Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On the Road to See an Old Friend

The bus ride from Boston to Portland is two hours on a Sunday morning.

Two hours is not an inordinately long trip to see an old friend. I last saw him a year ago in my hometown of New Orleans, where he and his wife live ten minutes from my brother’s. At a table in an uptown coffee house, I had handed George a brochure about a March 2012 conference at Bowdoin College. Dressed in his lawyer’s long-sleeve white shirt and tie, George had taken the brochure and thanked me.

I was fresh from last year’s Winter Weekend centered on Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which had brought a number of scholars to the Bowdoin campus to address a gathering of readers. Treating the participants to a banquet that took its inspiration from the literary work under discussion had been part of the winning recipe on the part of the college. I was able to assure George that the upcoming year’s conference on the Iliad would prove a satisfying experience – especially for someone whose diversions include translating the Iliad from the original Greek.

My preference for the bus this past Sunday came from the leisure it would afford for the two hours up to Portland and the two hours back. I would get to read further in The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir. A happy chance of a purchase in a used bookstore a few weeks earlier, the 1956 novel promised six-hundred pages of political and literary discussions among characters based on Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and their friends. The French major in me welcomed the diversion.

Would George and I have a similar conversation over our own lunch?

There was some talk about recent publications by the presenters at the weekend conference. There was talk about preferences for translations of the Bible. There was on George’s part the frank admission that few reading prospects of his had yet supplanted the Iliad for the capacity to engage him intellectually and maybe even emotionally. One of the great sagas of war opening on a scene of dissension in the ranks – George smiled in savoring the possibilities for insight the old epic could offer.

Over lunch and later on a walk through the Old Port, our conversation touched on teachers we had shared in high school and classmates and other authors like Mary Oliver and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, before whose family’s home and parish church we paused. The ease of the talk and the welcome and trust we each could sense from the other made this walk a strange one – that it had taken us so many years to find our steps matching this way and our moods agreeing.

Within four hours of arriving in Portland, George was heading to the airport. Talk of his wife and daughters had made it easy to imagine his life in New Orleans, and I knew he was returning to questions and satisfactions that someone of his intelligence and thoughtfulness expected at our age.

After my two hours’ read on the bus back to Boston, I picked up my car from the garage and drove home. The light was late afternoon light, Sunday afternoon light. Briefly it would touch my pictures and chairs and plants in a certain way. If I decided to capture it, it was because of who I had been almost fifty years ago as well as who I have since happily become.

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