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    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in change (2)


Blue Highways: Cheshire, New York

Unfolding the Map

We head into the Finger Lakes region - a beautiful region that I was lucky to visit in years past.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) makes a longer stop here to recharge with an old friend.  He feels like he needs it in order to continue onto the remainder of his trip.  I envy his ability to reconnect with his friend, as you'll read below.  Greg Brown provides a musical interlude.  To reconnect with where we are on the journey, get back in touch with the map.

Book Quote

"Chisholm rolled a fat round stone out of the trees.  I grabbed and pulled.  I was capable of lifting it, but it was so close to the limits of my strength, I didn't want to try.  Working with someone I knew less well, I would have picked it up, but with this old friend I could concede my limit and let the boulder take my measure.  Nothing showed our friendship better than that rock I walked away from."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 2

"We passed a foundation of a barn that had collapsed, a toppled chimney, and a weedy depression where an icehouse had stood.  'These are all dreams we're walking over,' I said.

"Chisholm looked at me strangely and went quiet for some time.  When he spoke again it was about the dogs.  Afterward, I thought I understood his silence:  I had undercut the stone wall we had built, our accomplishment.  The wall looked enduring, and it would serve for a while, but there would come a time when it would be a pile of rock to no end.  I had undercut the biggest dream of all - the one for permanence...."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 4

Hamlet of Cheshire sign in Cheshire, New York. Photo hosted at the Cheshire Canning blogsite. Click on photo to go to host page.

Cheshire, New York

Recently I have been examining my friendships.  I am a naturally introverted person, so making friendships in the usual places people make friends outside of institutional settings, such as school, churches, or other settings where one is forced to get to know people, is very difficult for me.  I can't just walk into a bar, approach someone and strike up a conversation.  That's not in my nature.  Nor do I like to draw attention to myself though I do like good attention when I get it.

Making friends, therefore, has been for me a painstaking process built over years, and I often wish that once the friendships are cemented they can remain static.  I sometimes wish time and distance didn't matter in friendships, and I used to think they wouldn't.  A friend for life is a friend for life, I believed.

But time and distance do matter, as does the effort and energy each friend puts into the friendship.  I was naive to think that all my friendships would remain the same.  Of course they've changed over the years.  I've made new friends, I've lost track of some friends.  I haven't put the energy into some friendships when I should, and they have drifted away.  I have put energy into other friendships where my level of commitment wasn't returned, and the friendships gradually became more superficial, shallow and in the case of some, eventually faded.

This is on my mind now because I am negotiating my way through what feels like immense personal change - change that will make me a better person.  My world feels like it is transforming around me and even people who I considered longtime and very close friends seem to be drifting away and new ones are starting to come in.  I have been very nervous about change throughout my life, and very hesitant to let it happen, so my instinct is to try to fight and hang on to what I had with dear life.  And I'm combating this instinct very hard.

For example, I have two friends, one on each coast.  One is a friend from my undergraduate institution.  I have always felt very attuned to this friend.  To me, it was as if we had a window into each other.  We are both introverted, thoughtful, curious about the world, willing to examine tough questions, and open to exploration.  Yet I found that to maintain the friendship, I had to make most of the effort.  Many phone calls I made would go unanswered.  His response to my annoyance was that he felt that at whatever time and whenever place we connected, we just always picked up comfortably.  To him it didn't matter when or where.  However for me, I wanted that connection and I wanted it more often, and I wanted him to show some commitment to our friendship.  I have given up complaining, given up making efforts, and I am letting that friendship drift.  It is sad to me.  I like him a lot, and have always felt more than friend with him, almost as if we were two spiritual mates seeking answers to similar questions.  But I can't wait any longer for him to share my commitment, and will let him seek me out if he wishes.  I just cannot put extra effort into the friendship any more because I just get too disappointed.

Another friend is very similar.  We are of different temperament.  He's a bit more extraverted than me.  We were thrown together in a community setting, and we became close.  We are both very competitive in our own ways, and occasionally clashed on that score.  I was best man at his wedding, and am godfather to his daughter.  I saw him often when I went to the East Coast for business.  However, since I've gotten farther from the East Coast, and my visits there far less frequent, I've seen him less.  I made efforts over the distance to maintain the friendship, and he has too though his family commitments made it more difficult for him.  In the past year, since I stopped being as proactive as I used to be in communicating, we have had only one exchange by e-mail.  Some actions, bad choices, in my personal life a couple of years ago, perhaps disappointed him in me but I don't know.  Part of my personal growth has been to try to rectify those personal issues that led me down paths that were destructive but I haven't been able to share that with him.  That friendship, one that was very important to me, seems adrift now and I don't know what to do about it except let it go where it will.

I'm not trying to make myself out as a good friend all the time.  I have two people that I was getting to know and that I like very much that moved away and I haven't been proactive in contacting them.  I have not kept up with some other people that are important to me.  Perhaps the disappointment I feel in my other friends are something that these other people feel with me.

I've also made some new friends who have become close.  I've learned that friendships are not static as much as I would like them to be.  They change, they grow, they fall apart.

