Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
My two-year old son is having a love affair with trains. It has been going on for almost a year. He looks for trains and train tracks wherever we go. He can differentiate a passenger train from a freight train, a diesel from a maglev, and he can even name the cars. We take Metro-North to Manhattan ostensibly to visit a museum, but his personal destination is the subway. When we get to the museum he says, “I want to go home, Daddy, and ride the train!”
His fascination with trains is surprising to me. It seems to have arisen from within the depth of his being—not conditioned or even educed—though, since the interest is there, I make an effort to feed it with books, videos, rides, and whatever else will satisfy his appetite. Not long ago he offered an unsolicited commentary on the subject, as though intuiting my confusion.
“Trains go very fast. They are vigorous, Daddy. Passengers ride the train, and get off at the station.”
What I gleaned from this brief discourse is that his interest has something to do with the qualities of trains—qualities he identifies with his nascent individuality. Qualities like utility, speed, relationship, power.
The other evening we were working with his growing collection of Thomas trains and tracks, building circles, figures of eight, with routes over and under bridges, across a turntable. As he pulled a long line of cars behind the engine I became distracted by my thoughts, considering some of the business challenges at hand. As I daydreamed I saw a projectile traveling toward my head out of the corner of my eye, and ducked. A small tank engine grazed my cheek and hit the wall behind me.
My first impulse was anger. “Don’t throw things at me, Asher, or anybody,” I yelled—a statement that has become an almost constant refrain in our house. I looked into his innocent eyes. “The train fell off the track, Daddy,” he explained. Reflecting for a moment I understood that what he meant was that train of my attention had been derailed. I was with him but was absent. And he was correct. So, though I reiterated that it is not acceptable to hurl anything at anybody, I secretly thanked him for the flying locomotive as a reminder a to be present.
One of Woody Allen’s most oft-repeated quotes is, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Which begs the question: Even if I am showing up bodily, how much of me is truly showing up? If my mind and attention are absent, and only my body is present, it’s not showing up at all. To really show up means to be a bona fide inhabitant of the body, with my attention available for the event.
I once had a teacher who joked about the New Age obsession with out-of-body experiences. He said, “The first step is to have an in-body experience.” Woody Allen also said, “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.” Perhaps Woody wasn’t thinking deeply when he said this, but I take the comment to mean: Why do people seek extraordinary experiences, when we have difficulty showing up for the ordinary ones?
We use the expression “train of thought” as though our thoughts are linked like a procession of coaches. In my own observation I have seen that my mind generates a very strange and disconnected procession of images and ideas. What would a real train of thought look like? It would be guided by a consistent beam of attention—which is what my son saw lacking when he felt impelled to hurl his engine.
Indeed, I always have the choice to show up or remain absent, to offer an open hand or a closed fist. Perhaps this is the only real choice I have, for if I am not present, is what I do really “chosen?” Who is there making the choice if “I” am elsewhere? The choice is to freely grant attention to whomever is before me. Not because it is required or compelled, but because I choose to chug ahead and give it.