Alone in an Unlikely Place

Driving would be faster. It will be a long walk from the Metro station to the coffee shop in the post-snowstorm cold. But I jump at any chance to take public transportation into a city – alone.

Maybe it is because I grew up in suburban Ohio, where light rails and city buses were a rare sight.  Maybe it is because I have never lived in a city.  But there is something irresistible about being transported to the urban hustle in a train full of…everyone.

And that’s exactly what it is:  everyone.  Light rails, city buses and trains don’t filter out the haves and the have nots, they don’t care if your collar is white or blue or nonexistent, they don’t turn away the underprivileged or celebrate the accomplished.

On the train, we are all the same.  We are all trying to leave something behind.  We are all going somewhere.  We are all looking for the next stop.

It is in this convergence of everyone that I feel free to be alone.  And it is not a lonely, dark alone, but a healthy, inspiring alone.

Steven Pressfield writes, “We know what the clan is; we know how to fit in the band and the tribe.  What we don’t know is how to be alone.  We don’t know how to be free individuals.”

Perhaps it is this tribal wiring that, paradoxically, nurtures healthy solitude in such an unlikely place: a crowded train of strangers.

You Are HereIn the train’s tribe, it is how I am the same that propels me into aloneness, not how I am different. Titles are irrelevant, responsibilities suspended, control of the steering wheel surrendered, and upholding of images put on hold.  I am, simply, going somewhere.  And I am not in control.

Off the train, I try so hard to stand out.   I craft the Facebook posts, go for the promotion, bow down to the gods of children’s sports, and buy the stuff in hopes of attention and achievement.  On the train, I don’t want or need to stand out.  Closer to humanity’s equality, I can stop trying so hard.  There is space to find the things that lie deep within me, the ones that are trying so hard to get my attention and that make me the free individual I was intended to be:  my uncensored dreams and true desires.

It is in the rare moments of glimpsing the equality of humanity that I can learn how to be a “free individual.”

Comforted by our sameness and my anonymity, I look out the windows of the train and see space for my dreams.  I listen to the engine’s hum and to the voice that grants permission for desire.  On the train, I respond, although incompletely and imperfectly, to the question “Who are we?”  And it helps me move on to “Who am I?”

I get off at the Columbia Heights station.  Lifted by the escalator into the morning light, I emerge humbled by who we are, inspired by who I can become.

I see business suits walking swiftly with purpose.  I see faded jeans meandering slowly with regret.   And I see snow hiding in the sidewalk’s shadows, too stubborn to melt.

I see me.

* * * * *

H1Holly Pennington is a writer in the other Washington, but she loves to visit family and friends in D.C.  At home in the Seattle area, she jumps at the chance to take the ferry.  She blogs about vulnerability, faith and freedom at and would love to connect with you on Instagram, Facebookand Twitter.

4 Thoughts.

  1. Again, my thoughts that I’m not clever enough to express. Joe says very similar things about being over tiny cities on a regular basis.

  2. “On the train, I don’t want or need to stand out. Closer to humanity’s equality, I can stop trying so hard.”

    Yes, I want to ride on that train. Thank you for this beautiful story.

  3. Holly, this is so lovely and thought-provoking! There are so many sentences here that I would underline if they were in a book, like this one:

    “In the train’s tribe, it is how I am the same that propels me into aloneness, not how I am different.”

    Yes. Thank you for giving me so much food for thought!

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