Unfolding the Map
Making rapid progress to the end of Blue Highways, we stop for a while in New Harmony, Indiana with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM). What is apparent to all of us, I think, is that a journey into the unknown, one where we don't know the road, might be a journey where we learn the most about the world and about ourselves. To think that one of our first stops on this Littourati journey was just 10 miles north at Grayville, Indiana. The circle is almost complete. I find the Indiana state flag, at right, to be almost symbolic of this completion. If you want to see where this little result of the attempt to create Utopia in middle America lies, please consult the map.
"Not far from a burial ground of unmarked graves that the old Harmonists share with a millennium of Indians, the mystical Rappites in 1820 planted a circular privet-hedge labyrinth, 'symbolic' (a sign said) 'of the Harmonist concept of the devious and difficult approach to a state of true harmony.' After the Rappites, the hedges disappeared, but a generation ago, citizens replanted the maze, its contours strikingly like the Hopi map of emergence. I walked through it to stretch from the long highway. Even though I avoided the shortcut holes broken in the hedges, I still went down the rungs and curves without a single wrong turn. The 'right' way was worn so deeply in the earth as to be unmistakable. But without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth. And worse, knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4
New Harmony, Indiana
What is the point to know the way?
I'm sure that anyone reading this can point out a number of reasons why its important to know the way, and can reel off at least five. Here's mine. You don't get lost. You save time. There's comfort in the familiar. You'll never have any surprises. It's safe. These are good reasons, but I have some good questions about them.
Yes, in knowing the way one doesn't get lost. For instance, I knew backwards and forwards the roads around my hometown. I knew how to get here and there. When I lived in Milwaukee, I had all the best routes to this place and that in my head. Same for San Antonio and New Orleans. But what happened? Once those routes were new. I paid attention to what was going on around me, because I had to be aware. Then, one day, I stopped paying attention. I missed details in the surety of my route. I ceased to notice little changes, so focused was I on getting from Point A to Point B. I would never take an alternate route, and therefore I ceased to be surprised, to see new things, and I denied myself new experiences and a chance to grow.
Sure, in knowing the way one saves time. It's not efficient to be driving or wandering about on streets that you don't know. After all, if the goal is Point B, why visit Point C, D and E in the interim? You have places to go, things to do, people to see. But what happens when you take your time and explore? You see things, meet people and experience things that you might have never allowed yourself to experience. In all my life's journey, I have never seen much of a correlation between saving time and growing personally.
Of course, there will always be comfort in the familiar when one knows the way. But my analogy here relates to bed sores. When you look at a soft, downy bed, what do you think of? Comfort! That "aaahhhh"ness of pushing your head against a soft pillow, the warmth of the blankets surrounding you, that dozing feeling. But what happens if you spend two or three straight weeks in bed? That familiar feeling becomes your bane. Without movement and change you develop bed sores, which are painful and difficult to treat. Your comfort has suddenly become your curse. We can always come back to the familiar, but we need change and new things to stimulate us and stave off an existential putrefaction.
Do you never want to be surprised? Sure, there are bad surprises, and knowing the way will often mitigate the potential to be surprised. The man with the machete hiding in the back seat of a car is not the kind of surprise any of us could want. But how often does that happen? Most often, surprises are the harbingers of change in our lives, and with change comes self-reflection and opportunity. I've been surprised lately by many things. A close relative's illness, a house that it appears I will buy, a nomination for an outstanding teacher award, and organizational shake-ups at my office. Each has it's share of headaches and even heartbreak. I hate to see my family member have to deal with a serious health issue. The house has some maintenance issues that will cost money, as well as a major sewage issue that must be solved before I buy it. To get the outstanding teacher award, I must write a teaching philosophy, track down letters of support, and find the class evaluations I filed away. The change at my office has left me feeling unsure about my role. But each change is a window of opportunity. My relative's illness means that my family will have to change and may or may not provide a new avenue to dealing with our dysfunction. Owning a house, after a lifetime of renting, will challenge me in ways I've never been challenged before and will be a new rite of passage in my life. Just being nominated for the outstanding teacher award has given me new confidence in myself - imagine what I'll feel like if I win the award! The change in my office will allow me to create my role, and maybe even expand it and my influence. It may offer me a way toward further promotion and advancement. It's all in how I choose to frame the surprises and the consequences that come with them.
Which brings me to the last reason for knowing the way that I want to question. It's safe knowing the way. Being safe is fine. We all want safety and security. But safety and security, while prolonging well-being and maybe even life, can become a prison. People can hide behind safety and security and never allow themselves to see beyond the walls and disarm their personal defenses. And what good is that? I've been there, and I've decided that to experience and see things different than what I know, to open myself to other viewpoints and opinions, is the best way for me to grow. It's earned me a reputation of being eclectic, maybe even a little weird in my tastes, but I like it.
New Harmony symbolizes the end of a journey of Utopians, who thought that they could tame nature and their own shortcomings, and in the strength of togetherness create harmony, unity and a sense of unchanging peace in the middle of a wilderness. However, to grow we often need disharmony and disunity to provide us with challenges. As the two utopian experiments at New Harmony prove, drastic and catastrophic change often messes up the best of plans and desires. The people creating utopias at New Harmony planned their way, they had their philosophy, they created what they thought was safety, and they still couldn't overcome rapid moving challenges. Had they gone in with flexibility, knowing that there isn't one way but many, and it's when we try to force things to conform to us rather than allowing ourselves to experience and adapt that we get in trouble, they might have survived. LHM learned that his trip had meaning precisely because it wasn't planned, it wasn't familiar, it wasn't safe, and it sometimes wasn't comfortable. He even got lost a few times, and found himself afraid, but he traversed the labyrinth of his journey, survived, learned and grew. May we all allow ourselves, at least once in a while, the opportunities to get lost, make time, be uncomfortable, be surprised, and take risks.
If you want to know more about New Harmony
Next up: The End of the Blue Highways