I’m on a train again, headed north out of Virginia, through DC, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania. I wandered from my wide and roomy comfortable seat up to the empty dining car where I hung out for a while in a booth the size of those at Applebee’s, had a breakfast sandwich and coffee I brought with me, and watched the farms and rivers retreat as we swung through Richmond and Fredericksburg. At some point we paralleled the Potomac through an area so wild it seemed more like a ride out west.
I took pictures.
It costs about $25 to get from Williamsburg to DC; another $7 to continue on to Philly. Gas is $4 a gallon; it’s 292 miles. At a generous 30 miles per gallon, that’s 10 gallons of gas. So for $8 less than the gas right now, I left Williamsburg at 5:40 and will arrive at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 12:10, wandered about the cars and stretched out in the dining car, walked around Union Station in DC, took pictures and texted friends, and even napped early on. No wear and tear on the car or my body or my eyes, no traffic jams, no parking expenses, tolls, nothing. $32 bucks.
I’m never driving again to a place I can take the train. I’d fly, of course, if it was a great distance. Well, except if the purpose of the trip IS the train, like in The Iron Scar, which, ironically, is why I’m on this train to begin with—to get to a convention in Philadelphia for the launch of The Iron Scar, do some book signings and readings, and hang out with friends. $32 bucks. Geez.
The dining car earlier filled me with a sense of some sort of powerful memory of chess, and vodka and beer,
of onions and sliced salmon and borsch. Of loud laughter from new friends and the cacophony that is a group of drunk Russians speaking their Slavic tongue for hours. The rumble of the train, the traditional music,
the hard, heavy slamming of the cabin door when others are trying to sleep, the low glow of Michael’s book lamp on the bunk below me while I’m trying to sleep, his harmonica playing American folk music in the passageways between cars, the uproar at “Checkmate,” which apparently is a universal word,
the old man in the dining car late one night just above the Mongolian border, of the hallways lined with travelers gaping at the dangerously swollen Amur River, of the ease of heart and spirit when the skyline of Vladivostok came into view, of
the disappointment when the skyline of Vladivostok came into view, because the beautiful bonding journey was coming to an end, of course.
I hope people read my new book and discover this for themselves, discover the hesitancy of letting go of their children when they are no longer children, of letting go of their fathers when they are no longer able to live the life they had lead, of letting go of our own trepidation at getting older, of being next in the line of succession, of moving further down the tracks without knowing what to expect, trying to enjoy the ride the best they can without losing sight of the horizon.
I hope they read my book that is not so much about trains but the ride, not so much about Siberia but those distant places ahead of us which seem so foreign and barren yet comprehensible once we are forced to face it.
I’m almost in Phlly. This was a deeply fast ride. I tried to enjoy it the best I could, tried to meet people and equally avoid them, spending time alone in the booth looking at the beautiful passing of the world outside.
If I could only take with me one thing from this ride I’ve been on, it is that I tried to spend as much time as possible witnessing the beautiful planet I’ve been privileged to see so much of.
It’s been one hell of a journey. A bargain to be sure.
In the early ‘90s, I stood in line at a bakery in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was in the city for three weeks teaching American culture to the faculty at Baltic State University. The entire nation had just opened up after seventy-five years of communism and four hundred years of czarist rule. Things were a bit unorganized and haphazard. Yeltsin was in charge but not really; the Russian mafia was in charge. But that’s an entirely different story with a very bad ending for so many people.
But in the early ‘90s my colleague Joe and I had an apartment near the Gulf of Finland, not far from a family who we paid a great deal of money to host us for three meals a day plus tours. It was incredible to be part of all these changes with this family—him, a former Soviet Naval Captain whose job had been to search the arctic for American submarines, and her a translator and professor of English and languages at the university. We became family. More stories.
But mostly Joe and I discovered Russia on our own when not through the experiences of this family whose own changes were occurring daily. Understand, Russia never knew democracy, never knew capitalism.
So the bakery story:
I stood in line and Joe videotaped me waiting. But I waited forty minutes. Finally I arrived at the counter and pointed out a dozen or so pastries. She bagged them but put the bag behind her and handed me a piece of paper with the total price and pointed me to another line. I waited there. Ten minutes. Twenty. Finally when I was second in line, the cashier went outside to smoke, and we all waited another ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually she returned and rang up the sale, I paid, and I moved back to the first line where I waited as long to turn in my proof of payment for my bag of pastries.
