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  • J Scott Lane

What I Think About When I Should Be Thinking About Nothing

Updated: Feb 27

Is it fiction when you recount something you've actually thought about but that has never happened?

I've probably spent more time reading about meditation, its techniques, its benefits, and its practice than I've actually spent meditating. I know from this research that meditation can be active, like walking and focusing on your feet moving one in front of the other. It can be done to music, or guided by an Xanax-voiced narrator. You can try to think about nothing - quite hard - or focus on a single image or environment, like a happy, sun-dappled field.

Most of the time when I meditate, and almost always at night when I meditate, I conjure the same immersive vision. I am dragging a folding chair, the kind with flat rubber straps that leave impressions on your bare thighs after you've sat on one for more than a few minutes, across a snow-encrusted field. I set the summer-appropriate chair about 50 feet away from a set of railroad tracks running out of a mountain pass to my left that disappear around a bend and more hills, lined with snow and snow-covered pine trees, to my right. And I sit, and I wait. Just breathe.

After a few moments, I see puffs of smoke appearing over the tops of the mountains to my left. Before long I hear and then see the passenger train, in browns and reds and sedate gray trim, coming around the curve in the tracks. It comes towards me and my chair quickly, but then seems to slow, affording me a good look at the handsome antique engine. A coal car passes, then the passenger cars. This is a well-appointed train that generally doesn't exist any more except as a trite tourist trap or movie set: plush seats, round tables, bars, and well-dressed people crowd the inside. I catch a whiff of old perfume, hear music faintly, maybe Lawrence Welk or some other big band, playing tight and high.

After the first or second passenger car, I get used to looking into the bright windows that stand out against the dark train and land and sky. People see me outside, nudge their companions, and wave. I lift a hand in response. One of them is my mother, giddy-happy to see me and waving frantically. She finally gets the attention of a man, and my father turns, leans down and gives me one of his best smiles, raising a glass of amber liquid that I know is Maker's Mark. The next car back has a pair of elegantly dressed people, man and woman, both drinking martinis and singing, laughing, holding to each other around the waist over his tuxedo, her sequined dress. They see me and rush to the window, still smiling but mouthing words, over and over again, urgently trying to get me to read their lips, understand their meaning. I don't know why - I'm no good at reading lips - but I think that they are telling me that they love her, or that they miss her, or that they're sorry they had to go too soon. The train moves on.

There are animals as well as people in the next car, a German Shepherd, a Chihuahua, several cats crouch, all of them jumping, running, wrestling, rolling, and wagging. I see my ex-wife crouched in the middle of the aisle playing with them, laughing. She looks up but offers only a quick glance at me, a small smile, then she shakes her head and turns back to her playmates and is gone.

The train is almost past my seated post now. The snow has started to fall again, partly obscuring my view into the few remaining cars. These appear to be empty, their padded cherry red (my father's favorite color) cushions empty. Some of them have a sheet of white notebook paper with neat block lettering on them: just a single word, "Reserved." I think that one day the train will not just chug and huff by me, but will stop and I'll get up from my chair, climb the little stairs the conductor will let down for me. The massive wheels turn on the tracks, steel on steel, remorseless, not asking for forgiveness but not acting in malice, either. Part of me wants to jump up and run across the crackling snow to chase it down. But it wouldn't stop anyway, not tonight.

The train begins picking up speed and soon the front cars are already disappearing around the bend to my right, their noise and rattle fading quickly. The caboose, the smallest car of the train, appears with the traditional tiny portico hanging off the back. A person comes out of a door onto this platform and leans against the filigreed railing that encircles it. I can't tell if they're a man or a woman, but they slowly raise an arm and give me a small, slow wave. It's more of an ironic gesture than a heartfelt sign of departure, as if the person giving it knows that they'll be back here soon enough - no sense in wasting a grand goodbye on this small moment.

Then they and the train recede, smaller and smaller, until it disappears around the bend, and I'm still sitting there listening to the last creaks before quiescence drapes the bleak landscape. Moonlight glints dully off the snow when it gets a chance to come through low, wispy clouds. I don't know anything more than I did when I sat down here. I'm a little colder so I guess I'll go back.

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