Posted by: MC | September 29, 2010

What the Land Holds Up

Just home to Portland from a week in the Texas Hillcountry.

I did lots of my growing up on the land that stretches out either side of the Guadalupe River.  This week I returned to that river and those hills to see friends I hadn’t seen since all of us were 15 years old.  That’s a long time.

There’s a word used to describe this aspect of human systems – equifinality (thanks to Gregory Bateson — husband of Margaret Mead, father of Cahterine Bateson for you anthro and social psych buffs).  Equifinality means something like this.  In any moment we find ourselves together, that meeting follows necessarily from the innumerable moments that have come before.  Each of our lives contains a unique combination of moments that brings us to now.  Some of those moments may have involved each other, but most of them haven’t.

We’re born.  Lots of stuff happens.  And then we’re standing together in Kerrville, TX beneath an Elk’s head and next to a cedar table piled with Buzzie’s barbecue.  That’s equifinality.

Among my friends at the Tivy High School Reunion were life stories spanning the range of human experience.  One of us has lost an arm to illness.  Several have survived cancer.  One has lost a beloved to AIDS.  Two are high school sweethearts that had a child who nearly died and now is in medical school.  One of us coaches the star quarterback of the Tivy Antlers.  One had twins at 50 (beautiful children!).  Many are recovering from addictions.  And all of us lost at least one classmate to suicide.  Some of us own and run ranches – real ones.  Some of us sell stocks or run pharmacies or teach third graders.

Among my now adult friends fortunes have been made and lost.  Hearts have been broken, and they have been wildly triumphant.  And, of course, right there in the wings are all the stories we do not tell.  Boring stories, embarrassing stories, stories too sad to speak.

This is what the land holds up:  Birth and aging, joy and sorrow, near loss of all courage and miraculous revival.  The land holds up every single story we live, told or not.  The land of our childhood, of our lifetime is often an unsung friend – a constant beneath the weather of living.

Spending time with the stories, with the lives and friendship of the fine people of my youth was a reminder of many things.  Of old times, for sure.  Of the wild and showy cultural practice of homecoming mums, for example; a shock of familiarity that, I must admit, took awhile for me to fit into my current view of the world.  But, way more important than mums and the floodlit gridiron of last Friday night, were the reminders of fundamental kindness, of guileless and humble affection – the vibe we had for and with one another even as kids.  It was the easy and natural affection that continued still – into our time together this week.

We were different back then.  We are more different, now.  But there are things that are more important to us than our difference.  We are kindred because of our shared childhoods – and we are kindred because of the land.

By some serendipity,  several towns over and along another river through the hills, the story of a friend from college was unfolding.  Even though we’d met when I was 14 and he 16 – met in the shallow waters of the Guadalupe one hot summer day – Murry and I had been out of eyeshot for 30 years.  In that time he’d been a biologist and continued playing the guitar with the precision of a Master imagist – Degas, Van Gough. But this past Monday Murry started radiation and chemotherapy for cancer in his esophagus.  A few days before that, David, another college friend who’s kept closer touch with Murry over the years, offered to drive with me the two-hour stretch across our beloved hills so we could all have some time – so we could take Murry to dinner even though he couldn’t really eat.

Sometimes it seems like Murry is dying with sadness, but last Wednesday I saw how that sadness can turn around.  Friendship has a way with people’s hearts and minds, and with our bodies.  Even sadness dims in the presence of an enduring love like that.

There was a rainbow above the hills as David and I drove the road to dinner.  The sky behind it was the particular blue that resides in the days it takes summer to turn itself over to fall.

I could see that blue in Murry’s eyes that night.  Sick as he is, friendship still has its way.  We stood there together on the land, we three friends, and the constancy of that clear and unyielding love shone brighter than the full Texas moon.

Somehow we all got here.  And without exception, without a thought, the land will keep holding us up.

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