Posted by: Bill Tracy | May 23, 2013

Broken Dreams At My Window

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


-John Donne


I lead a simple and quiet life nowadays. Write a little, read a little (currently Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano and Quiet by Susan Cain), walk here and there, and take a lot of pictures no one but me looks at. I work hard to ignore the painfully obvious symptoms of a disintegrating social fabric and the country it once proudly represented, the tattered glory of a fraying flag in the winds of time and change. I haven’t troubled myself with television in years. “Reality TV” is a shameful waste of time and spirit. A window in front of my desk looks out on a small town residential street, and it’s all I need of daily “reality.” While the windowpane is hard and brittle glass, it does not protect my heart from the visions I see each day.

Free artwork for the railroads. Somehow I don't think people with good jobs in design firms are sneaking onto the rails and practicing on the boxcars. I'm glad I get to see it.

Free artwork for the railroads. Somehow I don’t think people with good jobs in design firms are sneaking onto the rails and practicing on the boxcars. I’m glad I get to see it.

Three or four days a week a freight train passes slowly by on the tracks prominent through my window. When the whistle sounds I’m out the door, camera in hand. The train driver knows me now and slows a bit while I shoot the amazing graffiti placed on the boxcars by anonymous, young energetic talents this world has no use for. Children pass on their way to school in the morning, home in the afternoon; a tradition timeless as water flowing in rivers. A group of six or eight teenage boys pass on their way to a spot down the tracks where they have privacy for their rites of passage – memories on barstools many years from now when they are dealing with their own teenagers making their own memories. The stream of timeless tradition trickles on. Thoreau characterized himself as “…self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms,” I am self-appointed protector of the welfare of all those passing by my window here. I want no harm to come to my window passersby. I care about the people I see.

Stepping over railroad tracks takes an agility many older folks don't have.

Stepping over railroad tracks takes an agility many older folks don’t have.

While children are bleary-eyed and not fully awake going to school, they have pent-up energy on the return trip. Sometimes this calls for adult intervention – altercations will happen, rocks will be thrown at rabbits, snowball fights may go too far (If ever we see snow again.). There are older folks who choose not to drive, and crossing the railroad tracks on foot is not as simple as it may look. The danger is not from the slow and infrequent trains, but rather the rocky railbed, the worn and uneven ties, and rails deceptively higher than they look. People stumble and fall with surprising regularity. The teenagers bounce back quickly, but the old folks can get hurt and may need assistance. And don’t get me started on the drunks who take up this challenge. Contrary to popular wisdom, God does not afford them any increased level of protection.

I receive no pay for my work watching over the general welfare at my window. My only credential is, as Rev. Henri Nouwen wrote, my heart. I suppose there is satisfaction in contributing to the overall tranquility. But there can be a price to pay. Recently I learned how pain may filter through my window. For several months now, I’ve seen a young woman regularly pass by the window. Usually late afternoon, she appears, likely returning from work. Other times I see her on a shopping errand, returning with store-bought goods. Until now, she moved with a deliberate and purposeful step. Her face failed to conceal a confident, almost sly grin as if she knew something the rest of us didn’t. I would see joy literally walking past, a joy suggesting she was going home to something that filled her heart. This made me feel happy for her. From afar, I shared in her joy.

Walking past my window.

Walking past my window.

The past week or so, I’ve seen the young woman several times and it’s not the same. She walks slowly now, almost as if she would prefer not to be home. The knowing grin is now blank, and a light is gone. It makes me feel sad. Maybe I had no business sharing the joy she had, feeling happy for her. I haven’t had any part in her changed circumstances, at least as I imagine them, and yet I now must share her pain. I’d like to go outside and comfort her, but such is impossible; even I would think it sort of creepy. She does not know me, as far as I know she’s never even seen me. So my visions bring joy some days, pain other days. That’s life, at least as I’ve experienced it so far.

I suppose I could shutter the blinds, draw the curtains, ignore the world. But the world does not so easily go away. And to avoid some pain, I would have to also vanquish the joy. That sounds like a bargain made with the devil, and it surely leads to worse pain. Diminishment of one is diminishment of all. As the Buddhists claim, life is pain, but once you accept the pain, it is no longer hurtful. While hell may not be exactly “other people” as Sartre suggests, we have no easy exit from this consciousness.

This woman and a man arrived on the street by cab one Saturday afternoon. She remained by the tracks while the man went down a long driveway, presumably on some errand. Apparently, the woman came to realize the man was not coming back.

This woman and a man arrived on the street by cab one Saturday afternoon. She remained by the tracks while the man went down a long driveway, presumably on some errand. Apparently, the woman came to believe the man was not coming back. And tears rained down on a sunny day.

In my very first job after military service, I worked in a financial services office where clients came in regularly. It was in an old Philadelphia building and the entrance was through a set of twin, wood-framed glass doors. Each door had mounted a greenish window shade that was pulled closed each evening. Our somewhat eccentric office manager had a ritual at 9 AM each morning. We would all gather at the front door, and he would pronounce, “Now we open our eyes to the world,” and a secretary would raise the shades and unlock the door. Duty called each and every day. Those of us who are of the world must be in the world.

Shades are fine as sunglasses, but they provide the heart with no protection from the heat of the sun and the cold of night. I’ll be keeping my window shades up and eyes on the little world outside my window. Duty, and life, do call. After all, Thoreau would not have shirked a storm. As the wonderful little poem, Desiderata, closes:

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world…Strive to be happy.”




  1. Dear Bill,
    To be regarded by a caring soul must lighten their burden somehow, someway.

  2. This is a lovely post, Bill. I’m glad to see you’re still writing. I hope the young woman’s spirits lift, as you keep compassionate watch through your window.

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