Lady on the Train

After spending a week in Boston on work, I popped off the Amtrak in New Haven to pick up one of my teenaged nephews so he could stay with me for the weekend while his parents were out of town.

When we got on the MetroNorth, it was pretty empty. A few stops later, it started to fill up and a well-dressed couple in designer togs boarded and sat down across from us. My nephew, who had been napping, perked up and greeted them, moving his stuff.

A few stops later, a slew – and I mean a teeming horde – of hormone-enriched college kids got on. They clearly played together on a sports team (LaCrosse, maybe?), they were carrying cases of beer, and were drinking heavily. Like hordes of teens, they took over the train, treating it as if it were their locker room, bragging and teasing each other, and drinking more and more. A ticking timebomb.

My nephew put on his earbuds, pulled up his hoodie, and vanished. Too intimidating for him. I also felt intimidating but made myself stay with the feeling for a little, relaxing into it. When it became too much for me, I found myself doing what I often do in situations like that: trying to make myself bigger by thinking big things about myself and small things about them. As usual, it didn’t work.

The most interesting reaction was from the couple across from me. For most of the journey, they spoke softly together, comparing notes on vacation planning on their phones. Until eventually the noise around us grew so loud they couldn’t ignore it.

Then the woman in the couple did something amazing. She started making small talk with one of the boys. She asked him about whether they were in school, were they traveling for a sports event, did they all go to school together, what school, what year were they in, etc.

At first, I was a little dismissive of how she was chatting with them. But, even after we got off the train, it stuck with me and I was trying to figure out what was rolling around in my mind.

This morning it came to me, of course, while I was doing Yoga, when you are not supposed to be thinking, you are supposed to be in the moment. And of course, new ideas and realizations come to you, whispering distractions. What came to me that, through conversation, the lady on the train was disarming these boys. By asking them questions about who they were and what they were doing, she turned them from a pack of drinking boys on the prowl, into individual boys, boys with hopes, dreams, plans, vulnerabilities. Things that made the boys human.

She didn’t disappear. She didn’t puff herself up. She didn’t try to cut them down. She asked a question.

It reminds me of a riddle from The RiddleMaster of Hed, a rich and powerful book, filled with great stories of a zen quality: A man was pursued by a thing with no name. It followed him across continents, across rivers, through forests. He fled into a castle, slamming each door behind him. And then hearing each door ripped open as the thing pursued him still. Finally he reached the heart of the castle, slammed the last door behind him, retreated across the room, back braced against the wall, staring at the door, waiting… waiting… waiting for the door to be ripped open as the others had been. Nothing happened, for a long time. Until finally he couldn’t stand it any more. He dashed across the room and swung the door open to reveal that there was nothing there. He never learned the name of the thing that had pursued him.

A great lesson to learn when you are feeling scared: ask a question, learn the name of the thing that is scaring you.

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