Let the First Train Pass

A fiction writer, I think, should have an expansive knowledge beyond the craft of writing. For metaphors and similes alone (the bread and butter of poets), writing is that much richer when the writer can draw from specialized knowledge in several other areas. Where exactly each poet or author decides to draw their knowledge produces the individualistic freshness of each work. Because, of course, no one has the exact same experiences, interests, etc.

I’d like to think of myself as a scientist, a secondary one, that is. Besides reading stories and poems, I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty and simplicity of physics and astronomy. These disciplines actually have a lot in common with poetry: the relentless search for answers and truth, the obsession with “getting it right,” and the inevitable realization that each answer produces fifty more questions. Not to mention the view. Poets have imaginations, but astrophysics have the entire cosmos in all its triumphant glory.

So, I came to an amazing insight a few days ago while watching my favorite science program, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”. The entertaining host was explaining our place in the universe on progressively gigantic scales, until even our entire galaxy was dwarfed by the sheer immensity and variety of the grand universe. I was nearly shaking in fear of my insignificance even as it took my breath away. Then, I thought a thought:

If the universe spans out forever and ever in time and space, if the universe is infinite, why do we all run around, trying to make things happen right here, right now?

Whether it’s love or a career or trying to catch that light on the way to work, we all rush through life, endeavoring to gain things in such a dizzying hurry. Knowing our true place in the universe, though, really puts things in perspective. We don’t have to jump on the first thing that moves, because we don’t have to rush. We can be patient. What we need, and want, and love will come. After all, we have an eternity, right?

Not so easy. Thus the appeal of Kenneth Koch’s modern masterpiece “One Train May Hide Another.” (If you haven’t read it, by all means, find it!) The premise of the poem derives from a real sign the poet saw in Kenya, warning train track crossers to be careful of other trains besides the first one. The tragedy to be prevented is a person’s vigilance towards watching out for the first train, but being blindsided by others that the first train might’ve blocked. Koch then applies this warning to many other aspects of life with astounding alacrity.

It makes you wonder about all the things you have might’ve missed because you were so focused on what came before. It reminds you about how “the first train” was a complete disaster, and nearly caused you to miss the sunny reversal of fortune that followed (‘the hid train’). Off the top of my head, I can name a few failed friendships that so crushed me before I found true friends. Think about being so caught up with an ex that was obviously wrong for you that you miss a caring, available person right in front of you. Hey, I didn’t even get my driver’s license the first time.

To be honest, many, many things just don’t work out the first time. Sometimes you simply have to let the first train pass and be patient. You never know what’s coming. That second train can blindside you. And if you’re so distracted by that first, you will get hit by the second one. Or it will simply pass you by.

Lesson here: the universe is vast. Wait for the right thing to come along. What’s the rush?

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