Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Friendship Tour

           We have been on the road for five months, and it has become clear that I am experiencing three different trips at the same time, three separate stories.  The first is the day-to-day travel of the family.  This trip exists totally and fully in the present moment.  One day, we stand above Niagara Falls, another day on the top of the Empire State Building; on still a third we are watching the boys learn to ski in Massanutten; and yet on the fourth tasting a flight of scotches in Knoxville at Boyd's Jig and Reel.  We are always seeing or doing something new and fun. This is the story of a family being together, experiencing their extraordinary lives together.
Captain Crunch Hitches a Ride from General Longstreet
The second trip exists in the near and in the distant past.  On these days, we venture a millennia into our past at Cahokia Indian Mounds or into the seventeenth century at Plimouth Plantation; or we time travel into the eighteenth century at Fort at Four, south of Springfield, Vermont; or Fort Niagara, New York, or the Independence Trail outside of Boston, or Mount Vernon in Virginia.  Another day, we explore the early nineteenth century at Longfellow’s house in Portland or Hawthorne’s in Salem, then travel to Harper’s Ferry for John Brown’s Raid, then Antietam and Gettysburg, add a trip to Seneca Falls, then Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On other days, we live more closely to our own time in the twentieth century, nosing around the workshops belonging to the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, or Henry Heinz at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village.  Maybe it’s the history of air travel at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, or the memorials commemorating the destruction of the Twin Towers or the heroic sacrifice of the passengers of Flight 93.  All of this we have seen, all this time we have crossed, in five months.  This is the story of America, and a family discovering its identity as Americans.
The third trip resides in Twilight Zone fashion in two time periods and two places at once: the here and now and the there and then.   In each month, we have taken time out from “sightseeing in the present day” and from “reliving the historical past” to visit old and distant friends, most of them mine.  At one point recently, driving the highway between Pittsboro and Wilmington, I was describing my surprise at how important this facet of the trip has been to me.  Knightsmama commented that these moments just also might be her favorites.  Of course, I was turning these moments of happiness into a neurotic projection that this trip, with its many visits with past friends, could be viewed as a “Goodbye Tour,” as if I were an old rocker mourning my retirement,  or a fellow with cancer taking a year to say farewell to buddies I will miss when I expire.  I hope it is obvious I did not organize this adventure with such a goal in mind, but, still, if I should pass from this earth next year, the truth would be that I had seen in one year most of my friends, and those visits had been celebratory and rejuvenating.
At Blue Moon Music in Fayatteville, Arkansas
Owned by friend Tim Grear
In addition to that bit of neurosis—ironically celebrating my wonderful life with funeral music in the background—I added a second nugget by pondering my longtime evaluation that, over the years, I had not been a very good friend to those with whom I could and should.  Maybe, I wonder, I don’t know what friendship really is.  I always wanted, I think, friendships conceived from movies or television.  You know, a bunch of Irish guys gathering regularly in a bar in Boston or New York, loudly telling jokes, giving each other shit, talking about how tough their old men were, and then draping their arms around each other and singing “Danny Boy” at last call.  One night in October at an open mike at the Old Worthen Bar in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the Jack Kerouac Festival, I witnessed what I imagined to such a friendship: tough guys being tender and sentimental reading their poems about departed buddies.  The problem, of course, is that I am not Irish; I don’t live on the East Coast, and I don’t hang out in bars.  Heck, I don’t even belong to a bowling league or golf course or do the things that guys seem to do with long time friends.  Oh, I used to.  I played on a softball team for many years; I played golf.  I used to go to bars and attend concerts.  I did these things before and during my first marriage. 