Most of this is on tape somewhere.
That night at the college we talked about many things and answered many questions. That deserves a different story entirely, but not here. To the point: we had handed out US newspapers, and someone held up coupons and asked what they were. We explained, and he commented why in the world would you sell something for less than the price, that is dumb, no wonder capitalism doesn’t work. So I told them all the bakery story, and they nodded as if to say, “yeah, that sounds about right.”
And then he asked, “So how is it different in America.” I love a good setup.
I told them: In the states the cashier is fired; she sucks at her job and I’m losing business—you know why? Because Joe has a bakery across the street and his line is moving, and my customers are heading over there, and my income comes from customers, not the government, and while your income is guaranteed, it allows you commune apartments and mafia shakedowns. We offer coupons as incentive to try my pastries, and if you work hard and keep the line moving and don’t eat the pastries, you’ll get raises and promotions and eventually own your own store.
Yeah, they didn’t get it.
That is Soviet Russia; that is how Putin mistakenly sees Russia. That is how he was raised and was already part of that mafia/governmental system by the time we arrived thirty years ago. His Russia was a population paid by the government no matter what, and no where on Nevsky Prospect (Fifth Avenue) was a single billboard, a single neon sign, few restaurants, no advertising save Marlboro. You bought sour cream and milk from the back of trucks, or you went to the stores set up exactly like the bakery with long lines, and that was how it was since the Romanov’s came to power in the 1600s. Putin gained control by gaining control over an economy and country that was shredded after the coup; and when the government gave everyone across the empire three days to trade in Soviet money for Russian money, and the vast majority of people live three days from a bank—Putin and his cronies scoured the countryside buying Soviet money at twenty cents on the dollar and making millions.
But the Russia he runs now is not the Russia he so quickly gained control over by the late ‘90s. That Russia was still filled with people used to the government telling them what to do and they complied so long as their pension was secure. Today’s Russia has had thirty years of absolute freedom to come and go, make money a la capitalism, set up and own businesses, travel the world, speak relatively freely, and families live all over the world without fear of repercussions. Anyone in Russia who was even ten at the time of the coup is now in their forties, so all Russians forty or so years old and younger know nothing but the freedoms listed, the opportunities experienced by the west, and they like it—a lot. Enter McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, western music, movies, travel packages, tours of New York, London, and LA. Enter jobs with international corporations and BMW’s and HoHo’s.
This is NOT their father’s Russia.
So to keep them quiet and subdued, it is now illegal to indicate support of Ukraine, illegal to travel abroad, illegal to speak openly unless it is for the government.
People compare Putin to Hitler. That is not accurate.
Putin is Stalin.
But his narrative has a significant flaw which perhaps Stalin was able to avoid for some time—the population of Russia and Ukraine have a western mentality that simply didn’t exist there at all prior to the early 90’s. Sure, he keeps getting re-elected: At first simply for stability—no one liked Yeltsin or Zyuganov. Later he was re-elected because of fraud (the 2018 election found one of his two opponents dead and the other poisoned and later imprisoned). But the country he rules will quickly become unruly, much like the citizens of Czechoslovakia who knew democracy well when communism came in 48 and again in 68, and those who remembered how life was prior to communism refused to allow the suppression, hence the Velvet Revolution, led by those who remembered.
People have something now they didn’t in Stalin’s day—a basis of comparison. They’ve not had to stand in line for pastries for three decades, and they have family not just in Ukraine but throughout the world. The government, the military who act out of fear of Stalinesque punishment (like the Not One Step Backwards decrees which insured that any Soviet soldiers retreating or disobeying would be shot), cannot sustain the isolation required to continue the onslaught of other nations.
I’ve made more than two dozen trips to Russia, crossed it by train, traveled with more than 500 people including US Army generals, professors, writers, artists, lawyers, and others, and I kept journals, I wrote extensively to the tune of three books and countless editorials and essays.
There was so much more to write—about Valentine, my dear photographer friend, about a graveyard on the gulf, about the rebuilding of a church by another close friend, and the planned exodus of two other friends, artists, some years ago to avoid draft into the army to fight in Chechnya. Stories about old women in the Hermitage and a homeless man who became a companion.
