Trains have always held an almost mystical fascination for me. I have often lived near railroad tracks. Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I lived a block away from the Harrison Street "El" (the Chicago Transit Authority Elevated Line) which today purports to speed you to downtown Chicago in only 11 minutes.
In the '50s, however, the ride was considerably longer, and riders, on their way to work or school, jostled for the most coveted places, the forward-facing seats. They were familiar strangers who, after a cursory nod or a mumbled, "Morning," rarely spoke to one another. They usually took refuge in reading. Their textbooks or newspapers, folded with economic precision, afforded the reader the maximum amount of reading space within the minimum amount of geography. The seats were made of woven lacquered straw, which, when broken, scratched your skin or snagged your clothes.
One of my first teaching assignments was in a small parish in Bloomington, Illinois. We lived close enough to the freight yards that the "knights of the road" knew that they could get a sandwich and a jar of hot coffee at our back door. Naïve as it seems, it never occurred to us to be fearful about opening the door to these strangers.
For many years, I rode the now defunct L and N (Louisville and Nashville) train from Chicago to Mobile, Alabama. Sometimes I took a sleeper car for the 18- or 20-hour ride. On those trips I learned that sitting up in the passenger train allowed you to ride in the direction the train was going, unless you chose to ride backwards. Riding in the sleeper, though it allowed you to lie more comfortably, put you crosswise to the direction the train was traveling. I don't remember that it kept me from sleeping. Actually, once I got used to the rhythmical rolling and thumping, I found it relaxing.
Over the years, I have also traveled by plane and, of course, car. I have found nothing relaxing about air travel. This may be partly due to my vision loss, which keeps me enveloped in a murky, gray cloud. Once, when flying alone in this condition, my flight included an unscheduled stop and transfer to another plane. This experience proved to be neither pleasant nor relaxing.
Traveling long distances by car affords me the opportunity to imagine the landscape we are traversing. Are we in the country, passing cotton fields before turning north, where the cotton fields give way to corn fields? Are we speeding on the highway, passing granaries and water towers before the city's skyline looms ever closer? I can paint an idyllic scene of a sky filled with puffy white clouds looking over a lazy pastoral scene, until I hear the rumble of thunder and the patter of raindrops on the roof of the car.
It is almost always dark now, a gray-black cloud my constant companion, punctuated by sporadic pin pricks of light. I dwell on and pray with the Scripture passages that focus on the interplay between darkness and light. "I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness" (John 12:46), or "Jesus spoke to them saying, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life"' (John: 8:12).
A superficial reading of these passages might suggest that darkness is equated with ignorance, or sin. However, we know that God has created nothing that is intrinsically evil. Darkness can't be all bad, if you think about it. In darkness seeds germinate; in darkness we grew in our mother's womb; in darkness lovers unite.
In the darkness I become vulnerable and discover chinks in my armor. I realize that I am not called to be perfect, but faithful. Thus, I believe that I will see perfectly one day, with both my eyes and soul, but I must live in the meantime, where the darkness will not frighten or imprison me.
As the English author Sarah Williams has stated so perceptively: "Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light. I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."
Now, so many years later, I think about the trains with some nostalgia.
I again live near enough to the railroad tracks to hear the trains rumble in the night. One doesn't think about trains during the daytime. The noise of everything else keeps them far away, but at night, when the traffic slows, and the neighbors sleep, I hear the sounds of the night. A dog barks, dreaming, perhaps, of all the squirrels he chased that day. I hear the trains. Are they freight trains bringing goods to Florida? Are they auto trains, groaning and lumbering with the weight of the cars for the Northerners who winter in our southern clime? Are they passenger trains, lulling their riders on their way to vacations or visits home?
In the pre-dawn darkness, where the sighted and the blind are equals, I waken to the whine of a train whistle, that same nostalgic sound, simultaneously comforting and disconcerting. I hear the whistle and I yearn to go — where? I long for — what?
I have grown accustomed to my "crosswise" travel through life, with loving friends and familiar strangers, but I will not rest until this rumbling train stops. Then, I think, I can embrace the darkness.
[Elizabeth Fiorite has enjoyed being a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa for over 60 years. Her early years of ministry were as a teacher and principal in Catholic elementary schools. Her second career, after losing her sight, was as a social services counselor to others with vision loss which she did for 20 years until 2013. She lives with two other Dominican Sisters in Jacksonville, Florida, where they engage in peace and justice ministries.]
Editor's note: A shorter version of this column first appeared in the newsletter of the Independent Living for the Adult Blind center in Jacksonville, Florida.