Sunday, February 17, 2013

Another Angle

About a month ago, Brian and I took the commuter rail into Tufts Medical Center to visit his Grandma. I've mentioned this trip in a deeper context, but this time I mention it in a really light one. Because riding the train with me, Brian looked like a lost little pup at my heels.

I have an atrocious sense of direction so I'm used to Brian leading the way when we go anywhere. Next to him, I don't look like a lost pup, so much as a loyal one. But this day, it became immediately apparent that I was in charge. If I hadn't been there, Brian certainly would have gotten himself to Tufts, but it just would have taken him longer and he would have looked a lot more confused. 

On this trip together, I realized that without even knowing it, my years of commuting into Boston have taught me lots of little tricks about that ride. For instance, I know the rush hour schedule by heart, I know which trains stop on which platform, and I know that sometimes, when the trains are late, it's best to wait atop the catwalk so as to leave open the option of catching the late train on one platform or the next train on a different one. I've learned where to stand on the platform depending on where I'm getting off (if Back Bay, I board the train at the back, if South Station, at the front), and how to connect to the Orange or the Red Line, or no line if the weather is nice. The ParkMobile app totally changed my life and the Where's My Rail app, while not always totally accurate, is pretty useful, too.

Teddy and Annabel are relatively seasoned commuters and they both love the train. When I returned from maternity leave with Annabel, it was the beginning of June. Teddy's school had already let out, and Brian's wasn't done for a few weeks. Luckily, Ropes provided "back-up day care" -- you know, so that our kids were never an excuse to miss work. Just kidding, sort of. But seriously, it was a great benefit and the Bright Horizons on Stuart Street in Boston is incredible.

So for a few weeks, Teddy, Annabel, and I rode the commuter train into Back Bay together. Teddy, being Teddy, wasn't going to let his schedule get switched up that easily so we strategically couched those few weeks in terms of summer camp. I called it, "Boston camp," and Teddy, surprisingly, ate that up. So with my work bag, Teddy's bag, Annabel's pre-made formula bottles for the day, and probably about 30 pounds of other crap, we trucked into Boston together on the train. Annabel snuggled in the Ergo against my chest and Teddy held my hand because despite that he loved the adventure, it still made him a bit nervous. Sometimes I felt guilty that I liked that side effect of his nervousness so much. 

Commuters like me quickly learn the personalities of the conductors based on how they collect tickets and instruct passengers to board the train. I marvel at the conductors who say a sincere Thank You every time a passenger flashes a Charlie Card or hands over a pass to be hole-punched because that's a heck of a lot of sincere Thank Yous in a day. I also wonder about the grumpier-looking conductors that don't say a word when they come around. Are they really as miserable as they look? 

The conductor in charge of the last few passenger cars of the 8:01 train from Canton Junction isn't ever grumpy. In fact, he seems amazingly content in his work. Every morning, I look forward to him announce when the train pulls in -- "Quiet cah to your left, party cah to your right." I smile every time. 

Last week, on the train back from Boston, our conductor was one of the seemingly unhappy ones. When he came around to take our tickets, he asked the young girl sitting next to me where she was headed. 

"Uh, Providence," she replied. 

"This train doesn't go to Providence. Get off at 128," the conductor told her, barely pausing by our row, and clearly sending the message that she wasn't going to get any more help from him. Her nervousness was palpable. 

I dug through my bag for my paper train schedule. Despite the MBTA apps, the paper schedule is the best when it comes to these types of situations. 

I showed the girl the schedule and we worked out what she needed to do to get to Providence. It was a bit confusing because the next Providence train didn't stop at 128 and the next few trains that did stop there only went to Stoughton. This young college kid clearly didn't know the area so I explained to her the layout of 128 station and where she could sit and wait for the next Providence train. She got off the train still nervous and a bit upset, but definitely less nervous and less upset than she had been when the conductor pointed out her mistake. 

A few days after that, another young passenger close by made a similar, but in my mind a bit less understandable, mistake -- she got on the wrong line altogether. I'm always a bit surprised when people do this, because the trains are pretty well marked and the conductors yell or say over the intercom, "Train to Stoughton," or "Train to Providence," about 20 times while the passengers are boarding. But I'm not judging, because I do lots of stupid things that must make people wonder. 

