Reflection 41: Christmas Tree

December 24, 2008


(Copyright © 2008)


At rail crossings, if you stare at freight cars rolling by, all you see is a blur of colors. But if you look up the track and pick a particular car to follow, then pan with your eyes and head, you can read the lettering on the side—Lackawanna, Santa Fe, Rock Island, Denver Rio Grande, Bangor and Aroostook.


Years ago, I encountered the same effect while watching folded newspapers roll off the press at the Boston Globe. The chute to the loading dock was a blur of newsprint until I picked one paper to track down the flow—and I could read the headlines as if the paper were standing still. By mimicking the papers’ speed and direction with my eyes, I cancelled their motion.


The trick is not just paying attention; it’s how you do it that feeds into consciousness and builds your reality.


You can try this by tracking one flake in a snowstorm. One falling leaf. One wave on the ocean. One face in a crowd. One ornament on a Christmas Tree.


I have a Christmas Tree in my head. A tree decked with memories of all the special moments in my life. Emotionally-charged episodes that, collectively, make up my unpublished autobiography. Usually, I don’t pay any attention to what’s in me. Memories, I say, from the past. But they’re there for a reason. I am an emotional being, and it helps to keep that in mind so I don’t have to keep inventing myself anew every time I experience a surge of strong feeling. My autobiographical memory is one of the contexts in which I live. What I know (or think I know)—my personal encyclopedia—is another such context. Along with all the places I’ve been, all the people I’ve met, and so on.


I seldom browse through my store of memories and select one to explore and re-experience at length. Like ornaments on a balsam fir, they’re there in a mass, not individually. Which means they’re mostly ignored and their particular details might as well not be there.


But if I pick one episode in my life—one ornament on my tree of memories—for whatever reason, and savor it, then I’m being more fully myself in merging who I once was with who I am today. It’s like I’ve carried all these ornaments around for years without looking at them, regarding them more like a moving freight train or chute full of newspapers—knowing they’re there but not really seeing them because I’m not appreciating them fully. If I go about it right, I don’t have to select one, I just set the stage by being still, and a memory will rise into consciousness. For example, I was sitting quietly by myself the other day, as Quakers often do, and out of the silence came this:


Having just moved to New York from Boston in 1952, I find myself standing on the platform of the IRT subway station in Times Square, waiting for a northbound express. Trains rush in from their tunnel of darkness, stop briefly, then rush into the darkness ahead. The third rail lies in a darkness of its own. I am aware of it as a lurking presence beyond the platform. The crowd bustles around me. Where I’ve been and where I’m going are not important. I’m just there, situated in my new life in New York. Glancing to my right, I focus on the girl standing next to me, also waiting. I suddenly realize I am standing on a subway platform in New York next to the most beautiful girl in the world. Everyone else disappears. Whole trains disappear. There’s only me the silent observer, and this special person, this apparition. I look away. A train comes out of nowhere. Doors open. The most beautiful girl in the world steps as a normal person would step into the train. She moves to her right. I see her in profile, lifting her hand, grasping a hanger to steady herself. Doors close. The train pulls out of the station, carrying her on to the rest of her life. Leaving me standing on the platform, aware of myself as just one member of the crowd that suddenly engulfs me.


Even writing about this ornament stirs me today. I can feel my heart beating faster after 56 years. I wonder what life held for the girl. Probably what it holds for the rest of us, a mystery we try to find meaningful and make the best of. Knowing what I’ve made of that mystery for myself, I now treasure that encounter as a special moment of being in the presence of exceptional beauty, beauty still with me today. One in a lifelong series of beautiful moments. I hope that girl had—and is having—a good life.



At this darkest time of year for us northerners,

think on beauty, light, and peace.

Don’t let trains rush by without asking what they have

to tell you.

Don’t let headlines revert to a blur.

Hold yourself and your world in full consciousness

however you can.

Joyeux Solstice D’hiver 2008  —SP







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