And I could write an entire book about The Shack, about playing guitar with a gypsy band every night until five am, drinking outlawed Georgian wine and laughing, teaching them “American Pie,” learning their folk songs which made us all cry despite not knowing a single word.
For thirty years Russia was a fine combination of history and romance with hope and emergence, like a young child with an old soul. And I have full confidence when the dust settles, the that Russia I came to love will survive. The bell of freedom rang for those people years and years ago, the chimes of hope, the echoes of prosperity.
The old truism is indeed true: You cannot unring that bell.
Oh I have stories. Geez what a time it was. Nothing is what I was told it would be when I was young. Nothing.
I’ll go back, but I don’t see a need to write about Russia anymore.My last piece of writing besides this short blog is my book in which my son and I travel from one end of the country to the other, and we see the world together, enjoying the fragile and beautiful passing of time. How can I possibly follow that?
So many people talk about war, about poverty, emigration, about nuclear fallout and political discourse. The news is now riddled with bullet point reporting about stranded soldiers, homeless families, courageous politicians, and psychopathic leaders. You’d hardly know they were talking about humanity. You’d never guess they were talking about us.
The top of the hour take on today tells me a few million people must live elsewhere, most likely forever, that the cost of gas is so high it is no longer cost efficient for minimum wage workers to work unless they bike or bus. The cost of food will rise, as well as the price of everything trucked, shipped, or flown to somewhere else to consume.
Covid is still killing people, and controversy concerning restrictions consumes organizational meetings and town hall events. Two people were shot and killed in Worcester, Massachusetts, last night, and those late souls were just two of two hundred and seventy others in the last twenty-four hours.
The view from this wilderness is discouraging.
So many people talk about sanctions and retaliation, about cyberattacks, about drone warfare, about soldiers looting and soldiers who have no idea what they’re doing there to begin with. So many people talk about inflation and recession, about climate change and burning swatches of America.
The headlines have gone bold on a daily basis, largest type of the fattest font, that bold type normally reserved for assassinations and declarations of war, set aside until Dewey Defeats Truman, is constant, morning edition, afternoon edition, online version, all full bold above the fold in your face headlines about how many dead, how many fleeing, how many floundering in some nether land on their way to Poland or Germany or Alabama or anywhere that’s somewhere else. Headlines about a leader misleading his nation, another leader leading by example, and a little girl singing a little girl song in a shelter. She holds a kitten.
Some people will believe anything. Some people need to believe in something. Some people believe that if you believe you’ll be fine.
This is not how I wanted my fourth quarter to start. It’s been a good game, mostly. I’ve had some incredible, once-in-a-lifetime plays, well more than once, but I’ve fumbled as well, threw my share of interceptions. But it’s been amazing. I trained across two continents; I walked across a country; I reconnected, resigned, regrouped, then remembered what it was I wanted out of life to begin with. And it’s not to listen to so many people with no expertise decide exactly what’s wrong and who caused it; it’s not to listen to so many people bend toward the fight instead of negotiation, lean toward aggression instead of forgiveness. This is not how I want the fourth quarter to play out. Clearly I have more comforts than the vast majority of this world; I’m not “sitting on the cold floor of a train station” as some random posts remind me, insisting that since I’m not destitute and homeless I should shut up. I agree completely with this sentiment; I’ve no reason to complain. But this isn’t about empathy; this is about my inability to absorb anymore disappointment with a species with such capabilities as to create miracles on a daily basis yet falling faster into a vacuum of violence from which it doesn’t seem possible anymore to escape.
I’ve tried switching my meds, I’ve tried exercise and eating differently, I’ve tried laced lollipops and tiny bottles of Baileys.
I’ve tried. But still, I need to try something else. So I remember that...
when you walk five hundred miles, you note each step, your life slows to some equatorial pace, and you can feel the air move around you, the subtle brush and lift of a soft breeze come across a field. Every day is an eternity, each moment you find yourself exactly where you should be with whom you should be with. Each person crosses your path for a reason, and each reason evaporates with the next step, like a constant stream of rebirths, an endless loop of beginnings.
