The Mystery Train by
(152 Stories)

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©thomas hart benton

I’ve been working with a mantra. The mantra grapples with despair. Am I grateful for despair? No. But to anticipate converting despair into something else, the way an alchemist might turn coal into diamonds? I’m grateful for that possibility. I like to think knowledge is up for grabs, part of our collective consciousness. After all, we’re moving down the line together, on the same train. In the words of a song I know — “It may not come when you want it / But it gets you there right on time.”

Despair used to be the eighth deadly sin until religions realized they could monetize it. I figure the clerics took it off the sin list so people can indulge in enough despair to drive them to church. Maybe because I don’t go to church, I often wake to despair. The world crowds around me in concentric shells as I reach consciousness, the outermost first. Our mother earth is in terrible trouble on every level, from the reckless abuse of her body to the craven behavior of our self-anointed leaders; from the “freedoms” of antivaxxers to the tragedy of wandering refugees predicted so precisely by climatologists and geopolitical experts. I won’t belabor the litany — we all know enough about our planet’s Anthropocene history, politics and culture, and what got us here. But almost always, yesterday’s news evaporates any of my dreams that might otherwise linger.

As our bedroom comes into focus, my despair floats me down the hall to my office. In defiance of its light, order, and beauty, I hover over my work where the nagging voices of “the committee,” all those voices who have said “no” or “don’t” or “you can’t,” “forget about it,” “that stinks,” or “you? A writer?” “That blithering pile of words you just finished? You think that’s a story people wanna read?” Are you kidding me?”

Next, despair assaults my outer self — my body: “Why does my chest ache? Did I exercise enough? Why is my arm stiff? How can I walk through the day with my hip and knee already aching?” And flowing like mercury between all these grotesque, yapping sideshows, run the roads not taken — the travels I haven’t traveled, the people I haven’t met, the creatures I haven’t gazed at in wonder, the minds, spirits, and bodies of those I’ve met but haven’t known deeply enough, the books I haven’t written, the students I haven’t taught, music I haven’t played, the wrongs unrighted. How articulate I become over my own private despair.

These days, instead of anointing my despair with the power of reality, I try to consider it as a part of the chattering voices that hang off my ego like cartoon chimps. I smile at this monkey despair, the smile relaxing any trace of grimace. I treat my despair gently, to hold it as I would a frightened child who crawled into bed with me during the night. I do this to be gentle with myself— and here comes the gratitude attitude part…

I’m teaching myself that despair is not the absence of hope. To me, hope is an abstraction, like faith. To me, telling myself to be hopeful is like having a director telling an actor to “be funny.” Ridiculous. I can’t use it. But, according to my mantra, despair is the opposite of wisdom and wisdom I can learn. For me, wisdom resides in that last, vast graduate school, an institution of higher learning that awards a degree so powerful, it embraces all of life — and death. So, I’ve set out to study wisdom. I ain’t gonna study war no more, certainly not against myself and my twitching, chattering ego.

According to my own taxonomy, data unites to beget information, we arrange information to make knowledge and knowledge leads to wisdom. Step by step, seed to seedling, sprout to flowering fruit, nut by bolt, stop by stop, assembling life’s bits and pieces lead to the whole. Being a practical person, I feel I can assemble an awareness that turns despair into wisdom.

Most important, the study of wisdom lies ahead, around that long, approaching curve. It’s like the last station on the line and it beckons from the future. Wisdom is still to come and that anticipation fills me with gratitude. “[Wisdom] may not come when you want it / but it’ll get you there right on time.” Come on along, get on board, we’ll all ride this mystery train together.

“It may not come when you want it / But it gets you there right on time.”
Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Another deep one, Chas. I need to sit with it for a while and ponder. But we will light our first light of Hanukkah in a few moments, so pondering will be put off for some time. What you say is true. I sometimes wonder if is even pays to bring children into this world (many more are choosing not to, I recently read; in the US, the population trend is downward). Yet, I am filled with hope, with a grandchild due in three weeks. I don’t know if our planet (and our people) will survive. I can only do my bit to help.

    • And all that you mention, Betsy, would — in my fumbling attempts at a worldview — qualify as wisdom. What is hanukkah except the wisdom to persevere against great and desperate odds with community and perseverance? And children will forge their own responses to their own world, as we did ours. The pendulum has already begun to swing back toward the light, and our planet will survive.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Brilliant concept, Charles, and brilliantly (and eloquently — of course) explained. It took me a while to even understand it, and I’m not sure if I’m completely on the train yet, but it is sure thought provoking. And, as you note, not indicative of a loss of hope.

    And, indeed, as I think about it, your concept actually hews pretty closely to my own belief that people usually learn more from their mistakes than from their perceived victories.

    May I now presumptuously suggest that you make your concept fit into the tune — and a number of the lyrics — of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”?

    • Thanks, John. Not sure my grubbing about qualifies as brilliance, but I am excited with wisdom’s possibilities in my future. I feel pretty damned wise simply presuming that I have a future! If you’re grappling with understanding, it’s my bad for not writing more clearly. Not sure Mystery Train OR Peace Train work. The whole steam-and-iron metaphor may not work at all!

  3. Thanx Charles for digging deep to share your despairs and hopes.

    Not sure if this resonates with you, but I’m reminded of a line we heard years ago at a poetry reading and still quote when asked, How do you feel?
    Somewhere between depressed and ecstatic.

  4. Marian says:

    It’s so fascinating that, instead of the opposite of despair being a Pollyanna-ish optimism, that it’s wisdom. Major food for thought on a foodie holiday. On the first night of Hanukkah, which deals with a hopeful, if short-lived, triumph, I light the memorial Yarzheit candle (my father died on the first night of Hanukkah). While in a way sad, this candle amplifies the light of the single Hanukkah candle. There is something balanced about the hope and memory of loss.

    • What better stance against despair than that first candle? And the balance between hope (the future) and loss (the past) only sets the tempo for wisdom’s clearly executed pirouettes (I see her now as a studied ballerina rather than an old frosty guy with white hair and beard!) down the aisle in the mystery train’s smoking car.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Wisdom is the key to aging gracefully. Hopefully, while many trivial facts elude me these days, I am also striving to become wiser. And for that I am grateful.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    A lovely essay, so apropos to a time which seems determined to pound us with despair upon despair until we break.

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