Friday, September 18, 2009

A Second Time Around (Columbus, NJ)

As I walked from Princeton Junction to Columbus, a trusted friend was missing. For only the second day of my trip, I didn't have a Bill Simmons podcast to listen to at 9:30am. It has become a one of my favorite traditions on the road, with me mimicking his intro right down the final "Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" that precedes the start of his podcast.

When the BS Report well runs dry I turn to my other roadside companion - musicals. I thought of the shows I hadn't listened to yet and the choice became obvious. Les Miserables. How could I forget my first experience? I had never been to Broadway until I turned 22. My father picked me up on my birthday and we drove to NYC to see Les Mis. I was already familiar with the music, but the experience in person blew me away. Everything about it was so creative - the staging, the costumes, how one song seamlessly led the next. It was a clinic in storytelling through music.

It is now the year 14 A.B (after Broadway) of my life, but Les Miserables still speaks to me. One story in Victor Hugo's book (also spotlighted in the musical) played a big part in the genesis of my idea to walk across the country. Here is my quick summary:

Right after Jean Valjean is let out of prison with his yellow ticket of parole, he is wandering the countryside, looking for shelter as he tries to make his way back home. Seeing the yellow ticket no one is willing to show him kindness. Valjean gets more and more bitter toward an unforgiving world when a kindly bishop opens the doors of his house to him. The bishop invites Valjean to eat with him and sleep in his comfortable guest room. He treats him like a brother.

That night Valjean cannot sleep. His fears convince him that this kindness shown to him is one of a kind. Thoughts of self preservation leap to his mind. He decides to take advantage of the situation he finds himself in. In the dead of the night he creeps out of his room, collects the bishop's precious silver and steals off into the night, hoping to escape and use the money to start a new life so he never again needs to rely on other people.

The next day, policemen stop him on the road and find the bishop's silver in his bag. Valjean tells them the bishop gave it to him as a gift. Seeing that he is a parolee, they do not believe him and take him back to the bishop's house. The police tell the bishop Valjean's unlikely story. Yet instead of rejoicing at the punishment of someone who has taken advantage of his kindness, the bishop offers even a greater love. He tells the authorities that Valjean's story is true and gives him even more silver, saying his guest forgot it. The dumbfounded police are forced to leave. Valjean has been saved from being sent back to prison for life without parole. His worldview is thrown open and he is led to a redemptive moment that wouldn't have been possible merely after the first act of kindness. It took a second, greater self sacrifice on the part of the bishop.

In the musical, this is what the bishop tells Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

When I first read this story I was affected by it in a way that wasn't totally explainable. I thought it was the most beautiful story of radical human love I had ever read. Kindness, taken advantage of, met by an even more profound kindness a second time around.

I was still thinking about second and third chances when I reached Colubmus, NJ. Appropriately, it was the second time around that I was staying with Cathy Vandegrift and Pete Holsberg. I also stayed with them back in 2003 when I was taking the Greyhound Bus cross country. To the best of my knowledge I did not steal anything from their house on that trip and escape into the New Jersey countryside, but just to keep me honest we decided to include my parents in on this dinner party.

My mother and Cathy have been friends since before I was born. They met while both working at Princeton University in the late 60s. Through all the twists and turns of life - the moves, raising families, wide geographic distance - they have kept in touch and remained friends. In modern times, when life is so much more transitive than before, it is quite a feat to keep a close friend for more than 40 years. That is to be celebrated.

In retrospect, we probably should have been celebrating that at dinner, but instead I got another in a wonderful week's worth of birthday celebrations. There were cards and gifts and a carrot cake (my favorite of the cake family - please don't be jealous Ms. Raspberry Pie) and even a rousing performance of the Polish birthday song "Sto Lat" (May you Live 100 Years). Going to the scorecard, my birthday was celebrated twice in NYC, once in Belford, once in Old Bridge and then punctuated by this wonderful celebration with my parents and Cathy and Pete in Columbus. Even if I do live to 100 years old, I doubt I will forget this year or the love I was shown.

Seeing my parents sitting there with Pete and Cathy, forty some years of friendship in the bank, it got me thinking about friends of my generation and how it can be difficult to stay in touch with them as life takes us in different directions. I have gotten to see some of them on this trip, but most of them don't live along my route. So in the spirit of celebrating friendships, both past and present, let me say thanks now to those I won't get to see on this trip:

To Heidi, Ann, Rick, Sam, Sue and all the other older kids that took me under their wing as a kid and watched out for me growing up. To Paul, you helped make Zimbabwe feel like home. To Derek, I couldn't have imagined getting through high school without your friendship. To Jamie Stein, wherever he may roam, for the great times at college. To Estee, for being by my side and being a great friend when LA was still new. To Noah, my best roommate ev-ah and the McEnroe to my Borg. To Nikki, who shared so many trips and laughs with me that I will never, ever forget her friendship. To Endel, my brother from another mother, for being someone I can be honest with and who always has my back. And to my real brother Aaron, who I love unconditionally. Nothing can come between all the times we have shared.

When I write a paragraph like that, 36 years of memories come flooding back in visual snapshots of shared experiences. It isn't so much a feeling of nostalgia as it is a remembering of what it is to experience love and share friendship. Which leads me back again, a second time around, to the lessons I'm reminded of when I listen to Les Miserables. Its last line is true to my experience of life and more succinct than anything I could write myself ... "To Love Another Person is to See the Face of God."

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