But I'm struck by LHM's quotes, above, where he just enjoys a friend's company and the easy way they have with each other.  He makes it very clear that they have no need to impress each other, but are just fine being themselves in each other's company.  To me, those kinds of friendships have been inestimable gifts, and is at the root of why I'm sad they are changing.  LHM underscores change by using the metaphor of a wall to show the different perspectives that can be taken by each party in a friendship.  LHM marks the impermanence of what humans construct, include friendships that once seemed as solid as bedrock.  He acknowledges change, based on the changes in his own life.  His friend is troubled by that notion, rooted in the solidity of his lifestyle as it is now.  In the midst of my change, I am more willing to notice and acknowledge change around me.  I am at once filled with hope and terror at the same time.  I don't want to lose the friendships I have built over time, but my own growth might make it inevitable.  I love my friends, but I can't imprison them, nor myself, in my past if I am to move forward.  Maybe the love I have for them is the only thing that I can hold permanently, even as they slowly disappear into the distance.

Musical Interlude

One of my favorite songs, a bit melancholy, is Greg Brown's The Poet Game.  It is an acknowledgment of our own choices, life's changes and a reminiscence of people who made a mark on our lives and for whatever reason have moved on.  One lyric which right now is especially poignant to me is the following:

I had a friend who drank too much
and played too much guitar -
and we sure got along.
Reel-to-reels rolled across
the country near and far
with letters poems and songs..
but these days he don't talk to me
and he won't tell me why.
I miss him every time i say his name.
I don't know what he's doing
or why our friendship died
while we played the poet game.

And this:

Sirens wail above the fields -
another soul gone down -
another Sun about to rise.
I've lost track of my mistakes,
like birds they fly around
and darken half of my skies.
To all of those I've hurt -
I pray you'll forgive me.
I to you will freely do the same.
So many things I didn't see,
with my eyes turned inside,
playing the poet game.

Lyrics from Greg Brown's The Poet Game
off of his album of the same name


If you want to know more about Cheshire

This is about the only thing I could find remotely connected to Cheshire:

Cheshire Community Action Team

Next up: Hill Cumorah, New York


Blue Highways: Bonner's Ferry, Idaho

Unfolding the Map

At Bonner's Ferry we turn east after getting almost as far north as we can go in the United States.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and Arthur O. Bakke are deep in discussion about spiritual and earthly matters, and LHM admires the simplicity of Bakke's life.  We'll reflect on simplicity too.  Take a look at the map for Bonner's Ferry.

Book Quote

"At Bonner's Ferry, where U.S. 2 ran a long, deep break in the Bitterroot Mountains, we turned toward Montana....

"'You've got necessities in one box, your work in a briefcase, a creed in your shirt pocket.  I admire the compression of it.  I wish I could reduce it all to a couple of boxes.  I like your self-sufficiency.'

"'Don't give me so much credit.  Paul preached how pride separates us from God....'

"'Maybe so, but for basic necessity, you come close to material self-sufficiency.'  Bakke sat quietly.  'The college students you talk to, they must admire your on-the-road work, your freedom.'

"'I don't think many would trade places with me.  Would you?'

"It was a terrible question.

"'I don't have your belief or purpose.  But I wish I knew what you know.'"

"''Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.  If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.'  First Corinithians eight: one and two.  Knowledge of the Lord is the knowledge worth knowing.'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 3

Downtown Bonner's Ferry. Photo by the Idaho Department of Tourism and posted at the website. Click on photo to go to host page. 

Bonner's Ferry, Idaho

I love the idea of living simply.  I just suck at it.

I don't want to give the impression that I have a lot of money.  I'm comfortably middle-class - a public-sector worker at a university medical school with a good salary, decent benefits and, barring a total collapse of the health-care economy, a job for life.  I earn some extra on the side teaching political science courses.  In a good year, I might earn up to $15,000 on top of my annual salary.  My wife also has a decent job as a business reporter.  I am intensely aware that I am lucky given that there are so many people that are jobless.  I am also lucky in that I am not under crushing amounts of debt.  Our car is one payment away from being completely paid off.  We don't have a mortgage.  I have about $20,000 outstanding in student loans which I always considered more of an investment than a debt.  We rarely keep debt on our credit cards any more.

Lately, however, the idea of living simply in a way that produces growth and harmony has come roaring back at me.

I was introduced in my early twenties to the concept of a simple lifestyle.  Just out of college I had joined a program called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), and went to live in inner-city Milwaukee in an intentional community with other volunteers.  All of us worked in a not-for-profit social or environmental justice organizations - I worked in an inner-city school as an aide.  In exchange for our work, the agencies paid for our insurance and travel, and gave us a stipend of $300 per month.  Out of that $300 I was able to take $75 for my own personal expenses; the rest went into the pot for rent, food, utilities and other house expenses.

