Concrete and all: Taking the road

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You remember this line by Frost? “Two paths diverged in a yellow wood…”

And I’ve come to a sad realization: I’m halfway to my mid-life crisis, and I haven’t taken the road less traveled by — or the other road, for that matter. I’m still shifting my feet at the crossroads.

I’m one who doesn’t like crossing bridges because the grass isn’t always greener once you get to the other side. So why ruin the picture by entering it?

But I recently realized I sound like someone I vowed not to become like.

Emily Dickinson, famous poet, shut herself inside her house for her entire life except for a brief, year-long school stint. And, while beautiful, her work deals with things very close to home, or to the theoretical. Such lines like, “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain” are laudable; but, to me, they lack a substance that comes from actual experience.

Seeing in myself some of that same reticence to brave the outside world, I told myself as a high school student that I would get over it and experience life.

Dreaming about life from a bedroom window is fun. But it’s airy; there’s nothing concrete about dreams by themselves. It may have been fine for Dickinson. But I want more from life; I think a lot of people do. Too much air suffocates a lot of purpose.

My favorite poet is Wilfred Owen, a shy young Englishman. Rather than flitting with singing robins and window-love like Dickinson’s poems, his material bristles with chirping bullets and men who “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags … cursed through sludge.”

Why the difference? Because the world looks different from a bedroom window than it does from a WWI trench.

Owen chose the trench. Rather than merely fantasizing his life away from the safety of his own head, he put on his combat boots and took the muddy, blood-sodden road to France to experience life and make a real difference.

Owen wrote his greatest works in France — because he was not dealing in the wisps of cloud castles. He was in the hardcore, real world. An ugly world, granted. But a concrete world. Tangible. Because he touched it.

Of late I’ve realized my perspective on life has dwindled. Because though I’ve grown up, my metaphorical nursery window hasn’t — and in many ways I’m still standing at it. I’m not doing what I’ve dreamed of doing — just dreaming about it, still. I’m not having real experiences, making those “what you want to be when you grow up” goals real. You know those goals. We all have them.

Why is it so hard, then, to step forward and make them happen? Because maybe we’ll find that our dreams and goals aren’t the wonderful things we thought they were; we can’t see what pitfalls might lie along those shadowy forest paths to our destinations. Because maybe, like Dickinson, we like the control of looking at life through a pane — like at a zoo — where we can observe really anything we want (through windows, computer screens, TV screens, windshields) from the safety of our own comfort zone. We can’t touch it; but at the same time, it can’t touch us, hurt us.

As human beings, though, we need to experience, touch, know for ourselves, produce things others can touch. And now I’m having a quarter-life crisis because I don’t have much to show for my goals. I can’t touch any results for my dreams or life plans.

Is it really worth the comfort zone? Sure if we take a path we may find that it’s not all yellow bricks and green meadows; we may even mess up, scrape our knees, decide this path wasn’t the right one in the first place. But if we don’t move at all, how will we ever know? And more importantly, what will we have to show for ourselves in the end? Aside from empty dreams, lost opportunities and some breath on the window pane?

So I’m re-resolved to be like Owen. There was no green on the other side of his bridge — unless you count the “green sea” of poison gas. But he stepped.

That’s life. It doesn’t happen at the crossroads. It happens on the path — the untrodden one or otherwise. Maybe the road will be hard, hot concrete rather than soft, cool grass. But it’s concrete — our own individual, human experience—and that makes all the difference.

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