Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Toy Trains And Tiny Troubles


Grandfather’s hands were scarred with age. As he placed the gift of my new toy trainset on the tracks I noticed them, as if for the first time. The backs of his hands were criss-crossed with enlarged blue veins, like railway tracks on the map of Rhodesia. The veins ran up the insides of his bare arms, and disappeared into his shirt sleeves. Somewhere in there, in his chest, in his heart, lay the origins of him, a son of Africa as he too was. But now his voice rumbled.

“See. It takes patience, care, and precision, old son. You’ll get it right. Just align the wheels very gently with the tracks as you put the engine and carriages down. And notice that their couplers will connect on the rails if you nudge the pieces together. If they do not, it’s because a wheel is not properly on the rails.”

At least, in what was my five-year-old memory, that’s what Grandfather said. Then too, perhaps my observation of his physique, at the time, was not so acute. Thing is, one makes up stories as one goes along the train tracks of life, and alights at stations, and visits here and there, and feels the years go by as perseverate as is the click-clack-clack sound of time, sliding away from oneself, connected by month after month in the journey of one’s life.

Sixty-five years later, I still have that trainset. And even now, as my own hands and forearms bear the veins of a journey across the continents, the essence of Grandfather’s lessons remain. One need be cautious, caring, considerate, thoughtful, aware, and precise if one is to have a trainset working properly. As a metaphor for life, the slightest disconnect makes for a train-wreck, over and over. The tracks need to be stable. The carriages, like the chapters in a book, need to be coupled. The wheels, like sentences, need to align with each other so as to carry the entire conveyance forward, and around and around. And therein the metaphor breaks down. One can get bored with around and around. Maintenance of the parts, of the essence of the thing, of one’s life, in fact, is utterly necessary to keep it going, yes, but around and around? Where be the progress, the excitement, the new vistas in that?

Yes, one adds to the set of one’s life. We acquire new carriages, different engines, add adjoining rails, and replace the accoutrements of scenes around the circumstances of our lives. And the journey swells. It goes round and round. But essentially, it is flat, horizontal, and even predictable. Until there is a crash.

We speak of the stations in our lives, the tracks we’ve taken, the engine that drives us, the carriages of convenience, and the strangers we meet and befriend along the way. We speak of connections. We speak of timetables and tunnels and watersheds and bridges and being transported. And through it all, around and around we go; humanity, that is. Despite aeroplanes, and even rocket ships, we seldom consciously aspire toward higher degrees of enlightenment. As a people, our veneer of civilization is a thin covering over the savagery of our malcontents. As soon as something goes wrong, we are stopped up by the train wreck of our disappointment, anger, frustration, angst, and disfavour. What now?

“It takes patience, care, and precision, old son. You’ll get it right,” is not so much about the mechanics of living as it is about the essence of perception. To accept, to yield, to include, incorporate, assimilate, and integrate becomes a pathway of itself. And unlike the tiny troubles of the disconnects in the railways, (those that stop up the entire progress of one’s trainset, one’s mindset, one’s evolution,) we can o’erleap the gaps that would halt our progress, whether by accident or design, by getting to the heart of the matter; one has the gift of grace within oneself. And gratitude for everything, even the smallest of lessons, is yet one more way to be at peace with it all.

Such was the smile in my grandfather’s eyes. So it would be, were he to see my trainset, still going,