Despite It All

Just recently, the conductor has once more begun calling my train stop by name. Each time I hear it echo, I feel a touch more relieved, a bit closer to home. When I hand him my green Metro-North Railroad ticket stamped SPN DVL, he peers at it closely, then booms “Spites!” as he punches two holes in rapid succession. “Spites” is railroad shorthand for Spuyten Duyvil. For several years, this New York station was known for having a Dutch name almost impossible to pronounce. Now it’s best known for being the worst accident site in regional commuter rail history. The train wreck took place right near the bend in the tracks where the Harlem River meets the Hudson – one year ago, this December.

photo 3 - Copy

Time warps and wends around tragedies, but the tragedies themselves: those stay fixed. I still remember the day of the derailment so vividly. I was not on the train into the city; rather, I was on my way to church in a nearby town. The train jumped the tracks early on a Sunday morning, and I naively assumed that the first radio account I heard was sensationalized, because it sounded altogether too dire to be true. During the church service, we put the Metro-North staff and passengers on our prayer list and held worship as usual. A few hours later, back at home, the helicopters continued to circle the stretch of sky above our neighborhood, gasping at the sight, winded with every passing hour. Then I understood that this massive wreck was true and dire in equal measure.

Seen from far above, the wreckage looked a child’s train set destroyed by a ferocious tantrum. Practically at the water’s edge, the head car had careened to a full stop, while another six cars trailed catastrophically behind. The finally tally included four dead, sixty-three injured, with some of the 115 passengers aboard suffering permanent disability. My mental objections were immediate: it was the start of the holiday season, a long weekend, the first Sunday in Advent. Whatever protective benefits I believed these circumstances might confer were purely fictive and thoroughly nonsensical.

None of the deceased or wounded were acquaintance of mine, personally, but the wreck left me seriously distraught for weeks. I imagined what Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s would bring to families and survivors, to passengers and employees alike. I could not put them out of my mind. Suddenly everyone knew how to pronounce the name of my stop; it was synonymous with terrible news. Each night I disembarked from the train, I felt myself stepping onto the platform of a waking nightmare. My neighbor’s kids had a recurrent bad dream set to the screech of breaks. Not even jolly Santa could change that.

Those of us in religious leadership know the complex associations individuals can have with various holidays and holy days, and those of us in therapeutic settings understand the painful sequence that follows grave misfortune: first Christmas, first birthday, first Passover, first Mother’s Day, first Fourth of July – each first without, each first afterwards. For some, their Season’s Greetings are a dreary Christmas and an unhappy New Year. Nobody mails outs cards with mottos like that; instead, they retreat into shadows, into silence, until the festivities fizzle out and finally end.

But people tend not to forget the year that Thanksgiving, say, got ruined for them forever. Why would they? Yet any disastrous year, like every year, eventually recedes, and the most indelible memories can fade, albeit faintly. If time fails to heal all wounds, it nonetheless creates a degree of distance, or maybe a muffling effect. The disorientation – to time, place, circumstance – somewhat subsides. It took me quite a while to stop thinking of Spuyten Duyvil without a sick feeling in my stomach and to again consider it simply my stop on the line.

My line, the Hudson line, appears bright green on the system map; it hugs the Hudson River north out of New York City and all the way up to Poughkeepsie. From start to finish, it’s a lovely ride. The Hudson is my favorite line in the system, and Spuyten Duyvil has long been my very favorite stop. Quite possibly it’s the prettiest station of them all. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of its commuter rail in 2008, Metro-North commissioned a print of Spuyten Duyvil at dusk. In “Nocturne,” as it’s called, the river glistens along the rails, as the sky shifts from lavender to indigo. Illuminating the platform are sculptural gaslights evenly spaced underneath the broad expanse of the Henry Hudson Bridge arching overhead. The Columbia boathouses sit serenely behind the train pulling into the station. You couldn’t sketch a more picturesque scene.

In my old office, I had hung a copy of the “Nocturne” print to remind me where I was headed at the end of the day, this pastoral interlude at the northernmost edge of the city. For months now, it’s been sitting in the closet at home. I know where to find it if I want it, but it’s always hard for us humans to reconcile our most convincing depictions of beauty with our strongest experiences of tragedy. That’s the dilemma faced by so many of us each December, as the holidays others are celebrating stand as stark commemorations of personal loss. I try to remember that in the midst of this latest merriment.

So when the jaunty conductor exclaimed “Spites!” and handed me back my ticket, I realized with relief that an anniversary had come and gone. The literal translation of Spuyten Duyvil from Dutch to English is “spinning devil,” because the water channel at the juncture of the Hudson and Harlem results in horrible cross-currents, and the early colonists of New Amsterdam recognized this fact. American writer Washington Irving joked that this tricky spot was settled “in spite of the devil”, and I hear intimations of that perverse and spiteful spirit in my conductor’s voice. Sometimes we have no choice but to carry on despite whatever ills and evils befall us, worse still, following roughly the same route.

Thankfully, as a result of severe scrutiny and also some soul searching, Metro-North is safer now. The speed limits have dropped and today all the trains take that curve in the bend at a snail’s pace. This can means delays, which honestly, we have no choice but to accept. A few days ago, as we waited for a train headed into the city for a holiday party, I complained to my husband that we would be late. He reminded me that this was all part of the new railroad plan to err on the side of taking things slow, so the night was just as it should be.

Each winter holiday speaks to slivers of light shining through the darkest possible hour. There’s never any way around those holidays; they come around the same time year after year. Sometimes, the soundest plan is to slog through, slowly, painstakingly, at a crawl if we must, until we make our way to the other side. Then we may or may not recall that our holidays were once beautiful times and places, and we may or may not anticipate that they might be again, despite it all. Only recently, on my way home, have I started to see the river and the lights and the shoreline at Spuyten Duyvil as the lovely things they indeed are. Just recently, in the proper light, have these come more clearly into my view.

© 2014

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