Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Words Are Free

I woke up at 4:50 in the morning in preparation for my train ride back to Portland. I had been sleeping in a log cabin out in the woods of Leavenworth for two nights. On the first night I slept in one room while the managers and several other guests occupied the other rooms. But on the second night, everyone – including the managers – went back to their homes, so I had the entire house to myself. I had performed at the Icicle Brewery on my first night in town, and had a great show. I played everything from angry break up songs to Christmas music and the crowd seemed to love it all. My second night in town was a night off, so I spent the day roaming around downtown in the snow, and spent the night in the cabin, where I savored the solitude.

On the morning that I left town, a shuttle arrived at 5:30 to take me to the train stop. The train arrived on time, at 6:08. I had packed sensibly this time, so I climbed aboard with just a large purse and my guitar. At first I had some difficulty locating an empty seat, but then a young man offered me a seat by the window next to his seat. At first we both stayed in our respective worlds: I listened to Julie Doiron while reading a novel written by Nick Cave; he read the People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and listened to something I couldn't hear in his large headphones. We went through the longest railway tunnel in America, called the Cascade Tunnel. It was dark when we entered it but the sun had come out before we made it through. I was disappointed to have missed the sunrise, rarely getting to see those occur. My seat-mate gazed out the window and exclaimed, “Oh my god, I have literally never been in the mountains before! This is so beautiful that I seriously want to cry right now.” I smiled at him, and then focused my attention on the view outside my window. The ground and the trees were all sprinkled with a beautiful white snow, and there was a morning mist in the air. “You're probably used to this by now,” he added.

“No,” I said quietly, genuinely in awe of my surroundings, “I'm really not.”

He told me he was born in Florida but grew up in Chicago and had never lived anywhere else. A few days ago he had been invited to live with a friend in Seattle, so he bought a ticket and packed his bags, lusting after an adventure. We got to talking about the Midwest. I told him about how the first train ride I took in my adult life was from Chicago to Ottumwa, IA, for some friends' wedding. I had loved watching the sunset across the flat lands. Then we talked about music. He said he was mainly a piano player, but he dabbled in many other instruments. We both thought it was a good idea not to limit oneself to one instrument or musical style. He told me he loved listening to hip hop and punk the most but he was best at playing jazz. He asked me for the names of some of my favorite artists so I threw out John Vanderslice, Destroyer, and Kristin Hersh. He said he was a Throwing Muses fan, too. He recommended Atmosphere and the Punch Brothers. We switched gears and began talking about philosophy. He told me why he favored Nietzsche; I explained why I preferred Sartre. Then I found out this guy I was chatting with was twenty-two, and felt my mind being slightly blown: I wished I had been so smart at that age.

We started talking about language, covering everything from accents to slang. I told him I loved learning about the etymologies of words. He lit up, and said, “You know what I love about words? You can go to the mall and see a really cool pair of sneakers and wish you had them. But if you can't afford them, you can't get them. With words, on the other hand, if you hear someone say something that you like, all you have to do is take their words and use them, and it's OK: they're free.” This was my favorite part of our discussion. He reminded me that words are free. Maybe that's one of the reasons I love to write.

We both got off the train in Seattle. He was home now and I had to switch trains. After I boarded the next train, I found my seat, which was by a window again. This time I sat alone, and tried to divide my attention between the view of the great Northwest covered in a diaphanous fog, and all the words in my head that I wanted to write down.