For a Friend I Never Met

Thirty five years ago my life was enriched immeasurably by a book. I had just moved to Montana from the east coast and was given a book by the great Montana writer, Ivan Doig. His classic memoir, ‘This House of Sky’, told of his boyhood on a ranch in central Montana within sight of the Crazy Mountains. For me as a twenty something raised in the suburbs of Rhode Island, the book was an epiphany. Doig’s wonderfully descriptive writing awakened me to a way of life I’d never known.

The book was given to me by another iconic Montanan, Belle Fligelman Winestine. Belle then in her 80’s, as a journalist and later as a state senator, had known many of the men and women who settled this beautiful, sometimes unforgiving landscape. Belle said: “If you want to understand Montana, you need to read Ivan Doig. He sees great drama in the often overlooked lives of small town Montana… cowboys, waitresses, teachers, children, Crow, Blackfoot, ranchers. If you can learn to see and listen like Ivan Doig, then you will discover the real Montana.”

Over the years I’ve read many of Doig’s books, his Montana trilogy (my favorite English Creek), The Whistling Season and his last book A Bartenders Tale. As a storyteller myself, I’ve enjoyed the rhythm of his storytelling, his use of language, his ability to elicit the heroic in the most unlikely of people. In his stories children are often the voice of wisdom, to a fragile adult world.

photo of Ivan Doig

Recently I read that Ivan Doig had died. I felt like I’d lost a dear friend even though we’d never met. Such is the power of a good storyteller, who awakens the reader to new ways of seeing and hearing. All who have been befriended by a good book know the loss that I speak of.

Thank you Ivan Doig. Your many readers will be forever in your debt.

Can’t Go Home Again?

After 30 plus years I recently returned to the land of my birth. Anyone who has lived far from home understands that a piece of oneself remains in that place where ones identity was shaped and formed.

Growing up in New England, Rhode Island specifically, I realized in my early 20’s that I needed to move away. I realized that I needed to stretch myself without the parameters of that which was familiar. I’m glad I left.

For the next 30 plus years I lived in Montana, California, Ohio and for the last 20 years in Oregon. Each place I have enjoyed and learned and received much. Oregon in particular is a wonderful place to be.

Yet as I got older I realized that there was a deep call from within me calling me home. I felt like a salmon being compelled to swim back to the tributary that gave it birth.

Now back in New England I find myself settling into the comfortable rhythm of the region. Last night I attended Fenway Park and sipped ‘clam chowda’ from Legal Seafood as I watched my Red Sox. How cool to have good chowder within the sights and sounds of Fenway!

This past weekend I was installed as a member of the pastoral team at the new church I now call home. During the ritual I looked out at the faces of those I am still getting to know. The church seemed so new to me and at the same time very familiar, as if we’d known each other for a longtime.

Several family members joined my wife and me at church. My Mom, Millie at age 91, my Aunt Evelyn in her mid 90’s, both wonderfully engaged with life, my cousin Tom and his wife Doreen who are family but also good friends.

Harrop Family around the table.
Harrop Family around the table.

That afternoon, after the ritual of installation, I sat with my family around the table in our new (old) home-built in 1806. We talked over dessert and marveled that after being away for so long that we were back together.

I’m glad I left. I wouldn’t have become who I am without that time away. Yet it is good to be back. Many years ago in California I was feeling homesick. A church musician sang me a song entitled ‘He came along with me’. The song reminds us that wherever we go God goes with us.

The Good News is that whether we stay or go, that wherever we are, our God accompanies us. It is humbling and reassuring to know that God was and is in Rhode Island, Montana, California, Ohio, Oregon, Massachusetts and everywhere else.

Now I am back in New England the region of my birth. But I know that I’ve always been at home with that Holy Source that brought me/us into being and to whom I/we will all one day return. As surely as the salmon swims home.