This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
I am going to visit Jess, my incredibly dear friend, in her hometown of Rochester, New York. As I am nearing Jess’s home, I am hyper aware that, aside from a family trip to Alaska when I was a child, this is the furthest I have ever been from my own home.
We pass hill after hill of overgrown, perfectly green (Microsoft screensaver green) hills that I instinctively know are covered in a sheet of dew. They are ripe to be run through, and they remind me of my childhood, even though I’ve never run through them, and my hometown doesn’t even have hills like these.
I spill my goldfish on the floor (the ones that come in the tiny milk carton) and feel like a child again. The woman sitting across the aisle from me says “oops” and further validates this notion. I am aggressively embarrassed.
Outside, overturned canoes wait patiently. The train moves past them, but I know they are still there on the side of the road by the ponds and lakefronts. In less than a month’s time, when summer takes over New York, families will rent the canoes and paddle aimlessly. I envy these kids I can not see.
A little while later, the woman across the aisle takes out her laptop and writes, or at least tries to. She is on the phone with what I presume to be one of her coworkers while she types. She is staring at her screen and by eavesdropping, I learn that they are not on the same page. “It’s supposed to be in the drive, but when I search for it…” I chuck more goldfish into my mouth. Touche.
I am supposed to be writing for work like her, for other people. As a development manager for a nonprofit, I write grants to receive funding for various community-based programs. I suppose it is the kind of work that should fill me up and make me feel good and grown up and like I am making an impact. The grants are highly structured and I usually write standard copy responses to questions like “what makes your organization best equipped to tackle this issue?” or “how will your program benefit the community?” I know the answers to these questions, at least on the surface and statistical level, but at this job, I struggle to balance the brain part of the answer with the heart part of the answer. “We will provide technical training to X amount of frontline professionals, who will then be able to treat X amount of patients with X condition.” But I cannot quantify how treating X condition will make the patients with X condition feel. I can only imagine their relief or frustration, just like I can only imagine rowing the canoe from my window seat on the train.
My (now former) boss (I will hand in my two weeks notice shortly after this) incessantly emails me to “research this organization” or “look up this guy’s philanthropy” or “determine if this other guy is right or left leaning.” I want to tell him that, based on this other guy’s treatment of poor people, I’m going to guess right leaning.
Between Utica and Rome, I see several old train cars, rust covered and tagged with yellow paint, which blurs out the rail line names on the sides. They are defunct, and look small and naked no longer attached to other cars, but still they remain on the track.
Earlier on the subway (the train I took to get to this train, a trainception if you will) a man was reading All About Love by Bell Hooks. I don’t understand how people can read on trains, especially subways. My only thought on the subway is the stop at which I am getting off. What if I miss my stop by one stop? What if I miss every stop and end up in Coney Island?
In general, I don’t understand how people can read in what I deem intense and confining public spaces. There are so many distractions, mainly other people. How can people focus on their book when the woman sitting across the aisle is arguing with her coworker about what is and isn’t in the drive?
Then again, I am writing on the Amtrak, which could be deemed an intense and confining public space. And writing is essentially the inverse of reading. I am emptying words onto a page instead of absorbing them, which makes me realize it is easier for me to follow my own thoughts than the thoughts of others.
That is not to say that reading (truly reading, not just scanning, but absorbing) is easier or harder than writing, just that reading is easier for me in some spaces and writing is easier in others.
Do I need to be either completely overstimulated or completely sensory deprived to write? Must I live in the extreme to put thoughts to the page? The train shakes violently in response.
But I think it is actually this: when writing while overstimulated, I can condense all of the stimuli around me. I can write it down and make sense of it. Even if it is jumbled and manic, there is the inherent translation from exterior activity into my own interior understanding, back out onto the exterior page. A form of osmosis, if you will (if this is an incorrect metaphor, whatever, I’m not a scientist, I’m attempting to be a writer). Conversely, when I am writing in the dark corner of my bedroom, I can look inward, focus solely on my own thoughts, and bring them to the exterior.
The train stops every thirty minutes or so and the cars slowly empty, but I am still here, and so is the woman across the aisle. I look at her seat check, it is the same as mine, with the conductor’s black sharpie marking it ROC for Rochester. We alternate between typing on our laptops, eating snacks, and sighing. I don’t know where she came from, if she’s going on a trip or returning home, but right now we are in the same place, and right now we are going in the same direction. We are on the same track. But as soon as our feet hit the station concrete, I’ll lose her. We have different paths to take, and surely we will remain on them.
By this time, my boss has stopped pinging me, which usually means he has found something to do. He hyper fixates on the tasks that I am doing, or inundates me with menial tasks when he believes I am not doing anything. I personally believe this is his own guilt projecting onto me when he is not doing anything.
And so he and I go back and forth in the inbox, writing quips and questions to each other. Our emails get shorter and shorter, the content more trivial, and eventually, I think, our emails will consist solely of him signing “best” and me signing “thanks.”
We cannot appear too busy and flustered, we have to appear like we can handle any task. But at the same time, we cannot appear too available, lest we reveal how meaningless any and all structured adult work is, even if the intention behind the work is inherently meaningful. It is a delicate balancing act, like the act of reading or writing on a train. Where are we going? I don’t know, but we must act like we do, we must remain on the track, wherever it is going. It is not like childhood, where you can pick up the overturned canoe in the summer and row in any direction, or run through the hills and zig zag, even lie down and roll through the grass horizontally if you wanted.
What is the exact amount of work we should be doing? I don’t know, but I know that I should know, and I want what it can give me: the chance to write during the ride, and the tempting possibility of the canoe if I were to get off of it.
What is the right condition to write in? This column exists because I don’t have an answer to that question.
As we pull into Rochester’s station, I want to ask the woman across the aisle what she is writing. I want to ask her if she’s ever stopped midway through the ride and gotten off, if she’s ever used one of the overturned canoes, if she used to run through the grass covered hills when she was a kid.
I don’t. Instead I follow my path, I find Jess and run to hug her.
We will write together. Well, I will struggle to write because the stimuli is too normal. But we will be together in her home and, for a short time, it will be my home too.