This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.
And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
In the “Literary and Historical Notes,” also from The Almanac, this note apropos of trains:
It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive, an invention that would fuel the Industrial Revolution and dramatically affect the settlement of North America.
Stephenson had never had any formal schooling, but he taught himself how steam engines worked by taking them apart when they broke down, and eventually he learned how to build them from scratch. He made his first successful demonstration of the new invention on this day in 1814. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of 30 tons about four miles an hour up a hill.
By the 1830s, trains were already traveling 60 miles an hour. When the first transcontinental railway lines were completed in the 1870s, a cross-country journey that had taken several months suddenly took only seven days. The railroads shrank distances and increased the speed of life, while fueling America’s economic expansion and industrialization.
Thanks to Garrison, Eleanor, and George.
And the starfish.