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Entries in journey (13)


American Gods: Shadow in Prison

Unfolding the Map

My decision to start blogging and mapping American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is sort of an experiment.  It is my first foray into mapping a novel, and there will be places that the characters go that I'm not going to be able to follow on a map.  However, this novel is about a man's journey, and like most journeys he not only travels on physical plane but also on the emotional and spiritual plane as well.  In this case, the spiritual plane truly lives.  I have started the map, the single point you see, at a state prison in Arkansas, and I'm going to be doing some guessing at a couple of places that Gaiman makes up, like Eagle Point, Indiana.  So it goes.  I'm journeying with Shadow, and I hope you enjoy the journey too.

Book Quote

The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief.  The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom.  He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him.  He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.

American Gods: Chapter 1

Shadow in Prison, Part 1

Every so often I have moaned and bewailed my life.  Why can't things go my way?  Why wasn't my childhood perfect?  Why does everything seem to go against me?  Sometimes I had these little outbursts against the universe even though my own choices had brought me to that low point.  During my little pity parties, I had forgotten that at least I had the opportunity to keep struggling against life, and that I still had the freedom to make those little mistakes that seemed to make my life so difficult.

It wasn't until my wife and I started mentoring women newly released from prison that I learned that my little troubles didn't mean anything compared to others.  The women I helped mentor had come from worse backgrounds than I did.  By "worse" I mean that they were victims of terrible physical and sexual abuse.  Their crimes were usually related to drug abuse and alcohol.  They also often were mothers, further complicating issues when we tried to help reintegrate them into normal life.  One woman we mentored had an ex-husband who had tried to have her killed, and was still trying to track her down.

I've only visited prisons, and fortunately have never had to live in one.  Prison is its own society.  Some convicted criminals find prison an opportunity for power, and prison gangs provide the vehicle for them to become powerbrokers in an enclosed system.  Some find religion, and prison provides a way to explore their lives and give themselves in their brokenness over to a higher power.  Some find it a respite from the streets, and if they have been there long enough or enough times, they have learned the system and how to integrate into it.  Prisoners also face many of the same problems that they might face outside, but concentrated because it's a closed system.  Addictions, predators, abusers (in the form of fellow prisoners but also in the form of sadistic prison officials).  Life is hell for them, whether it is on the outside or the inside, and if a prisoner is going to make the most of the scraps of opportunity they have, they must have a lot of inner strength and be able to selectively use a host of personal skills to navigate this unforgiving world.

Musical Interlude

I found this song by Joan Baez for our musical interlude, which tells three different stories of three people in prison.


Shadow in prison, Part 2

In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Shadow is in prison at the beginning of the book.  He is determined to do his time, limit his contact with anyone, and get released.  His only friend is a fellow convict named Low-Key, who gives him a contraband coin that Shadow uses to practice tricks and illusions.  We'll learn more about Low-Key later.  We don't know much, if anything, about the offense that landed Shadow in prison, nor do we know his real name.  Like his chosen moniker, he wants to remain quiet and unobtrusive.  He plans then to go home to his wife, Laura, get a job and never do anything that would risk a return to prison.

Most people who are in prison, except for the most hardened criminals and those who are there for the rest of their lives, have similar dreams.  They plan to get out and stay out, and live a normal life.  Unfortunately, there are traps all over.  My wife and I, once a month, join a small group of people and bring dinner down to a halfway house in Albuquerque where we live.  The men in the halfway house are all transitioning out of prison.  They live in the house, try to find jobs, and try to get themselves on the right track.  Unfortunately, the whiff of prison never leaves them, and makes getting back to normal difficult if not impossible.  They must always disclose their offenses when applying for jobs and applying for rental housing, which severely limits what's available to them.  They may have lost all of their identification, and therefore must spend hours filling out tedious forms and working their way through the bureaucracy.  They must report to a parole or probation officer regularly, and that officer has full discretion to determine that they are in violation and send them back to prison on a moment's notice.

The jobs they are able to get are often minimum wage jobs, even if they happen to have more advanced training.  The housing that they are able to get is often located in the worst neighborhoods.  Of course, this puts them right back into the very environments that they have been trying to escape.  Or perhaps they are released back into dysfunctional support systems.  It takes one turn of fate, such as a tragedy or accident, or a series of bad days filled with job rejections and hours of tedium in faceless and uncompromising bureaucratic rule, regulations and red tape, or a troublesome character from that bad former life coming back into contact, to send them back on a spiral into the habits and actions that got them into prison in the first place.