Anyways, although I had overheard her problem, this girl wasn't sitting next to me. We were in the same row, but I was on the left side of the train and she was on the right, with an aisle and another passenger between us. As the befuddled passenger tapped around her phone trying to find answers, I glanced over to see if the passenger between us was going to help her. She didn't. She just continued with a game on her phone. 

I learned a lot about myself in those next five minutes. 

I started to get anxious. Should I lean over and offer to help this girl? Am I being nosey and annoying if I do? I could easily just show her the paper schedule and explain to her how she could get herself back to South Station to connect to the right train. That would probably really help her out. But how could I get her attention? That will be awkward. Maybe I'll just sit tight. No, she looks upset. I'll say something.

If I was sitting next to her, I wouldn't have hesitated to help, but I felt like the passenger between us was the assigned teacher for that ride, so to speak, and I would be breaking the unwritten rules of the commuter train by leaning over to play substitute. 

As the train neared 128, I decided, What the Hell? I leaned over and asked her if she needed help. She said she was trying to get to Middleboro and she got on the wrong train (so, I'll call this girl, "Middleboro"). The girl between us looked up, as if her role as teacher had just dawned on her (maybe it had), and she joined our conversation. 

In the end, I didn't help Middleboro much at all. Rather, the girl between us explained to Middleboro what she should do, where she she wait, when the next train would come. Middleboro got off the train at 128 just like my Providence-bound (or not bound) friend had -- nervous and a bit upset, but less so, because someone had helped her out.

These five minutes are another small angle of the birth of my Writing Saves Lives idea. 

I sometimes think that I have the most trouble writing about (and even more so, talking about) the things that I understand with the most clarity. For instance, I'll never forget over a decade ago when I had to plan my answer for upcoming job interviews about why I wanted to be a teacher. I couldn't explain it because I just knew it; knew it with every bone in my body. There was so much clarity and certainty in my reasons that I didn't even really consciously know them. 

Those five minutes on the train, so many years later, helped me understand it a bit more, though. Maybe some people see it as nosey or bossy or annoying, but I can't help it -- if my life has given me some bit of experience or information that I think could help someone else -- could make them feel something good or great, or could make their ride just a bit easier -- I can't sit still until I at least offer up the opportunity for those "someone elses" to have that good stuff, too. I remember it so clearly when I was teaching -- if I found a photo or a story or a history lesson that fascinated me, I could barely sleep at night in eager anticipation of sharing it with my students the next day.

At the same time, I don't like to force things because I know only some people will appreciate them. Luckily, I'm actually fine when people think my ideas are dumb as long as they're relatively nice about it. Because sometimes my ideas are really dumb. But other times, I believe in them so much that even if others think they're stupid, I don't care at all. I'm going ahead anyways.

Last week, that girl sitting between me and Middleboro taught me something else, too. At first, I was pretty mad that she could just sit there with her stupid game and not lend this girl a hand. I subconsciously labeled her a selfish jerk. But it wasn't that simple and my judgment was pointless, and probably, wrong. After this girl noticed that Middleboro needed help, she helped her way more than I did. 

As most of you already know, this space has been as much a part of my treatment, my coping, and my healing as the powerful medicines that have been pumped into my veins. Part of me thinks I've learned a few things through this space that could somehow help others -- and I don't mean only others with cancer. In fact, I don't want this next step to necessarily be about cancer at all. In the end, I'm also not aiming for others to start a blog (although they may) or take pictures of their boobs (that could get weird fast). There are all sorts of creative ways this could go.

Ultimately, I truly believe that writing could help some people -- all over the world -- even if, like me, they never fancied themselves a writer. That writing doesn't have to be serious or deep, and it definitely does not need to be (and hopefully will not be) motivated by something like cancer. Instead, I want this effort to be motivated by self-worth, love, and a whole lot of fun energy. With that, Writing Saves Lives could help people see that something like cancer isn't what defines us. Rather, it's the tiny little moments in our lives that teach us, and others, about who we really are; and I mean moments as tiny as sitting in the same row as someone who got on the wrong train.

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