The Working Title Is…Lessons of the Journey

I can’t remember the last time I was more excited about an invitation. 

It’s been years since I’ve experienced live theatre. And I’ve never received a handwritten invite to a production before!

So, yes, I’ve been counting down the days until Chicago’s St. Andrew Elementary Second Grade production of Arthur’s Christmas. I’m on pins and needles anticipating the directorial debut of my favorite thespian, Clare Parks.

At some point, I thought to myself, “Might be fun to take the train!”  And it was, until just outside of the Battle Creek station when we came to a screeching halt.

It’s actually left me quite nostalgic. In August 2003, Pat and I surprised our girls with a train trip to Chicago, and somewhere between the Royal Oak and Detroit stations, the major northeast blackout happened, leaving us trapped on the train for more than 12 hours.

So no big whoop that this has been my view for the past three hours.

At least the club car is attached.  We didn’t even have that for the first five hours in 2003! I remember feeling very anxious back then…we were unsure of the cause of the blackout, and the events of September 11th were still a very recent memory.

I don’t know what word describes how I’m feeling right now.

Across the aisle from me are an adult woman and her physically disabled father.  She hasn’t stopped yelling at him since the train stopped. [Edited transcript] “This always happens when I ride with you! I should have never said yes to this trip.”

Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m a huge fan of a well-placed expletive, but the way this woman is speaking to her father has the entire train car cringing.  She is unrelenting in profane complaints and double negatives. 

Her single act of kindness came when her dad asked her to reach down his computer.  He pulled up some website that showed real-time passenger and freight train activity. He tried to point out the trouble spot, but she quickly and decisively shut him up.

Not long after, I got caught staring in his direction. We shared a smile behind masks and he said, “I like to track the trains.”  As his daughter was (NO LIE) busy brushing her hair in the seat next to him, I said, “My brother is a huge train fan too, I get it.”  As he started to point out what was on his screen, the conductor came on the loudspeaker to explain the reason for the delay was a police situation on the tracks just outside of Kalamazoo. Minutes later when walking through our car, the conductor told my train-loving neighbor that this was the third suicide in the last ten days along this route.

I’ve already painted a horrible, albeit accurate, picture of his daughter so I will refrain from sharing her disgusting comments that followed.

Equal to my love of a well place curse word is my love of a good fight…one of words, mind you, and I am gearing up to put this bitch in her place.

My head is spinning and my internal voice has finally drowned out hers. But as my planned oratory assault reaches epic, launch-ready levels, deep emotion renders me mute.

I would give anything to be trapped on a train with my Dad. 

I would give anything to travel back in time…anxious and snackless…to be trapped on a train with my tiny girls who fell asleep in our laps while Pat and I held hands. 

I would give anything to hold Pat’s hand.

Three suicides in ten days along this one train route?  My God.

I would give anything to miraculously intervene in those troubled lives and help each person find the words to ask for help.

I would give anything to comfort the family members whose hearts are broken and who will face the horror of an empty chair this Christmas.

I would give anything to bring peace—of mind, heart, soul and spirit—to friend and stranger alike.

We started moving a bit ago. As my neighbors stood up to disembark at Battle Creek, I stood too. Toe to toe, I stared right into that woman’s eyes and said in a whimper, “Hope your day gets better.”  And in the true spirit of the season she said, “Jesus Christ, I need a f*in cigarette.”

The lesson of this journey has me counting my blessings, cherishing life, and praying for peace in the hearts of all. 

Yes, all.  Even the foul-mouth, grammatically deficient, wickedly unsanitary, public transportation-dissing, heartbreakingly paternal-alienating monsters of our world. Clearly, they are struggling with something too. 

May peace and joy surround everyone this Christmas.




The Working Title Is…Retreat, But No Surrender

retreat [ri-treet] (noun)

the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy


a period of retirement for religious exercises and meditation


The summer before my senior year in high school was a pivotal time in the ongoing relationship with my pretend boyfriend, Bruce Springsteen.

I listened, over and over and over again, to every song on his “Born in the USA” album and stared for hours at the album cover that celebrated one of his most magnificent physical assets.

Every song on that album elicited a deep emotional response during a transformative time in my life. Weird thing is, this morning, one song popped into my head and is now stuck there.

Side Two, Track 1: No Surrender.

It took me 30 years, but I just realized that my pretend boyfriend was feeding me some bad advice when he sang to me, “We made a promise we swore we’d always remember…. no retreat, baby, no surrender.”

My daughter is now the same age as I was when Bruce first sang those words to me. And within the last twenty-four hours, I returned from one kind of retreat and she left on another, which led me to this cathartic realization.

I’m sorry to break a promise to you, my sweet darling Bruce, but, you see, sometimes we have to retreat in order to keep from surrendering. In fact, walking away might be the only thing that keeps that white flag of surrender nestled safely in our back pocket, much like your red baseball cap that I stared at for an inappropriate amount of time that one summer.

My daughter left on Monday with her entire senior class on a retreat, as in the second definition listed above; a period of retirement for religious exercises and meditation.

I pray that this will prove to be a deeply meaningful spiritual experience. There will be times of prayer and discussion. There will be opportunities for her to share personal messages of thanksgiving and hope directly with her classmates, and time for my daughter to reflect on messages of hope and praise written by people who love her more than words could ever say.

My prayer is that she comes home with a deeper awareness of the blessings in her life, an increased fortitude for facing the stress of the college application process and a profound sense of peace in the belief that God will guide her decisions. My hope is that her retreat will foster within her the strength to never surrender to the stress, anxiety and pressure that permeate our society.

In somewhat ironic timing, the night before she left, I returned from a different kind of retreat, closer to the first definition above. I withdrew into semi-seclusion with a group of women I have known for just about as long as Bruce has been singing those words to me.

What was billed as a “girls weekend” felt a little like I was running away.

While the last few months of my life were not without their moments of brightness–they have been uncharacteristically dark.

I have faced a number of challenges, significant loss and sadness, and it began to define me.

During those same months, people whose friendships I cherish felt the pain and fear of frightening diagnoses and the heartbreaking death of loved ones at far too young of an age.

And while all that was going on, the weight of the world just seemed to pile on even more…shootings in schools and movies theatres, beheadings and bombings, children in freezers and babies in desk drawers. Even though I am surrounded by loving family and friends, it all became too much to process.

I retreated, and it just so happened to be into the arms of nearly a dozen Marquette women who reminded me of one specific thing.

We are Warriors.

Each of these women were keenly self aware of the blessings in their lives. But none of us would have ever guessed the challenges our families and extended families were to face in the years following our college days. As I listened to these women share their stories, who would have predicted funerals for a child, a husband, parents and friends? Who would have guessed there would be job losses, divorce, loved one’s addictions and mental/emotional/physical illness, a positive BRCA gene test and an invitation to a swinger’s party. (Actually, that last one we probably saw coming.)

My retreat was marinated in booze and highlighted by stories of survival, endless laughter, a few tears and a visit from the cops telling these beautifully aging retreat goers to keep it down.

Sometimes we need to walk away to regain the perspective that was there all along…everything is going to be ok.

Retreat, baby, but no surrender.