Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | December 19, 2009

Laying the Train Tracks

While watching a re-run of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”, I was struck by a conversation in it about the fact that a train track was laid between Venice and Vienna, over the highest section of the Alps, years before there was ever a train route between the cities, in the hope or perhaps certainty that eventually some day there would be one. I do not know if that is actually true, but the idea of laying a train track for a train that did not exist sounded interesting. It must have been a huge logistical and engineering effort at that height – why spend the resources?

But then come to think of it, aren’t we all doing something similar? We raise kids and give our best years to doing that – do we know for certain that they will turn out the way we wish? We spend one third or more of every 24 hours at work, turning the wheels of whatever it is that we are trying to help drive – our homes or the institutions we work in. Are we doing it because we know that there is a clear and present end- game? We go about planning and executing the business of living – getting an education and a job, getting married, buying a house,  having kids, getting fed up with our jobs, getting back  to school – can we honestly say that we know for sure what we are getting “at”?

But yes, what we can say is that in doing all this – we set rolling, the process of getting “it”. When we spend our most fun years slugging it out in hostels and classrooms, we learn to recognize what our dreams are.  When we clinch that sales order we understand what it takes to be skillful at what we do. When we change careers mid-way we accept that everything we accomplished so far was momentary and now-familiar, and we acquire the courage to go after unfamiliar dreams. When we set up life with another human being we understand how fragile and fleeting and changing our feelings can be. We then raise kids and figure out that in the midst of all the fragility, the only constant is love and the only way to love is to let go.

In doing all of this and more, we are laying tracks amid a whirl of uncertainty, hope and perhaps illusion. Laying the tracks for what? Actually, we don’t know. And truth is, it doesn’t matter. For it is not about what train will come down the track, it is about what happens during the laying, how much of the  “it” that we get. The dirt we put through our hands, the guts and blood we spill, the exhilaration and heartbreak we embrace, and the things we make part of us- in some undefinable but in a very certain and concrete way, these take us where we are naturally meant to be headed in the first place. And after that, whatever train comes, we can hop into it with clarity, un-illusionment and yes, an un-flitting mind and heart.

The American poet Marie Ponsot says, “Mere failure to be young is not interesting”. Essentially then, mere chronology is futile.  Our accumulated experience in laying the tracks and what we make of it – is what makes it all interesting, not just some chronology of events we might go through. Unless we have laid our tracks with attention, unless we have given our dreams, as the Reverend Mother in “Sound of Music” reminds us,  “all the love we can give”, it is quite likely that we will board that train without the richness, knowing un-hurriedness  and yes, the “it”, that we otherwise might have had.



  1. Among your best written pieces so far, I think. Beautiful work!

    We spend our lives searching for something, then find out at the end that the result of the search was the search algorithm itself. From a fairly similar set of life experiences, two people may derive very different lessons. By and large, there is no reason to believe that one is right while the other isn’t.

    What this also means is that, while chronology is futile, what we get out of our experiences may matter only to us, and in the end that may be all that matters.

    When Ponsot says “Mere failure to be young is not interesting”, one wonders if there’s an implicit rider regarding who it is interesting to. Does my life have to be interesting to anyone else other than myself?


    ps: I haven’t actually read the Ponsot poem, so she might be answering this already. But as an applied statistician and machine learning researcher, I never let data (or the lack thereof) get in the way of my conclusions 🙂

  2. So true. And most interesting, the search algorithm itself keeps changing. And I think that if one can honestly say that “My life doesnt have to be interesting to anyone else other than myself”, one is truly prepared for the train.

    And of course absence or presence of data is never a constraint for anything at all – especially to the scientific tradition. One can conclude anything from anything. Once can even conclude a cat is there when there is no cat at all!

    Here is the verse. I think it alludes to the difference between “failure to be young”, that is, inevitable and mere chronology and “freedom to be not young”, that is, inevitable chronology plus having laid the tracks.

    Mere failure to be young is not interesting,
    “our host says, “Here we are free to be not young,
    not bound to evaluate everything,
    ready for Tuesday’s flimsy shift to be flung
    over Friday’s shoulder, or for it to cling,
    a comfort when cold winds make comfort disappear…..

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