Some years ago, Florence Walrath put this sign up in the back door window. Maria and I never once thought of taking it down, though it is fading and turning yellow. It says “Anyone Enjoying Work Can Have A Good Time In This Institution.” The choice of words is interesting, as much for what it implies as what it says. Florence was both hard-working and tough. The use of the word “institution” is interesting, and I like her equating the idea of hard work and a “good time.” From what I hear, people who did not wish to work did not have a good time. The message is a challenge to dawdlers and stragglers not to come into the house and expect to be left unchallenged. It is a valuable work ethic, perhaps one of the reasons Florence remained independent and active in her until until she was well past 100.
I hope the signs holds up forever. It is an inspiration to me every day to get my work done. To not only work hard, but enjoy it.
The closest friend I ever had in my life was a journalist and editor named Bill. We became friends nearly 40 years ago and we have been through a lot of life together. I was best man at his wedding. I don’t think I’ve ever trusted anyone more or felt closer to anyone until I met Maria, and my friendship with him was an exercise in comfort and honestly, or at least as much honesty as I could muster at the time. One of the sad but perhaps inevitable consequences of the illness that racked my mind for so much of my life was that I kept running away from people, letting them go, losing touch, avoiding contact. I understand now that I couldn’t bear to be close to anyone, it was simply too frightening for me.
I am not one for nostalgia, rarely inclined to look backwards, not drawn to notions of the good old days – the best days are the ones I am living now. I knew so many good and wonderful people during my long illness, and almost all of them are lost to me.
As close as Bill and I were, we are also men, and men tend to put friendships behind the other things in their lives.I don’t know why this is so, the experts say that men put friendship behind work, obligation and responsibility. I was more than a little crazy besides all that, I can’t speak for Bill. There were always periods when we lost contact with one another, we both moved all over the place, but we always found each other again.
Some years ago, my issues came to the fore and ended in my getting divorced, holed up alone and going to pieces on Bedlam Farm, a prison in some ways as well as a golden palace. I remember visiting Bill on a book tour before the worst of it, and we walked his dog and sat up half the night talking in the easy and flowing way of good and close friends. We knew one another well. Then I got divorced, was overwhelmed and began to try and pull myself together, a process that will continue until the end of my life I didn’t call Bill, he didn’t call me. Maybe I was just too messed up.
I followed his career, knew where he was, what he was doing, and he followed my blog. I missed him, wished I could talk to him. But neither of us communicated with one another. I can’t speak for him. I needed a friend, and it makes no sense to have avoided him. I finalized the divorce, got with Maria, and began in earnest to set about changing my life, to not end up being a person who sheds friends that he loves. I asked myself a thousand times why I never called Bill. I can tell you truthfully that I don’t know why. I just couldn’t.
This week, I reviewed a novel – “After Visiting Friends” set partly in the world of Chicago journalism, and it brought me back to my time working with Bill in a newspaper, both of us living the life we so loved. We talked newspapers day and night. I spent an hour Tuesday morning tracking him down, and I found out where he was and called and left a message on his voice mail. I didn’t want to send an e-mail, I wanted to leave my own voice. I didn’t hear for most of the day, and I was getting resigned to not hearing from him. If he hadn’t called me for five or six years, why now? I was preparing to let it go. At dusk, I got an e-mail. He had been following me, he said, he knew about the divorce, about Maria, about the new farm. He would call at night.
He did call last night and we talked for hours. I did not cry, but I felt like crying. It was so good to hear his voice, to tell him about these last few years, the great challenges and tests and rewards. It has been tough, I said. But it has been good. I needed to get her, needed to do this. We talked as easily as if no time had passed, there was no discomfort, strain or recrimination. We picked up precisely where we had left off, as friends do. We were the friends we had always been. We had both been reporters, so we efficiently and professionally caught up with one another, asked the right questions, gathered the information.
At the end of the call, I said I hoped that this time we would not lose touch, that we would see one another, keep talking to each other. It was important to me. And I had a great sense of loss and resignation. He said he thought that would be good. I am always wary of the notion that people can change who they are. The shrinks and shamans say you can change, but it is hard and painful, and very few people actually do it.
I am working on changing, but it not, of course, for me to say if I have changed or not. I hope so. What can I do to make sure I don’t lose Bill again? I might just jump on a train or plane and go and see him. I will certainly call. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote that we are not just born once, when our mothers give birth to us, but life sometimes requires us to be born again and again.
I think that is true. I hope that is true. Friendship is precious. I have lost so many friends to my fears and confusion. I mean to not lose any more.
On almost every old barn I photograph there’s a hoop. A farmer’s son explained to me that farms can be lonely and isolated, and when there is time between chores, brothers often shot hops – the fathers were almost always too busy. I think of hoop dreams, of the imagination of a farmer’s kid working hard on a family farm, dreaming of big city basketball.
I had a cavity filling come loose and I drove to Granville to Granville Family Dentistry, the best dentists I have ever had. It really should be so much fun to go to the dentist, but Dawn and Dr. Cocoa and I were trading stories and laughing so hard I forget I was having a cavity refilled. I’m going back there next week for some more work and I will get some photos. On the way back I drove through some real country and I found some barn doors and windows that spoke to me. Lots of stories in this doors and windows.