When I was a teenager, I was sent on one of those student exchange experiments to Mexico. On a train from Laredo to Mexico City, a handsome Andover boy who was on his way to a homestay in Guatemala crawled into my berth and we slept together... like grownups--- we were both scared I think and it made us feel like adults. He was preppy, not my type… he'd followed me around at orientation but we were segregated in the bunkers. It was so weird...I guess I was 15 and he was 16. No sex-- just the intimacy of sleep. But I remember... looking out the window at this strange desert and the night was cold and his arms around me in the thin wool blanket-- his name was Steve Pearson. We never spoke. I felt like those pioneer girls must have felt with an arranged marriage-- the first night of a cheap honeymoon.
Something so cinematic and archetypal about trains… the endless film reel of passing landscape, the rhythmic wheels on the track, the unbearable lonesome solo of sunset whistles. I often dream of them, of trainsleep… of railroad bridges and tunnels and leaving home and waving goodbye to things you will never see again, secrets you will leave behind, love that you have moved away from, or that has moved away from you. A cliche'd but poetic sense of distance.
My niece is suffering from insomnia. Insomnia, I tell her, is a state of mind. It is the delusion that you must be sleeping when you are awake. All of us sleep at some time; some of us are rebels and don't want to be regulated. Read. Poetry is good. Try a train, I tell her… but she will undoubtedly be looking at her instagram and texting her friends instead of watching the moon rise over an endless black river.
Train accidents seem horrific. The long fragile chain of cars crashing one after the other seems almost more innocently violent than a car or plane crash. One of the victims of the Metro North crash this week was the curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had studied and written extensively about Vermeer--- the painter who understood white like no other. I pray he was dreaming in a 17th century interior, wrapped in Vermeer-colored sheets, and was not frightened and suffocated to death, this man who dedicated his life to the subject of beauty and who threatened to leave his position if the Metropolitan Museum made even a single move to acquire even one piece from the bankrupt Detroit Institute of the Arts. He looked a bit timeless and removed from another century; he'd said that he treasured the traditional trip back and forth from country to city on the train.
Generally I go to bed at dawn, with no schedule, when the pull of fatigue overwhelms. For me the sleep of winter is a deep, slow tunnel of Vermeer whites and far-off whistles. I have given up on feverish passion and watched the fires of ambition burn off to glowing embers. Insomnia is a thwarted love, a tossing and turning that no longer possesses me. A sting of guilt or regret or a debt someone fears will be collected while we are vulnerable. There is nothing more vulnerable than a person asleep; it is the very essence of innocence and trust. Maybe this is my niece's problem; she has failed to lock her emotional door. Things have happened to all of us while we slept. Sometimes our predators insist we dreamed these nightmares; sometimes we have. This is the stuff of fairytales and myths. How many of those Greek gods visited beautiful human girls and made love to them while they slept, or turned them into creatures or stars.
What always surprised me, reading my little books of myths and tales before I went to sleep, or reading the same ones to my little boy, was why these gods-- who could have and could be anything they wanted-- were envious of men, with all our petty faults and our mortality. They still wanted what we had, or they wanted to sleep with the women, or possess them, or father their children. It made them human, or flawed, even though they were gods. Our grass seemed greener than their paradise, and our snow whiter. Or they craved our flaws, our dirt, our human pain and the funk of failure. Our need for sleep.
The night of the train crash, on the way home at 3 AM I came across a pool of fresh blood on a snowy bank. Even by the mercury streetlight, I could see that it was human blood, not an innocent animal. At first I felt weak… then something in me took over, and I began thinking about Adolph Gottlieb-- Sam Francis…Malevich. The mind of an artist can be brutal. But maybe that is the point. Compassion is not always helpful. We must make something of what is; we go on: sleep or no sleep, pain or no pain; snow or rain or bitter cold-- living our dream and dreaming our lives.