On Roads

A friend recently told me this story. He was driving through rural Vermont a couple of years ago when he came to a crossroads. There were two signposts, each pointing in a different direction but both bearing the name of his destination. So he pulled the car over, got out and approached a local man who was leaning against a fence. “Does it matter which way I go here?” he asked. “Not to me it don’t,” the man replied.

Crossroads isn’t the right metaphor for the point I’ve reached since losing my job. There are too few potential turning points at a crossroads. This feels more like a node on the Internet, with hundreds or thousands of avenues branching off it. Too many, in fact, to make a choice feasible. It’s like the plasma ball my son got for Christmas. The generator shoots arcs of static electricity, dozens of them, against the sides of the crystal. But when you touch the glass they all coalesce and stream toward your finger in a single, bright blue mass. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, I’ll have to start channeling all those bristling possibilities into a handful (at most) of real opportunities. But not just yet. It’s exciting, and frightening, to see all those options flashing.Even so, I’ve already begun to narrow things down. A few days ago, I passed up the opportunity to edit another magazine. It would have been a great job, making a magazine on a very timely and interesting topic. But it would have meant moving to another continent, something I’m just not prepared to do at this point. After declining the job, I suddenly felt a surge of anxiety. What had I done? Why did I pass on the chance to edit a magazine again and regain financial security? It would have been the safe, maybe even the smart, thing to do. And that’s part of the reason I didn’t do it. If I’m ever going to explore any of the roads that have opened up since I was made redundant, I’ll have to resist the temptation to go down the first road that looks familiar. You can’t expect a change of scenery if you never veer from the beaten track. But it’s hard (is it stupid, too?) to willingly remain in uncertainty, whether it has to do with your job or anything else in life. It’s difficult to stay on a path when you can only see a few steps in front of you. And there is always the risk that the road you finally end up choosing will lead nowhere, and you’ll always regret not taking the more traveled way.It put me in mind of an aphorism by Antonio Porchia:

They will say you are on the wrong road, if it is your own.

No one has criticized the road I’ve been on since losing my job. In fact, I’ve received far more congratulations than commiserations since it happened, especially from people like me who are in their forties. I was surprised to hear how many people secretly wish it would happen to them. But there is a very strong voice inside my head berating me for not going back to what I know. I remember walking through the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1989, just a few days before I left the North American continent for the European one. I laughed when I saw a sign that read: KEEP ON THE PATH. I had just finished selling the few things I owned to finance my trip to Europe. I was heading into the great unknown. If there was a path, I sure as hell didn’t see it. But I instinctively felt I was going in the right direction. Just like now. To a large extent, you make your own road by travelling on it. And you only really know where you’re going when you get there.