Train of Thought

Train of Thought

Kristine Chandler Madera

I don’t like to think of life as a freight train barreling full speed down a linear track, but that’s what it feels like a lot of the time. To-do lists, work, home, and family demands, too often make it seem like I am packing thirty  hours into a twenty-four-hour day. But the magical moments in life occur when I am still, or at least slowed down enough to be present to the fullness of what is around me. Yet, even though the power of stillness has evidenced itself time and time again, the freight train is just so compelling. It’s the model of life that so many of us were taught—set a goal, lay down the tracks, speed forward, and don’t let anything get in your way.

Even when I was very young, I knew that there was another way—one based on faith, miracles, and serendipity. No one taught this aspect of living in school, but I was hungry to explore it. So, as a dutiful goal-setter, I laid down a set of tracks through what seemed to require serendipity and small miracles just to survive. I set off from Japan, where I had been teaching English, to China on a one-way ticket, with an idea to head overland to Europe and fly home from London. It was 1991, in the days before email and cell phones, before the first McDonald’s or KFC had opened in Beijing, and I was traveling backpacker-style, my loose plan being to cling to the wisdom of my Lonely Planet guides while riding the current of serendipity.

Privately I called it my faith-cation, for two reasons. First the whole idea of the trip stole my breath with terror, and that alone seemed reason enough to forge on. But I also wanted to prove my deeply held (but untested) belief that when a person is in need of a miracle, big or small, that a miracle is there for the taking if the person is open to it. Being open to it was the part that mystified me. I trusted that miracles and serendipity came regularly because I had seen compelling evidence in other people’s lives. Not so much in mine. The skill that I really wanted to hone was how to live a life open to—even expectant of—miracles.  More than anything, I wanted to learn how to live a magical life.

Caroline Myss once defined a miracle as having the laws of probability bent in your favor. Not the flashy acts of parting a sea or rising from the dead, but the simple experience of having the less likely (but most helpful) resolution to an issue arise spontaneously, without being straightjacketed by excess planning and blind probability. What that says to me is that when you get out of your own way, the miraculous abounds. And that’s exactly what happened for me on that trip.

The first few days I was stuck on the tracks of my safety zone shyness, trying to explore Beijing alone with a map and a list of destinations, as if sightseeing were the point of the trip. It was interesting, but not much fun, and certainly not what I’d come for. It occurred to me that it’s a lot harder to intersect serendipity when you are only willing to go in one direction. So I stepped off that mental train, chilled out, and sat lazily into the next morning drinking coffee and eating toast, theorizing that if I were still, serendipity could come at me from any direction. Eventually, a few others sat down, chatting about a back way up to a lonely section of the Great Wall. This avoided not only the high fees of the tourist groups, but also long lines and suffocating crowds. “Had I been there?” one of them asked. When I said no, she invited me to come along. As simple as that. The day was full of bus misadventures, clawing up hillsides and sliding back down, of bumps and scrapes and dodging a few intrepid Chinese teenagers who had sneaked their bicycles up onto the wall. It was magnificent.

A week later, after traveling alone to Dali—an ancient town that took two long bus rides, and the intervention of a Chinese truck driver who conscripted a reticent sixteen-year-old army soldier to accompany me on a final two-hour van ride to my preferred guest house—I felt so overwhelmed that I retreated into shyness again, taking refuge on my cot in the sixteen-bed, dollar-a-night hotel room. A half hour of decompression time later, an angel named Adam came in for his travel guide and invited me to the café across the alley where several of our fellow roommates were drinking warm, skunky beer and plotting the next day’s escapade. They may sound insignificant, but both of these interventions were deliverances for me, showing me the limitation of staying on my habitual tracks and tutoring me in the posture of serendipity.

