One time, long ago, I had a hard year while living in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ever since then, especially when I’ve been at events throughout the south, I’ve met a lot of people who also lived in Memphis for a time. When the subject comes up, once in a while I mention something about my hard year there, and I always add a disclaimer: “Probably it was just me.”
There are good people everywhere, and you never want to insult someone’s city. More than once, though, they’ve said “I had a hard year in Memphis too!”
As the song says, maybe it was Memphis, but maybe it was just me. Whatever it was, it wasn’t only a hard year: it was actually a terrible year where I felt very alone and afraid.
One day I found myself driving back from a short day trip. I’d been on the road for several hours and was coming home to my apartment near the university.
On the way back, half an hour from my apartment, I came upon a set of railroad tracks. The flagpole was down and the light was flashing—apparently a train was coming. Great, I thought. Just what I need when I’m tired and almost home.
But when a train’s arriving, there’s not much you can do besides wait. So I waited. Pretty soon the train would show up, I’d count the cars as I listened to Dave Matthews Band on my CD player (remember those?) and eventually I’d be able to get home.
I was really depressed around this time. I had to impose rules on myself: no beer or wine before 5pm, no beer or wine and driving in general, try to get outside at least once a day, force one social interaction at least once a day, exercise at least once in a while. It certainly wasn’t my “designed life.” I had plenty of acquaintances but few close friends. Mostly I sat around feeling sorry for myself, which is hardly ever the brightest idea, but it can also be a hard habit to break.
Anyway, I was on my way home, sitting there in the stopped car, listening to Dave while waiting to get on my way, and a funny thing happened. Or actually, nothing happened. There was no train. I sat there and waited, but no locomotive appeared on the horizon in either direction.
I finally got out of my car and walked up to the tracks, looking all the way down either side. You guessed it: still no train.
What the hell? I thought. This is the slowest train in the history of Memphis.
With no other apparent option to consider, I got back into my car and kept waiting. Even then, former juvenile delinquent that I was, having graduated from college at the age of 19, well on my way to a life of questioning the rules and forging my own path, I was pretty damn conditioned.
See, if you grow up in America, and presumably some other places too, from an early age you learn to never cross the tracks when a train is approaching. You just can’t do it! When teenagers learn to drive, they’re shown videos of horrible car accidents that occurred when someone tried to beat the train. It’s a grotesque fear tactic, and also an effective one: as I sat idling just beyond the crossing, I remembered the videos. Depressed as I was, I didn’t want to die. And certainly not in a train accident!
If that happened, then I’d be the star of those videos for the next generation: “Look at this dumb-ass,” the voiceover would say. “He thought he could beat the train, but he was wrong, just like everyone else who ever tried. Don’t do it.”
Five more minutes passed. By then I had turned off the stereo and finally cut the engine. You know what else was strange? There were no other cars. It was just the flagpole and the flashing lights and me—all waiting for a train that didn’t seem to exist.
Not knowing the city well and driving back from far away, I didn’t have another way home. This was long ago, with no cell phone or GPS to check. So I just kept waiting, because what else could I do? Surely there was going to be a train at some point.
Five more minutes passed. I got out of my car again and walked around. I peered all the way down the tracks once more—no train.
I finally realized what I had to do. There was no other option: I’d have to drive around those flagpoles, ignoring those flashing lights. I’d have to jump the railroad tracks!
Even though it seemed so obvious, I was terrified. I just knew it wouldn’t end well.
I waited three more minutes just in case I’d gain a reprieve from the challenge, with a train suddenly arriving on the scene and an engineer waving an apology for activating the signal so early. But no luck, of course: there wasn’t a train, and it was now or never for me.
Finally, I took a deep breath. I turned on the engine and crept up to the first set of flagpoles. There was enough room for me to maneuver around. There was no reason not to.
So I did it. I gunned the engine, deployed my best video game skills, drove around the flagpoles on my side, crossed the tracks, and drove around the other set of poles on the other side. Yes! I had done it! And I was okay.
But guess what I thought every instant of that five-second drive across the tracks? I didn’t think: Yes! I’m doing this! I’ll be okay.
No, the whole time I thought: I’m such a screw-up. I’m so scared.
I honestly thought there was a train coming that I had somehow failed to see. Because I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t trust my own judgment, having convinced myself of a lack of self-worth.
I didn’t even trust what I saw with my own eyes. Instead, I trusted that story I was told about how you should never cross the train tracks unless you were stupid and had a death wish. While that story may be true 9,999,999 times out of a million, on that day it wasn’t. Flashing lights or not, if I wanted to get home that night, somehow I had to drive across those tracks.
Arriving on the other side of the street after that five-second journey, I immediately pulled over and stopped the car. I was shaking and out of breath.
But I also felt the initial surges of triumph, at long last. No one had seen it, but it didn’t matter. I’d faced the challenge and overcome. Sure, it might have taken a while, and I was still depressed, but I had done it.
I got out of the car again and walked back to the crossing one more time, looking over at where I had waited alone for more than twenty minutes. Even then, I think I still expected to see a train approaching in the distance. Surely it was just very late! If I had waited, it would have eventually shown up, rolled on past, and then the emergency signal would have ended.
But no—that’s not how it went. The flagpoles were down, the lights were flashing, and it was all just a weird malfunction.
There never was a train. The only way out was through; the only way forward was to go back on what I believed to be true.
Just as I eventually crossed the tracks, I eventually found my way out of that miserable year. I quit the last day job I ever had and started learning to be self-sufficient. I quit the graduate program I was in, too. I finished most of my course requirements but never wrote the thesis. No regrets, I told myself, and I didn’t have any.
It didn’t happen right away, but eventually I was happy again. I found my way through and learned to trust my judgment.
Remember, if you ever find yourself alone for the holidays, hang in there. Or if you’re reading this some other time during a hard year of your own, somewhere there’s an answer.
It might take a while, but there’s light somewhere on the other side. You just have to find your way across, even if it goes against everything you’ve been told.