The Train Passing Through

I think it is in the film Black Stallion that a character in a voiceover says that Picasso didn’t paint the horse — he painted the memory of the horse. He says that as the underwater camera captures the image of the black stallion being lifted out of the water — the image of the horse becoming increasingly distorted as the camera stays still with the horse rising above the surface until it resembles a horse Picasso would paint.

That’s what the sound of the train passing in the distance is to me — the memory of the sound. It seems elegiac to me, a mournful horn surrounded by air being purposefully pushed aside because the thing pushing it has a destination in mind.

I didn’t realize I had forgotten the sound until I returned to Livermore, the town in which I spent my pre-teen and teen years, where I hear it late on summer nights when the windows are open. Or, unexpectedly as I walk through the Arroyo. Or, sometimes in the early morning before anyone else rises. Each time, the sound jogs my memory of it, as if I had forgotten it.

I had also lived in Southern California, Oklahoma City, Saudi Arabia, and Chico. But, Livermore is the closest thing I have to a hometown. Each move to Livermore was a traumatic uprooting from the place I lived before. The best and worst things in my life have happened in Livermore. Perhaps that is why I think of it as my hometown. I think that might be why I had to return to it — so I could understand something about the mix of best and worst.

I had been gone for 34 years, since I graduated from high school. Over that time I had wrestled with, worked on, and dealt with memories that haunted me. I thought I had exorcised all the ghosts.

I was not prepared for what it was like to return to the place where memories took root. I read through a journal recently where I wrote that the memories had stirred a raging out-of-control forest fire in me. But on reflection, I think it was more of a burn that nature makes — a lightning-struck fire that burns away the underbrush to clear the way for new growth.

We moved back here barely two months after that Tuesday in September 2001 — 9/11. My parents are both gone now, as are Tom’s. That coupled with 9/11 has made the world seem very different to me now. The loss of innocence has not made me cynical so much as it has taught me how to take the bitter with the sweet.

I think that the innocence I lost was really the last vestiges of a child-like trust that I had held onto because it was too painful to let go of. I wanted someone to save me from my life experience, and holding on to the trust was holding onto hope that the past could have been different.

What I found by losing that innocence was my life. My story.

My high school English teacher, Ed Brush (he is one of those I lost shortly after I moved back here), used to talk about the macrocosm and microcosm in Shakespeare’s history plays — about how one reflected the other. I’m wondering if my microcosm of growing up so I could embrace experience is happening in the macrocosm as well.

At least in the debate in this country, it seems to me the forces pulling in opposite directions are one that insists we are innocent and need to retreat, while the other is experience — an even more insistent force that says we need to expand our understanding of the universe so we can embrace how small our world has become.

I have tried pulling back from what passes for news and journalism. These media are no longer trying to find the story that connects us as humans, but the element of a story and presenting it as the story.

I’m a news and political junkie, so this isn’t easy. I want our system to work. I believe that the idea of America, recognition that our right to our lives is our birthright, can let collective stories unfold into one that contains them all.

But, I don’t hear that now. I don’t hear anyone leading us out of this wilderness of change. Perhaps we need to do it as individuals working together right now. Nikos Kazantszkis wrote in his memoir Report to Greco that when he returned from Mt. Athos, he understood that Jesus was wandering alone and hungry in the wilderness and it was mankind’s turn to save him.

Time for us to embrace compassion for being human and extend that compassion to ourselves as well as the world at large.

I think embracing my experience let compassion through for me. I think it allowed me to forgive myself for being a victim, and to see that I had also been a victimizer, and forgive myself for that.

I have come to feel at home here in my hometown. The sound of the train reminds me that life is happening here, while moving onto somewhere else at the same time.

The sound of the elegiac horn surrounded by air being pushed aside by a moving force reminds me that the train passing through carries away baggage lost and found.

The Scent of Abundance

The scent of dry grass cooling in the night air, cold cream, and hot naked light bulbs. That’s my sensory memory of summer.

I spent my high school summers at May School Theater, a one-room school house  that had been converted into a 90-seat theater. We’d stop at the A&W drive in, buy cone-shaped pints of root beer, and drive the five miles to May School Road, passing by the cemetery with the tree that looked like the devil at night, and into the suede-colored grass that covered the hills and fields in the country outside Livermore, California.

Summer 1964 was my first summer at May School Theater. I was part of Junior Theater, a city-sponsored theater program for high school students.  Members of Cask and Mask, the community theater group, directed us in plays like The Reluctant Debutant, The Admirable Chrichton, and State of the Union.

Livermore was a blend of ranchers, cowboys, merchants who served the ranchers and cowboys, and the newcomers: physicists, chemists, engineers, and physical scientists who worked at Sandia or Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

The newcomers brought with them cultural sensibilities nurtured in the universities they attended: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UC Berkeley. Many of the newcomers had gone to school on the GI Bill. Born and raised in towns much like Livermore, their horizons had been expanded by being in Europe and the Pacific, and then by their education.

And then, there were the other newcomers. Blue-collar workers like my father, who  worked at the Lab, and teachers for the schools that outgrew their capacity as soon as they were built. The newly minted teachers brought with them the hope and audacity of the new generation for whom John F. Kennedy claimed the torch had been passed.

In the summer of 1966, after the July performance of Junior Theater’s State of the Union, our group of high school and soon-to-be-college students decided we didn’t want it to end. We formed the Auxiliary Players and produced, directed, and acted in plays we wrote as well as plays by the likes of Eugene O’Neill.

Cask and Mask sponsored us. Our high school teachers encouraged us, basked in our brash willingness to take on whatever we wanted to chew, even if it was more than we could. Failure was an option, but not trying was not.

I thought this was normal. When I went to college, I learned that in a town the size of Livermore (population 10,000), that kind of encouragement was usually reserved for sports.

After high school, I moved to San Francisco to go to college. I came to love San Francisco summers. There would be the day I would feel the cool moistness of fog on my skin and know that summer had arrived. The warm days of October signaled that summer had ended. I didn’t miss the hot days of a Livermore summer, though I would sometimes long for the cool evenings.

I stayed in San Francisco for 15 years, then moved to Mill Valley. The summer days were less grey, but pleasant. I’d see the temperatures rise to 90 plus degrees in Livermore and be grateful for the 75-degree sunny days.

In 2001, after a 34-year absence, I moved back to Livermore. The population had grown to nearly 90,000. May School Theater had burned to the ground in 1980. Some say it was arson.

I drove out to May School Road, which is much closer to town, now that town has sprawled out towards the freeway. The tree that looks like the devil is still there, but the A&W drive-in closed years ago. I think I know where May School was on that road, but I’m not sure.

When the temperature reaches the 90s, I yearn for the San Francisco, Mill Valley summers. I am not a hot weather person. But on a night that follows a hot still day, if I am out amongst the suede-colored grass of the hills and fields, the scent of grass cooling in the night air reaches me. It brings with it the sensory memory of cold cream and the hot bare lights that surrounded the makeup mirrors at May School Theater.

It is the scent of abundance. The abundance that comes from biting off more than I can chew, trusting that failure is an option, but that not trying is not an option.