Finding the Main Line

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Finding the Main Line

Reasons for Waiting, by Ian Anderson, performed by Jethro Tull (1969), encountered 1970

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A hymn whose tune I like better than I do its lyrics contains the unfortunate line: “We are the young, our lives are a myst’ry.”  I think what the versifier had in mind (other than a rhyme for “history”) was the notion that young people cannot know what life will have in store for them.  But most of us use the word “mystery” to denote not an unknown outcome but rather a known set of facts that calls for an as-yet unknown explanation.

Yet when you’re young, there are times when the word “mystery” as most of us use it almost fits.  The facts of your life feel as if they should tell you what to do next, but you can’t make out what they’re saying.

The gorgeous Ian Anderson song Reasons for Waiting infallibly calls to my mind a moment of such frustration in my youth.  Or, more accurately, a time-out from that frustration.

When I hear it, I see myself sitting on a train.  Let me tell you about that moment and that trip.

Two Cars, Philly to Harrisburg

It was a beautiful morning, and I was traveling in a two-car train from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.  I had to take the trip on account of my car, that priceless gift from my dad within the previous year.  The only problem was that my dad and the car came from New York, and I didn’t.  I was a Michigander attending college in Pennsylvania.  So the time had come – and passed – for me to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles about re-registering it.  I’m pretty certain I’d neglected switching the car’s registration until the New York registration had lapsed, and in order to get the problem fixed I had to go at once to the only office that could deal with the problem immediately – in the state capital.  Hence Harrisburg, rather than Philly.  Hence train, rather than car.

Why had I neglected it?  OK, start with the fact that I had no more judgment and maturity than your average college student.  And like an average college student, I had to do a reasonable amount of coping on a daily basis.  I was holding down a very ambitious college curriculum and carrying on a serious love affair.  But I was also distracted by three big questions: what graduate school to apply to, what to do about the possibility I might be drafted, and whether to get married.  And obviously the resolution to any of these questions was tied up with the resolution of both of the others.  All of these things provoked anxiety; all of them called for grown-up powers of analysis I didn’t possess yet.  My mind was going in circles trying to figure them out.

Locum Refrigerii

And so in the midst of all this, one little bit of coping, the car registration, was allowed to slide too long.  Like most overdue tasks, this one came with a price: a day of downtime to get to Harrisburg and back.  If that day taught me a lesson, however, it had nothing to do with the consequences of negligence.  Rather it concerned the occasional moments of grace that drop into our lives, days where downtime unexpectedly becomes time out from one’s cares.

There was a phrase in my old Missal that captures what that day became: locum refrigerii, lucis, et pacis: a place of comfort, light and peace.[1]  For one gorgeous, sunny day I was forced to stare out the window of a cozy two-car train at some of the prettiest creation Pennsylvania has to offer, and I was so entranced by the unfolding scene that I largely forgot about being anxious.

The  train followed along the Main Line, that agglomeration of the old Main Line of Public Works of Pennsylvania comprised of canals, roads and rail, and more particularly of course the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line to Pittsburgh.  Over the roughly 120 years that this rail line had been used, it had carried commuter trains for some of Philadelphia’s most elegant suburbs. I passed stations named Merion, Narberth, and Haverford, Villanova, Rosemont, Devon and Paoli.  And then, after a while, the suburbs gave way to Lancaster County’s broad fields.  As this was either advanced autumn or early spring, the vegetation was spare enough so I had an unobstructed view.  And finally, after a while, the line took me along the broad Susquehanna before depositing me near the Capitol.

I have a penchant and something of a gift for finding my way around strange cities, and I located where I was supposed to go quickly, and transacted my business without much trouble.  Shortly thereafter, I got on another train and reversed the route.

Faith in Impossible Schemes

And through much of that morning and afternoon, Reasons for Waiting was cycling through my head. It’s a peaceful song, despite the frequent appearance of strings.  The lyrics evoke a lover contemplating his lady, apparently asleep, perhaps in bed with him, perhaps only remembered (the lyrics grow abstract as they describe the time and the place of the lady).

What a sight for my eyes to see you in sleep.
Could’ve startled the sunrise hearing you weep.
You’re not seen, you’re not heard
but I stand by my word.
Came a thousand miles
just to catch you while you’re smiling.

And the lyrics conclude with a hope that the beloved has “faith in impossible schemes/ that are born in the sigh/ of the wind blowing by.”  Despite the mention of weeping and the “impossible” nature of the “schemes,” and despite some bruising jazzy interludes where Anderson’s gruff flute-work suggests conflict, the song remains serenely confident that the lady will say yes to whatever projects or commitments the singer may propose.

A Flourish of Flutes

The optimism of the song is assured by the strings and especially by a repeated flourish played by Anderson on the flute, backed by Marin Barre on another flute.  It appears at the beginning, middle, and end of the song.  If you remember one thing about Reasons for Waiting, it will be that incurably lovely flourish, perfect for accompanying the passing of suburbs and fields in all their own loveliness.

I was really sorry for the day to end, and to be consigned again to the less serene frame of mind in which I was spending that year.  Yet I couldn’t help thinking, then and now, that I was on a quest to discover the main line of my life, and that for a day at least, I had experienced what finding it might be like.


[1]   Memento etiam, Domine, famulorum, famularumque tuarum N. et N. qui nos praecesserunt cum signo fidei et dormiunt in somno pacis. Ipsis, Domine, et omnibus in Christo quiescentibus, locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis, ut indulgeas, deprecamur. Per eumdem Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Translation: “Be mindful, O Lord, also of thy servants and handmaids, N. and N., who have gone before us with the sign of faith, and rest in the sleep of peace.  To these, O lord, and to all who sleep in Christ, we beseech Thee to grant, of Thy goodness, a place of comfort, light, and peace.  Through the same Christ our Lord.  Amen.”  Cited here as from My Sunday Missal, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Joseph F. Stedman, Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1961, pg 54.  While the phrase is from the Roman rite of my childhood, and obviously refers to something more than a break from one’s cares, it is still the phrase that comes to my mind when I think of moments such as the one described in this piece.

Copyright (c) except for lyrics and artwork Jack L. B. Gohn

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