We'll see the same thing happen to Shadow.  An unexpected tragedy occurs, and his plans to return to normalcy are dashed.  This tragedy, the death of his wife just days before he is to be released from prison, means his life will never be the same.  Will this tragedy bring him on a circle that leads him back around to prison?

As I mentioned above, sometimes people find themselves in prison.  For Shadow, this tragedy is the opening act of a sort of passion play that will challenge everything he knows about himself.  It will be a journey that not only takes him all ove the map, but to places beyond the map.  Like Odysseus of Greek legend, he will come face-to-face with himself, despite the pulls of mythology old and new.  Shadow will also redefine himself in the process.

If you want to know more about the US prison system and the challenges for ex-convicts

Atlantic Monthly: When They Get Out
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Human Rights Watch World Report 2013: US and prisons
New York Times: After Prison, a Bill to be Paid
Wikipedia: Incarceration in the United States

Next up: Little Rock, Arkansas



Blue Highways: The Ending

Unfolding the Map

It's the end of the road for our Blue Highways adventure.  Even though the book ends with William Least Heat-Moon gassing up Ghost Dancing at New Harmony, Indiana for the final run to Columbia, Missouri and home, we know that he made it because he subsequently wrote other books.  Thank you, all of you Littourati, for reading my posts during my 2½ year journey through the book.  I'll be back in a few weeks with my next mapping project, whatever that may be!  In the meantime, here is the completed Blue Highways map!

Book Quote

"The circle almost complete, the truck ran the road like the old horse that knows the way.  If the circle had come full turn, I hadn't.  I can't say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn't known what I wanted to know.  But I did learn what I didn't know I wanted to know....

"....The pump attendant, looking at my license plate when he had filled the tank, asked, 'Where you coming from, Show Me?'

"'Where I've been.'

"'Where else?' he said."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4

Columbia, Missouri and the end of the Blue Highways. Photo by CosmiCataclysm and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Columbia, Missouri : The Ending

It's with some bittersweet feelings that I begin this post.  On May 17th, 2010 I started this project to map and to explore my thoughts. feelings and emotional reactions to Blue Highways.  The concept remained simple, and followed neatly from my previous explorations into On the Road.  I would map Blue Highways, and write about whatever moved me from the reading.  This would provide a geographical map of Blue Highways, and also a map for me (and whomever else was interested) of my inner emotional geography and thought process.

Little did I know that this project would consume 2½ years, constitute 375 mapped points and 318 posts.  I could have never fathomed that, since I wrote a rough average of 1000 words per essay, I would easily write at least 318,000 words or more.  Nor did I know just what depths of my emotions and my knowledge, and in many cases my curiosity, I would sound in my journey through Blue Highways.

The fruits of my project have been, for me, overwhelmingly positive.  I feel that I've become a better writer and essayist, though I realize that the quality most likely varies from post to post.  I also loved immersing myself so completely into a book.  What the reader has seen in Littourati has been my thoughts and feelings that have been dredged up through William Least Heat-Moon's skillful and polished prose.

Littourati has also become more well-known on the internet.  Someone, I have no idea who, has put a link to Littourati on the Blue Highways Wikipedia page.  I've received the occasional comment of support and visits from all over the world.  I can only hope that what I've put down in these Blue Highways posts resonates with readers.  I've also added some additional small embellishments, like the "Musical Interlude" where I insert songs that I believe relate to the posts, photos of the towns and pictures of symbols of the state.

I'm very thankful to William Least Heat-Moon for writing Blue Highways and providing me with so much inspiration.  If he knows about Littourati and my efforts to map his book, I hope he approves.  I have never meant to diminish Blue Highways, but to celebrate it, and I hope that is evident.

My life's journey has progressed in the time since started mapping Blue Highways.  My job has changed, I'm buying a house for the first time, and there have been numerous joys and heartbreaks that I've experienced.  In other words, life has occurred.  One thing that has helped me through these ups and downs has been knowing that 2-3 times a week, I had posts on Blue Highways to do.  You, as the reader, have come along with me through some of those ups and downs, just as I have accompanied William Least Heat-Moon, circa 1980 or so, on his journey.  I don't know if I feel I've come full circle, because like he writes, I didn't know what I wanted to know.  That's been my joyful discovery during this process - those things I didn't know that I wanted to know.