Dr. Carlson Yost, My Office Mate at
Texas AandM 1975-1977
Then I did a couple of strange things.  First, I decided I really wanted to find out if I could be a poet.  I had always written poetry, but in my forties I decided to drop other hobbies and interests and get involved with poets and poetry and the poetry scene.  Second, I divorced, remarried, and began a new family.   In doing this, I got myself out of sync with other men my age.  I mean, most guys, even smart ones, don’t give a hoot about onomatopoeia.  And as my contemporaries were preparing their children for college, I was doing so with one child, but with another I was changing diapers again.  But, you know, as I type this, I know I am just grasping at straws.  And I think I am chasing shadows:  how many men my age, who still work, regularly hang out with men they know from childhood or college or even their time in the service?   For most of us, friendship is something more transitory and tenuous.
On the Friendship Tour, we have visited four friends from high school, one college professor,  two friends from graduate school both now professors, a mentor’s son and his family, a former colleague and his wife, a current colleague and her husband at his family’s house in Virginia over Thanksgiving, a former work-study student who is a stunning success these days, a couple we knew in Austin who now live in North Carolina, a home-school mom friend of Colleen’s who has moved to Virginia, Colleen’s cousin and family, my nephew and his wife and daughter in Brookline, my sister and brother-in-law in North Carolina, a second nephew and his daughter, and two nieces and their husbands.  Here at the last moment in South Carolina, we briefly visited another couple we met in Austin when we were foster parents together.  It seems exhausting, now, listing them all, especially for an introvert like myself.  Only two friends have refused our enticing offers to drop in and entertain them with stories about America, past and present.  
This leads me to one observation about friends and time.  The two friends who politely requested that we not haul the Caravan of Wonder their way are rooted in my Master’s degree days.  Both have had their happiness taken hostage recently.  One, who is more or less my age, has been under-employed for quite some time. I believe he would have made an excellent classics or Biblical scholar, living his quiet life in the serenity of old documents. He is trained both as an English instructor and as a Presbyterian minister.  But choices he has made, mostly, as I understand them, to help others, to live a life of service, have left him, this late in life, searching for fulfilling employment.  Our friendship lapsed for many years, but one of the blessings of the past few years is the brief, nearly weekly emails we exchange   The other friend, one of my graduate advisors and slightly older, has had, as far as I know, a productive career in communications for major corporations.  Then in April, her first beautiful son, at twenty-eight, died in a motorcycle accident.  Just like that, grief invades the house.  Although I often think of how important she and her husband were in contributing to whatever I have become, the truth is I have not contacted her in twenty years.  I understand that the last thing she needed at this difficult time is the responsibility for some grown-up grad student reliving his wandering hippie days. 
With Lee Hisle in Mystic, Connecticut
In thinking about these two friends, however, I began to consider what I know of all the   friends and family we had been visiting.  Among them or their immediate families, there are a death from cancer following our visit, four survivors of breast cancer, one with lupus, the deaths of three children, diabetes and other significant health issues, a near fatal automobile accident, a near fatal heart attack, debilitating allergies, narcolepsy, a malpractice lawsuit (settled in the friend’s favor), tenure issues and re-created careers, several re-created careers actually, a murdered brother, and eight divorces.  Who knows how many prescriptions for anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, and insomnia?  It is astonishing to me how much pain and hurt and fear and grief that we survive.    
When I think of true friends, deep friends, the Irish brothers in the bar kind of friends, I know that I have not stood shoulder to shoulder with many of these individuals as their tribulations fell upon them. In almost all cases, they have lived far away and our communication has been sporadic.  I was not the person, they called when trouble struck. Why do I think that I should have been?  Some part of me is a person who desires to be needed, or to be the kind of person who is needed.  But there is another person in me whose emotional life may be deep, but its reservoir is quickly depleted.  I seem to be at my best in two situations:  a brief and intense conversation for quick problem solving, or a long, slow slog where there are moments for recharging.  No one needs to know this, I suppose, except me and those who might wish something other from me.  They may need something from me that will be danged difficult to pull out.  But that does not mean I am not affected by their pain.  Sure, I often feel guilty that I have not been a better friend, but I also suffer from a sympathetic misery.  Through past affections, our souls are somehow still in harmony. 