This is how I escape the persistent pounding of chatter, the numbing talk shows filled with nothing more than speculations. This is how I keep from falling: I wonder, would anyone notice if I just walked away, headed south along the coast, hitchhiked, bussed, trained, away from here? Would anyone notice if I ended up in Pied de Port, France, looking out toward the Napoleon Pass across into Spain, out of reach of the rising tide of so many people?
I’d like to believe that the view from this wilderness is always optimistic, and so many people have commented on the beauty of this wilderness, the sunrises and nightfalls, the slow glow of dawn sweeping gently across the bay and stealing the day, but the true wilderness that must be explored is within, always first and last the wilderness within, and that is very difficult to do with so many people talking about so many people dying.
I wish that I could slow the whole thing down. The world is changing again, and it’s not looking like a strong narrative is headed this way, but there are still so many people I want to spend time with, so many places I’d like to see.
I had a bad night, last night. Couldn’t sleep, finally wide awake at four am talking to ghosts and sitting at my desk. Part of it is standard anxiety, part of it is staring a cold-hard truth in the face, and that usually happens with the utmost clarity at four am.
Then on the drive to work I listened to the news. Yeah, I have no idea what I was thinking. And here I had Jason Isbell in the cd player, but no, I went to NPR. Kiev, Moscow, invasion, twenty-mile Russian convoy (now thirty, now forty, now fifty), nuclear arsenal on high alert, one million Ukrainian refugees fleeing for elsewhere from their homeland which has stood for more than a thousand years, long before Moscow.
So I checked my email and a dear friend whom I’ve known since 1994 had written. He lives in St. Petersburg and said they’re probably losing all social media, he can’t travel anywhere, food is hard to find, and everything he owns, including his finances, are worth less than half than they did one week ago. He worries about his son.
I thought of the people I’ve met across the entire stretch of Russia from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan, and how none of them–seriously, none of them that I’ve ever known and by all of the accounts I hear from journalists and other writers in-country, support Putin. They are indeed opposed to the invasion. These are people who, unlike Putin, grew up in a non-Soviet state, where western goods and services and freedom to travel were standard. They understand the invasion of Ukraine is supported by and carried out by a small group of bitter men from Soviet Days who have no respect for human life.
So I wondered what it would take for Putin to go over the deep end, even further than he is, and order the release of nuclear weapons, and I realized he would have to have his back against the wall and feel like there is no other way, and I thought about how the entire world, supported by every single United Nations member country who voted today save five despicable ones, are for pushing this psychopath against the wall, and while that’s a good thing, my anxiety spiked.
So I escaped that mental bloodbath by returning to my original issue from 4am and pulled out a pad and started to make lists of how to handle that, and I briefly thought “sure, go ahead, push Putin to the wall: two problems solved,” but of course I just needed caffeine. Then I spoke to a dear friend, and though I spoke more than I listened, nothing cleanses the soul like talking to someone who knows you now and knew you then.
Then I got home and it started all over; no problems solved, but definitely better perspective having gotten through a beautiful day, and I went to the river, my river, here, and
every star in the sky must be visible tonight. No city lights, no moonlight, just starlight, and it’s brilliant. Orion and his troops are on full blast in the south, and just to their left Sirius is seriously awake this evening. I stood a long time, saw a few shooting stars, made a few wishes (come on, you have to), and walked along a bit, the waves gentle, a few boats out past the channel. And I remembered how sometimes nature grounds us, not because it makes us feel small, though that too, but because it has such integrity, such steadfast confidence. Five hundred years ago what people in this wilderness witnessed is not much different than I saw tonight, despite the wars and poverty and the combined human sense of fear at falling away from itself since then. Nature simply is. What a lesson; Buddhist in its manner, eternal in its truth: Nature simply is. As we should be.
So I came up to my desk and in my search for one document found another. I read it, sat back and wondered which ghost put it there for me to find tonight of all nights. Might have been Bobbie–she liked poetry, or perhaps Lianne–she taught poetry. Wasn’t Dave; Dave would have left me some Bowie lyrics again.
Doesn’t matter. I’ll ask later when the anxiety kicks in.
In the meantime, it is a good one to remember–that we are, as the Bard once touted through Gertrude, simply passing through nature on our way back to eternity.
Still, the news makes me miss my friends tonight.
Seriously. Read this:
There Will Come Soft Rains
by Sara Teasdale
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground, And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night, And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, Would scarcely know that we were gone.