JVC operated according to these four tenets:  social justice, community, spirituality, and simple lifestyle - all influenced by Catholic social teaching.  The unofficial motto of JVC was "ruined for life."  I initially joined for one year, but re-joined for a second year in a different job - working with unemployed people.  It was during this time that I learned how to make $75 stretch for one month (easier, I admit, in the 1980s than it is now).  However, that meant curtailing my time on the phone (no cell phones but long distance plans back then!), not buying candy bars or sodas, limiting my time out in bars or doing other fun stuff.  As a community, we had to shop smartly and selectively and make things that we could stretch.  We were pretty good at it - we accumulated enough money to help other communities that weren't making it as well and we were able to buy an old car so that we could reduce our reliance on other people for rides to the store.

A lot of time was spent together at home.  We played games, we talked and we enjoyed each other's company as much as we could.  We watched television and we read books.  We became close as a community because there weren't many distractions, especially during the cold Milwaukee winters.  It's hard not to look at that time through rose-colored glasses, because we were also five different personalities thrown in together.  We fought sometimes, and we endured hardships - our house was broken into 6 times over two months and a group of us was attacked by gang members while walking to a bowling alley and two of us were beaten badly enough to go to the emergency room.  Though I wasn't hurt, I began to experience the first of what would become on and off again panic attacks in response to stress.

I met my wife in the JVC.  She was more in tune with Catholic social teaching than I was and already believed in the tenets of the program prior to her volunteer year.  They made a big impression on me.  Since that time, I have been drawn to social justice causes, and in doing work with the poor and disadvantaged.  I continued to live in inner-city Milwaukee, and since I left there have never shied away from going into any inner-city areas.

But as our incomes began to rise, we gained a lot more physical and, for lack of a better term, metaphysical clutter.  We became busy, and we did more.  In my twenties and thirties, this seemed fine for me.  I liked being busy.  I enjoyed the things I did.  However, focusing on all of the things we were doing let me ignore and avoid looking at things that I probably should have been putting more attention to.

About four years ago, I realized something was wrong.  I wasn't exactly happy with the way things were going in my life.  Upon some examination, I realized it was because my life was so busy.  We have no children, so evenings were often (and still often) spent out.  There were weeks where I wasn't home in the evening for 6-7 days.  We weren't partying or anything like that.  Instead, one night it might be a work function that my wife needed to attend, another night it might be a movie, a third night might be taken up by a late day at work then a late dinner, a fourth night might be another function, a fifth night might be dinner with a friend, the sixth night a play, and the seventh night, if it wasn't off, was perhaps devoted to some other gathering or event.

I looked around my house, and saw a cluttered lifestyle that was difficult to keep in check.  The lack of time at home meant that we had let things build up and weren't putting things into their place or even paying attention to what we brought home and put down.  The clutter of things was bad enough - the clutter of events and happenings was even worse.  I realized that I had ignored myself.  I wasn't giving myself any space to be alone, to ruminate on questions, to read and grow.  All of this was leading to strain between my wife and I.  We hadn't had kids, partly because of how active our life was, and suddenly when we thought we might try, we discovered we couldn't.  This was a real blow to me.  I had always pictured myself with a child, a daughter, and it was hard to accept that it might not happen.

I started examining myself, and my instinct was telling me that I had to de-clutter my life.  I needed to make time for myself and get with reacquainted with me.  And to that end I have been devoting myself with more or less success for the past two years.  I say more or less success because I got sidetracked once, and at other times I have found it difficult to say no to people, including my wife.  But I've worked my way to an awareness of what I need to do, and hope that it will translate into action.

Which is why, coming back to the quotes above, LHM's talk with Arthur O. Bakke resonates with me.  Both in their way are seeking answers for themselves.  Arthur believes he's found the answer in God and Jesus and in showing others the way to what he sees as truth.  He has de-cluttered his life of earthly things in service to what awaits the good on the other side.  LHM is also seeking answers to questions about himself and his life.  He seeks them on the road, in literature and in making sense of his experiences and how they relate to his life as he travels.  Both have left their previous lives behind in the hopes of finding something.  They aren't dissimilar, which is probably why they grow to like each other.  It is also symbolic that they are at a place that was a ferry.  In a ferry, you cross a physical boundary to another place - from riverbank to riverbank, from city to country or vice-versa, or even from life to death.

I too seek answers.  I've gone down some wrong paths, and yet I feel that I understand more than I did.  I have a vision for what life must look like for me to be satisfied as I head into its second half.  Unlike in the past, I also now have some motivation to cross my own boundaries to get there.

Musical Interlude

I heard this song on a strange little movie called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.  The song is a traditional ballad called Wayfaring Stranger and it is sung by David Eugene Edwards.  I like how the road through symbolic darkness and woe leads to beauty and light.  It's the life that most of us travel until we find what we need.

If you want to know more about Bonner's Ferry

I want to highlight that near Bonner's Ferry in 1974, the Kootenai Tribe declared war on the United States and posted tribal guards on the entrances into the towns where they asked motorists to pay a toll to drive through lands they claimed as theirs.  While most tribes are forbidden by treaty to declare war on the U.S., the Kootenai never had a formal treaty.  The United States conceded a small bit of land to end the dispute.  The land became the Kootenai reservation.

Bonner's Ferry Chamber of Commerce
Bonner's Ferry Herald (newspaper)
City of Bonner's Ferry Bonner's Ferry
Wikipedia: Bonner's Ferry

Next up:  Kalispell, Montana