Sean Carpenter Makes Thanksgiving Special
I think I know what I have been needing from them—those whom I have been visiting—a little connection to the past that might help me understand what the long slog has been about.  Life is long and so much of it gets placed into compartments:  close nuclear family; high school and college; work and the people at work—with several jobs there are several groups of people—; hobbies and entertainments and the people who also care about such; children and their teachers, coaches, and friends and their friends’ parents.  Relationships are short lived, like agave cacti that bloom brilliantly but briefly.  We move, we are transplanted, we quit, we are laid off, we are fired, we divorce, we marry, we succeed, we fail and rebuild, or give up, we become ill, we stay in one place while everyone else moves on, we hop into an RV and travel for a year.  In all this change, how do we maintain some singular sense of who we are?  Maybe you, maybe others, find it easy, but since I left for college at eighteen years of age, I have found it extraordinarily difficult to be just one person, the same to all.  In one place, I have been class clown; in another, I was a budding scholar; with a third group, a dreamy cosmic cowboy; at home, I tried to be the good, responsible son, when I wasn’t pissed off.   I played golf, I played softball, I became a poet, husband, teacher, father, administrator, home owner, book reviewer and essayist, divorced guy, editor and publisher, entrepreneur, failed entrepreneur, husband again, bee keeper, gardener, lousy lover, amazing lover, reactionary conservative on one issue, bleeding heart liberal on another. All this in no particular order.  Repeated, blended, mixed-up.  When I was moving forward, I thought it all made sense; one thing evolving into the other.  It no longer makes sense.  Now looking back, as I think about each stage or phase, I see a great number of missed opportunities for lasting friendships with wonderful people.  Some have tried to penetrate my hesitancy and reserve; others have resisted my curiosity and idolatry. 
The Grave of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on friendship is a peculiar rhapsody attempting to define this important relationship.  Because I am an introvert—something Knightsmama often points out to me with a tone close to accusation—this passage caught my attention.  “I chide society; I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate.  Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine—a possession for all time.”  All aspects of his description speak to me.  Yes, I do criticize society.  Thoreau’s statement that he had three chairs—one for himself, one for friends, and one for society—makes a great deal of sense to me.  I don’t desire much society.  But to find someone who accepts and understand you—in spite of your need for solitude—ah! there you have something.
Becoming friends is a bit like falling in love.  Sometimes, it is quick—a recognition of mutual mirroring.  Sometimes, a friendship develops slowly through repetition, our lives crossing through shared concerns.  I have had friendships that began and ended abruptly, inexplicably almost, some fully contained in a particular time and place, some almost dispassionate that have lasted for years.  But all have been expansive, enlarging me.  Emerson again:  “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.  This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations.  The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase.  Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship.”
So far Waller Grant, my family and I, have been blessed to be welcomed and nurtured by a long list of generous people, some family members, all friends.  Maybe someday I will write about these people fully, identifying them, describing our spotted histories together.  But something in me resists names and plots.  With those come conflicts and character analyses and a kind of detachment I do not welcome.   Right now, I am writing about Waller Grant’s stories exploring America.  In the old days, I would have laid it all out, a confessional poet, a self-serving memoirist.  But this is one of the changes, recently.  The intimate no longer seeks to display itself.  All of these folks have been kind to me and my family.  I just want to live with that for awhile. 
Todd and Meg Hoke Help Knightsmama and Kati Lueducke
Nurse My Son The Philosopher in Hendersonville, NC
As we drive around the United States, I think I am aware of “the many,” the many individuals that make up this nation, and, in my case, the many people that I, myself, have been and can be.  What I am looking for is “the one.”  E Pluribus Unum.  I think of the line from Tennyson’s poem about the archetypal traveler, Ulysses:  “I am a part of all that I have met.” I turn the line around, “All that I have met is a part of me.”  These past five months I have seen that the people who have become a part of me are gigantically generous people, caring, creative people.  I thank them for including me in their sphere of influence.    

Soundtrack Double Feature:  REM, “Everybody Hurts.”

Simon and Garfunkel: “Old Friends.”

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