What will I do, now that Blue Highways is over?  First, I have some unexpected, pressing personal business to attend to.  Then I must update my knowledge on Google Maps because its version has changed during my Blue Highways effort and I want the next project to utilize the latest version.  And finally, I need to pick my new project.  I have three in mind:

  1. Neil Gaiman's American Gods, where I would map the physical and spiritual journey of the main character Shadow (as well as my own feelings on spirituality and religion).
  2. Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days in conjunction with pioneering female investigative journalist Nellie Bly's effort to beat Phileas Fogg's (fictional) record in her around the world effort in the late 1800s, and Elizabeth Bisland's efforts to beat Nellie Bly at the same time as Bly's journey by traveling in the opposite direction.
  3. Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi in conjunction with Eddy Harris' solo trip by canoe down the Mississippi in his book Mississippi Solo.

So many possibilities!  If you have a preference, or a journey that I haven't thought of, please feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think.  I want to be back with my next project in late February.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who has visited this site.  Littourati would be nothing if you didn't visit.  At last count, the average is about 125 unique people per day, and about 231 hits per day.  I still find it astounding that technology allows one to reach so many people now with just a click of a mouse.  As you might have gathered in many of my posts, it's the blessing and curse of modern technology.  But, in this case, I have only found blessings.

Musical Interlude

I will end the Blue Highways posts with a song I just discovered: Eddie Vedder's End of the Road from the Into the Wild soundtrack.  I was leery, given how Into the Wild ends, but the lyrics really fit the end of Blue Highways.

If you want to know more about Blue Highways or William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon has written many other fine books since Blue Highways.  I was enchanted by PrairyErth, an in-depth look at Chase County, Kansas.  He also wrote another road travel book called Roads to Quoz, and a water-travel book called River Horse.  Please consider reading more from this accomplished author.

Audio interviews with William Least Heat-Moon
Booknotes interview with William Least Heat-Moon
In Depth with William Least Heat-Moon
Onpoint interview with William Least Heat-Moon
University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology: Ghost Dancing (the Blue Highways van)
Wikipedia: William Least Heat-Moon
WorldHum interview with William Least Heat-Moon

Next up: Wherever the Journey Takes Us!


Blue Highways: New Harmony, Indiana

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.

Book Quote

"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

Downtown New Harmony, Indiana. Photo by Timothy K. Hamilton and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

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.

Musical Interlude

I've used this song before, but I had to use it again here.  Youngblood Brass Band, featuring Ike Willis, with Something.

If you want to know more about New Harmony

Historic New Harmony
Indiana State Museum: Historic New Harmony
MaxKade: Historic New Harmony
Posey County News (news site)
Robert Owen and New Harmony
Town of New Harmony
Wikipedia: New Harmony

Next up: The End of the Blue Highways


Blue Highways: Ohio River Towns

Unfolding the Map

As we pass by the river towns of Ohio, it is pretty clear that William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is ready to get home.  His pace of travel leads me to think about the stages of our journeys and put together an admittedly non-scientific, not really well-thought-out framework of journey stages.  It'll have to serve as a starting point for something more developed later.  At right is the state seal of Ohio from Wikimedia Commons.

Book Quote

"The old riverbank towns - Franklin Furnace, New Boston, Portsmouth, Friendship, Manchester, Utopia - now found the Ohio more a menace than a means of livelihood, and they had shifted northward to string out along the highway like kinks in a hawser.  I had no mind for stopping.  God's speed, people once wished the traveler."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4

Marker for Utopia, Ohio. Photo by GBauer8946 and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.Ohio River Towns

There are times on a journey when one is caught up in the travel.  One looks forward to each new stop along the way, and even seeing the places in between where one doesn't stop.  There is a natural rhythm and flow in journeys at that time.

In fact, I see journeys as having definite stages.

1.  Pre-journey:  This stage involves the preparation and planning.  It is filled with much anticipation, some worry, and some guesswork.  Or, perhaps not.  A very organized person might look forward to the journey while perhaps worrying a little about the details and trying to troubleshoot any possible problems.  Will I forget anything, will I hit some obstacles or roadblocks along the way, will I see everything I want to see?  Of course, there are those who don't plan much - they have a destination and otherwise let some element of chance determine what will happen.  For me, I like a combination.  I like to be relatively prepared but I want to be able to have some flexibility to deviate from the course.  LHM doesn't really allow us into his preparation for his journey.  We know that he was having some life troubles and doubts, and suddenly he is on the road.  I'm certain that he did some planning, but he also seems to have given himself some latitude to improvise on his way.

