Unfolding the Map
The New Year has begun, and William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) finds the power in a circle - the circle of his trip, the circle of life. I will explore and reflect upon how our passages in seeming straight lines are really circles, and how this New Year is yet another segment on the circle of our own journeys through life. To see where Franklin is located, please see the map.
"After a small meal in the Ghost, I marked on a map the wandering circle of my journey. From the heartland out and around. A blue circle gone beyond itself. 'Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle,' Black Elk says. 'Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.'
"Then I saw a design. There on the map, crudely, was the labyrinth of migration the old Hopis once cut in their desert stone. For me, the migration had been to places and moments of glimpsed clarity. Splendid gifts all."
Blue Highways: Chapter 10, Part 2
Franklin, West Virginia
As we start this new year, with its promise of new beginnings and fresh starts, it is easy to look back at the trajectory that our lives have taken and reflect upon them. In my previous Blue Highways post I did some of that reflection by examining the past year. As one gets older, it becomes more commonplace to reflect on longer periods of time in the past. As a child and young adult, my capacity for reflection beyond what I had experienced a day, or maybe a week at most, in the past was fairly limited. As I have just reached the completion of my 49th circuit around the sun, I find that I am spending more time in reflection deeper into my past.
One of the themes of Blue Highways has been that of circles. A person's journey through life has been described in the book as a series of setting out on journeys, and then circling back to the origin. Nothing, it seems, ever is a simple trip from point to point. Most of the time we set out somewhere, we return, giving our lives a circularity that we rarely notice. We go to work, and then return. We set out on shopping trips, and then come back home. My sense is that if we mapped people's short and long journey's the result would resemble the drawings I did as a young person with Spirograph plastic wheels.
Circles so dominate our existence that we barely even think about it. We live on a spherical planet that is essentially a series of circles increasing from infinitely small to the maximum diameter of our planet and then decreasing back to infinite smallness. That planet rotates, meaning that we essentially make a complete circle once every 24 hours. That sphere travels in a roughly circular orbit, with other spheres, around a spherical sun. The sun itself travels with other stars on the outer arm of a spiral galaxy in a circular path around the galaxy's center. The universe itself may be spherical, originating in time and space at the center in a titanic explosion and expanding outward like a big bubble.
If we look at our journey through time, over the course of our lives, then once again we have a circle. LHM quotes Black Elk, but Black Elk was not the first to notice this circularity. The seasons, following a cycle determined by the circular travel of the earth around the sun, prescribe a rotation through time as fall changes to winter, winter goes to spring, and then spring turns to summer, and summer goes back to fall. Life moves in a circle as well, with the smallest creatures serving as food for larger creatures, and so on up the food chain, until death makes even the largest creatures food for smaller creatures, and even some of the smallest living beings. Water moves in a circular pattern as well, from oceans to rivers, streams and lakes and back to oceans - with some taking a side trip through our bodies before it is purified back through the ecosystem into the circle again.
Some of our earliest religious symbols were circles. Life itself follows a circular pattern. It is easy to see life as being a line from birth to death, but long before Black Elk spoke about life's circularity the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible warned people that "from dust we came and to dust we shall return."
If our life indeed prescribes a circle then it stands to reason that my past year is just one little stretch along the rim. When I think about how my life might fit this model, I realize that all of the little circles of life that I have taken have still moved me forward. My little circles to and from work and back home have worked toward moving me forward in my career, as well as helping me save resources that may lead to the purchase of a house in 2013. My trips to and from the classes I have taught have given me a greater understanding of my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and will ensure better classes for my students in the future. My writing in Littourati, while moving in a seemingly linear fashion through On the Road and Blue Highways, has taken me on a circular path between the past and the present, over and over, especially in my more reflective posts.
As LHM looks at the map of his journey, and you can also look at the whole map here, he realizes that his journey is not only circular but also resembles the circular maze of migration that is part of the Hopi mythology. The Hopi believe that starting in the First World, and into the current Fourth World, the clans of humanity have continually set out, come back together, and then disbanded again over and over in a repeating pattern. The sequence and cycle of togetherness and harmony followed by separation and discord seems to encompass most of our experience of life. These past holidays, I noted how U.S. families, no matter how difficult their relations with each other, keep coming back together at certain times of the year and usually always around the Christmas holidays. Sometimes these gatherings can be harmonious, at other times they can be full of dysfunction and pain. Yet something keeps drawing us through that particular circle year after year.
I celebrate the circles in life, but realize that these circles will bring me forward through joy, and occasionally backwards through pain, melancholy and remembrance of things that I wish would stay in the past. Yet I can't help but move forward. When people have wished me a happy new year in the past few days, I thank them but am very aware that some of it will be happy, some of it will be sad, but all of it will move me forward on my own circular life journey. And that is as it should be.
Rodney Crowell's song Dancin' Circles Round the Sun, encapsulates the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epictetus who argued that we should not worry about the things that we can't control. When people try to exercise too much control over life, things get out of balance, and as we all know a circle out of balance, such as a wheel, can cause a bumpy ride.
If you want to know more about Franklin
Next up: Judy Gap, Seneca Rocks and Elkins, West Virginia