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Entries in Greg Brown (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: Portola, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe continue our exploration into examining selves, going through doors, and seeing the wholeness of life rather than the little pieces that get us lost in the details.  William Least Heat-Moon finds an answer: Humbug (Creek).  I'm a little more positive.  Click on the map thumbnail at right to see where Portola, California and the area of Humbug Creek is located.

Book Quote

"Missourians sometimes speak of a place called Hacklebarney: a non-existent town you try to get to that is forever just around the next curve or just over the next hill, a town you believe in but never get to.  Maybe that's enlightenment - always a little ahead of perception.

"Hindus represent their god of destruction, Shiva, by the yoni-lingam symbols of regeneration to suggest the cyclical movement of coming into and going from being that never ceases.  Even if a man resists belief in the fixity of things, even if he discredits the scope of human understanding, even if he sees a hint of metaphysics between 'cosmic' and 'comic'...he still longs to arrive at a place of clarity.

"Just outside Portola, I crossed Humbug Creek.  I didn't believe it.  Nothing that apropros happens in real life."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11

Portola, California under Smith Peak. Photo by Leslye Layne Russell at the website. Click on photo to go to site. Portola, California

I recently bought, at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, a small piece of art from a Huichol Indian artist.  It is a beautiful piece of yarn art.  The yarn is pressed into beeswax pasted on a board backing.  The artists who create these colorful pieces of work usually are fueled in their visions by peyote, a powerful hallucinogen used by the Huichol and other native tribes to open the doors to the spirit world.

While there were large pieces that showed elaborate scenes with people, animals and plants, and natural features, I was drawn to a circular pattern with points like a star.  The son of the artist explained that the interior represented the person or being that brought the Huichol fire - kind of like the Huichol Prometheus.  Around the center was a pattern representing the doorway between the spirit world and our reality.  A starlike pattern represented the fire, and how it touches all of us in the cosmos, and then outside the circle, a night sky pattern representing the cosmos.

My newest piece of art work - Huichol Indian yarn art. Photo by Michael L. Hess.At almost the same time, I am spending this week teaching ecologism as a political ideology to my political science class at a local community college.  While ecologism can run the spectrum from environmentalism which preaches stewardship and conservation to radical ecology which denies human exceptionalism in the natural world, relegating us to mere parts of the whole, the whole concept keeps bringing me back to the idea of a circular existence.  Therefore, I find it interesting that the universe has synched up, as it were, to bring me to this point in LHM's book where he considered the same questions as he sought clarity.

LHM appears to have gotten his answer on the road.  He finds Humbug Creek and remarks how it is rare to find something so apropos in real life.  I don't really think that LHM thinks it's all humbug.  I think he comes to the conclusion that he is thinking too much.  He quotes a Yiddish proverb: "Man thinks and God laughs."

It is curiously near to my way of thinking at the present time.  47 years after I was put on this earth, roughly 29 years after I graduated high school and 25 years after college, and now three years after getting a PhD, I am beginning to think I think too much, also.  I have spent time in the scientific realm, only to find that no matter what theory I'm putting out there, with no matter how much data I have accumulated, it is simply going counter to someone else's theory that has just as much data to support it.  In addition, my theory will be debunked by yet another theory, with data to support it as well.

In my personal life, all my data and theories have really ended up not serving me well, especially when I don't think of the whole rather than the parts.  My wife and I are learning again how to communicate with one another.  We had approached the parts without seeing the whole of our relationship and putting it in a larger context.  My life's issues and her life's issues have crashed together in a way that has been, shall we say, difficult in some contexts even as it has been nourishing in others.  In many ways that we relate, we aren't even aware of the dynamics of that whole, especially when we are focused on one part or another.

To that end, I'm trying to get back into my creative side.  This side does not try to dissect and understand.  Instead, it tries to experience and feel.  It's been a difficult process because it's not exactly how I was trained in life or in education.  I've been trained to put things outside of me and examine them, observe them and report on them, all very dispassionately.  Experiencing and feeling, especially in a world that does not value feeling and considers it a little dangerous, as been a rocky road for me so far.

But it is a doorway.  Much as LHM drives through Portola, which conjures up images for me of a doorway, to reach Humbug Creek, I am trying to walk through a doorway to learn a new way of viewing the world that will only enhance my old way.  Perhaps without a more whole view of myself and the world, it will always be humbug until I put it all together.  Perhaps this exploration is my own version of getting fire handed to me, a fire that will bring vision in the dark, that will provide a spark to my creativity, and ultimately allow me to fully see what I need to understand.

Musical Interlude

I'm going to include this video - even though the sound is not very good - of Greg Brown, with guitarist Bo Ramsey, singing Hacklebarney.  Greg Brown is a unique voice in America, and I was first introduced to him by my wife, who often heard him in Iowa and on A Prairie Home Companion.  He is married to another unique American singer, Iris Dement.  Of course, Hacklebarney is in the quote above - a fictional town always around the next corner.  It represents the goal we attempt to reach but never quite get there, or the understanding we seek that seems to just elude us.  We shouldn't stop trying, though.

If you want to know more about Portola

City of Portola Hiking near Portola
Plumas County News (newspaper)
Western Pacific Railroad Museum
Wikipedia: Portola

Next up:  Quincy, California