2.  The start:  Not much to say about this stage.  One gets in the car, or gets to the airport. Of course, with my wife and I, there is usually a trip around the block and then we realize that we left the back door unlocked or forgot something essential.  When it's a car trip, we have had a myriad of reasons why we have started anywhere from a half hour to two hours behind schedule.  Once, just as we were preparing to leave on-time for a driving to trip to California, a large stray dog fleeing a hot air balloon ran into our driveway and vomited in fear, and then took a dump in our parking place.  We corraled the dog and then waited for Animal Control until we could start our trip. But once the trip is started, and you're finally on the road or in the air, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of some relief.

3.  Settling into the journey:  The first few hours are usually a mix of cautious relief and anticipation.  Traveling alone, I find that I'm taking in my surroundings, happy to be where I am, but at the same time I'm somewhat hyper-aware of things.  For instance, in a car I'm getting used to the car and road noise and what it might mean.  In a plane, I'm looking out the window or at my fellow passengers.  I'm basically adjusting to the new environment that I find myself in.  I also get used to the routines and the demands of traveling on my body.  When will I get hungry and need to stop for food and drink?  How long can I sit in a position before I need to get up and move around?  Eventually, these questions will resolve themselves into a set pattern that I can get used to.  A subset of this stage might be a sort of resistance to the process.  In wanting to get a few more miles, I might push the gas gauge a little farther toward empty than I should, or get a bit tired but still drive to the next town.  When I'm traveling by car with my wife, we usually go through a routine of listening to NPR until we lose reception, and then we settle into a mix of reading to each other and watching the scenery.

4.  Journey zen: After the settling in comes acceptance that one is on the journey.  It is a stage that some will not reach, but which I strive to.  It is only when one reaches this stage that one is able to accept what the journey will give them, and recognize opportunity even in the face of adversity.  To be able to reach this stage usually takes a combination of travel experience and a willingness to cede control to the universe.  I remember once talking at a conference with a Baptist pastor who had traveled extensively, and arrived at the conference a day late because of air travel difficulties.  I asked him if he was annoyed.  "Not really," he replied.  "I can't do anything to change it so it doesn't pay to get angry.  I just caught up on reading that I hadn't been able to get to, and met some interesting people who were in the same situation as me."  I think that LHM truly reached journey zen  after a rainy day in Corvallis, Oregon when he truly seemed to leave his troubles at home behind.  I can only really count a handful of times, on all my journeys, where I've achieved this kind of state.

5.  The return: At this point, we are in this stage with LHM.  At some point on the journey, one knows it is time for the journey to end, as all must.  Notice in LHM's quote that this is the first time that he has reeled off such a long string of towns with little to say about them, and that he had" no mind for stopping."  This is a man who wants to get home.  Of course, sometimes journeys end too soon.  But on most, we just know that the journey has played itself out and that we're ready to end it.

6.  The post-journey: This point of the journey is often an adjustment and acceptance in itself.  I often feel like a journey has been an effort, and that upon returning I could use a vacation to recover.  It is about settling back into routines, work, and home life.  It is about reflection on the journey just ended, what we've taken away from it, and what we have learned.  The interesting thing about Blue Highways is that even though LHM doesn't appear to allow us to share in this stage with him, he actually does.  He wrote Blue Highways after his return, which allows his thoughts and reflections in the aftermath of his journey to influence his writing.

I have one more thing to write about these stages.  They are not static, and there is no boundary line between them.  We slip back and forth, in and out of them.  Like many things in life, they are unpredictable, and we may not even experience some of them.  They happen when and if they should.

Musical Interlude

I hadn't planned to use Johnny Cash again so soon, but I liked his version of this song, Banks of the Ohio.  It's one of those nice gory murder ballads.  If you'd like another version, try Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, Joan Baez, or even Olivia Newton-John.  My favorite version, by Mason Brown and Chipper Thompson, is not on YouTube.

If you want to know more about the Ohio River towns

City of Portsmouth
Forgotten Ohio: Utopia
Ohio History Central: Manchester
Portsmouth Area Chamber of Commerce
Portsmouth Convention and Visitors Bureau
Portsmouth Daily Times (newspaper)
Roadside America: Utopia
Shawnee State University
Village of New Boston
Wikipedia: Franklin Furnace
Wikipedia: Friendship
Wikipedia: Manchester
Wikipedia: New Boston
Wikipedia: Portsmouth
Wikipedia: Utopia

Next up: Cincinnati, Ohio


Blue Highways: Franklin, West Virginia

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

Book Quote

"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

The Potomoc River in Franklin, West Virginia. Photo by Doctor Flowers and hosted at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host site.

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.

Musical Interlude

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

Guide to Pendleton County
Wikipedia: Franklin

Next up: Judy Gap, Seneca Rocks and Elkins, West Virginia