life was screaming at me in its own way. I nurtured a chorus of irritable little gods, and I juggled their conflicting demands like a one-girl circus act. But my arms got tired, and I suddenly lost the knack of catching.
I was exhausted. Relieved to stop spinning, to hold still. But letting go of all those demands emptied me out, and the process of refilling with the right things—that’s what’s taking so much time.
So I went to Chicago and filled my camera with shots of the skyline and my distorted reflection in the Bean, the seagulls on the river, churros and dipping chocolate at Xoco.
4. Notice—and celebrate—the stops.
On the train going back home, I sat with E.B. White and a view of creeks and windmills and tractor lots. I checked my brain again: the lights were still off. My mind all cool and quiet. No one working late, making phone calls in the corner, printing out reports.
I might be discouraged about that, and yet, I might not. There’s something sacred about this, about each day passing with those juggling balls still on the ground.
It’s made me ask questions about rest, and about the deep divine meanings behind rest.
Without a set of mini-gods to tell me who I must be, I’ve grown curious about how our identity really comes from God. How he tells us who we are when we rest in him. How we get strength not from ourselves, but from God. And not necessarily when we’re trying to bear the world ourselves, but maybe when we’re, you know, letting him do that?
And what does it mean for me if all this isn’t one bit theoretical, if it isn’t just a string of cute metaphors and mind tricks I used to pass the time between Chicago and St. Louis?
What if daily dependence on God was as concrete as the sidewalks of Chicago and as tangible as the peeling paint in Lincoln? And what if I literally trusted him for each mile, the way the train trusts the tracks?
I think that’s the point in this, the actual destination on the other side of this betweenness. I’m running toward a depot that’s not full of angry faces and sour smells, but something real and fresh and right. A better way to be, a life that doesn’t depend of perfect circumstances or the shrieks of little gods.
Till then, I’m looking out the window, I’m listening to the other passengers, and I’m whispering questions to myself. I’m reading essays from wartime, and I’m waiting for the train to get in.
I’m just going to keep saying it… get your hands on this book and read chapter 21. Or for a thumbnail version, check out this article. Phil Vischer kicks the teeth out of the whole concept of following a dream, and each time I reread it, it changes my life. So there you go.
Jenn Langefeld graduated from Calvin in 2006 and charged into a life of full-time novel writing. She is currently working on an exuberant, adventurous trilogy for middle grade readers. She writes under her great-grandmother’s name, Lucy Flint, and blogs about making a lionhearted writing life at lucyflint.com.