The trek in mid-day from my apartment near the Canal to Gare du Nord is a sweet twenty minutes, the two carry-ons notwithstanding. Through the winding roads, I have made it to the large, bustling station; received my ticket; and am on the red Thalys train to Cologne.
There are very few things in the world more pleasurable than a nice, relaxed train ride –the landscape a series of fleeting visions, the smooth movement of the train a kind of urban lullaby, and the passengers caught in those most contradictory (and therefore most exhilarating) of states–being at once in motion and grounded, seized by the sadness of leaving a place and the anticipation of arriving somewhere else.
But the greatest pleasures of train rides are essentially related to the imagination and to thinking. “Journeys are the midwives of thought,” writes Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel. “Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.” Which intimates that the mind is a vehicle which responds amply and pleasurably to passage, for flow, to transit;that it is a vessel of not only focus (and sometimes obsession) but also digression, meandering. There’s something nomadic in the thinking we do on trains.
Why is it, then, you may ask, that in our educational efforts, especially in writing, we tell our students to first of all do an outline, map out the territory instead of allowing them to wander, metaphorically, in that territory first? Why is it, then, that so often we praise and promote compartmentalization, of dividing and separating instead of allowing thinking its natural impulse to digress, to travel? Perhaps we should teach our students the generative digressions, perhaps we should teach them how to pull their wayward material together.
Such questions are on my mind as the landscape from my train window changes shape, turns a different hue of green;as we pass Liege where I notice from my perch a restaurant called Andaloo which then takes me–and I go along– to my high school days when we studied the Andalusian civilization of Spain; which takes me to the translation I did from the Arabic of the Syrian writer al-Ujayli’s short story, The Lanterns of Seville, and then returns me to the movement of the train, to the flowing landscape, green and lush,its abundance surpassed only by the curvature of my thoughts, the voluptuousness of departures.
“The mind may be reluctant to think when thinking is all that it is supposed to do,” writes de Botton. “Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks–charged with listening to music, for example or following a line of trees.” And from amidst this whirling brew of thought and memory, word and evocation, image and echo, a thread–at times taut and at others pliable and liable to break–reveals itself. This thread may be a ruse–fickle and changing and capricious, but it is also a ray of clarity which comes and goes from behind the screen of my window, taking me with it to the roof I glimpse behind the line of trees, which…
And so it goes, fellow traveler. Our beginnings never know our ends.