Each day of that trip was laced with miraculous moments tailored just for me—some dramatic, most as subtle as the previous two. They even began to happen in the midst of movement—usually when I was awestruck by the bright pulsing colors in a tribal region street market, or captivated by the swirling haze between the pillar-like Guilin hills. I realized over time that even when those moments came during movement, they came when I had gone quiet inside, and was open to the magic that was always there, waiting for me to step out of the freight train mentality and be attentive to the now.

One such moment came when my contact in St. Petersburg was unreachable; I had nowhere to sleep and no apparent options. After a few minutes of panic and a small inner tantrum, I went to the train station and waited, watching the departing crowds for a few hours, until I saw two young men who looked like they spoke English. I explained my dilemma. Turns out they were Polish and traveling with a group of American Aikido instructors on a demonstration tour. A woman in the group had been unable to come at the last minute, so they had a bed and tour space already paid for, and they asked me to join them for their three days in town—seeing and doing things that I never would have been able to arrange on my own. Another came on the train from Riga, Latvia, to Warsaw, Poland, when we passed through a stretch of Soviet Russia—and me without a Russian visa. The train guard went ballistic and threatened imprisonment, among other things. I was oddly calm and kept repeating that no one told me the train went back through Russia. A compartment mate who understood English spoke up for me, and after some blistering negotiation the train guard took my passport and set a soldier up at our compartment door so no one could come in or leave for the few hours it took to travel through Russia. I came to find out that having no visa was a serious issue, especially in those unsettled weeks after Yeltsin ousted Gorbachev in the coup. My little miracle may have been providential for the man who spoke up for me, too, as he turned out to be an electronics smuggler, and the soldier inadvertently guarded his electronics cache though the most perilous stretch of his smuggling route.

There were times that I missed out as well, though, and most often because I had opted for the safety of the tracks rather than the adventure of trust. The one I most regret was buying my Trans-Mongolian train ticket before I left Japan, which cost me a week’s homestay opportunity in Mongolia’s UlaanBaatar. But it did connect me with some Russian-speaking Brits who helped me find food (no small feat!), beds with local families, and get cheap tickets for Russian-only trains, all of which enabled me to navigate Soviet Russia beneath the radar of Intourist. So maybe it was divine intervention after all.

After all this amazing training, I’m sorry to say that I failed my final exam. A week of the stomach flu in Warsaw prompted me to cut short my trip and fly to London to recuperate at a friend’s house and buy a ticket home from there. Boarding the plane, a deep, masculine voice next to me, said, “Get off now. This plane is going to crash.” But when I turned around, there was no one standing there. Numb with fatigue, and just too ill to face the drama of getting off, bargaining to get my bags off, trying to find another place to stay in Warsaw while waiting another week to get a flight out, I said, “No,” and took my seat near the front of the plane.

The Voice , as I have come to call it, repeated its warning. I quipped back that if I wasn’t supposed to die that day then The Voice needed to work it out. This back-and-forth went on until two workmen came in and carried out a large section of instrument panel from the cockpit, and carried it’s twin back in, with aging screwdrivers—and no other tools—sticking out of their back pockets. Several minutes later they carried out another section of instrument panel. “Oh, you were serious,” I thought at The Voice, which chided me to pay better attention. Turned out that they took us all off that plane and put us on a different plane a few hours later—me with attention riveted to the present in each and every moment until we touched down in London

After all that, and many miracles later, I still often find myself caught up in the excitement of speeding forward to some new goal or idea, and I hop back on that freight train with gusto. Eventually, I get homesick for the peace of the present moment, that luscious dwelling place of magic and miracles. I call myself back with a few slow, deep, breaths, or a few stolen minutes to just sit and be. And I remind myself there in the quietness that the point of the journey has less to do with the destination than with being fully present to the magic along the way.


As a certified clinical hypnotist living and practicing in Asheville, Kristine Chandler Madera loves helping people create a life that they love. Sign up for her free newsletter at She is also the co-author of How to Meditate with Your Dog: An Introduction to Meditation for Dog Lovers.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker