Friday, March 28, 2014

Where We Spend All Our Time

During the go-go 80's, I was for a time one of those junior businessmen who wore braces (suspenders, for the initiated) and matching bow ties. It was my small rebellion. It even got me noticed by a few of Seattle's business royalty, one of whom kindly pulled me aside one day to compliment me on my "look," which he thought was an homage to himself, and to warn me that the attempt to also match my socks was a step to far. "Some people will think you're . . . " he sought for the right word a moment, before saying, ". . . frivolous, and I've learned that you're not. The chamber of commerce will always be a black and navy blue sock type of place."

This was an era during which many of the up-and-coming business types were, shockingly, wearing t-shrits to the office, but I was in an eddy of conformity, a place where grown men discussed such stupidity as the advantages of "cordova" colored shoes over mere brown. Going in, I'd imagined myself rising to the top of a pyramid by virtue of my sharp mind and breath-taking creativity, obviously not understanding how hierarchies work.

One day, while wasting time chatting in a colleague's cubicle, I noticed a sign he'd pinned to his wall:

If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.

Something about it made me angry and sad at the same time. Maybe it was because the place I'd figured I was going was just down the hall, to sit in a bigger office. Maybe it was that I realized that one of the prerequisites for getting there was dark colored socks and all that implied. Maybe it was simply the idea that I needed to know where I was going. I remember that day because it was a big one for me. The following morning, I didn't shave which was the beginning of the beard I wear to this day.

You see, the goal of being a businessman, no matter how successful, had never been my dream. It had, however, seemed the responsible goal, the one I ought to chose because, after all, I could self-evidently no longer dream of being a superhero or a cowboy or, as I had as I got older, an archeologist or artist.

A few months ago, I wrote about my 3-year-old friend Yuri, who told me, "I don't like when my mom and dad tell me what to do . . . I like to think of it by myself, then do it," a stance in life that his father has since confirmed as bedrock in the boy. Yesterday, as I watched him meticulously sweep up some spilled flax seed, unprompted, I said to him, "You thought of sweeping up by yourself and you're doing it."

He nodded acknowledgement without missing a beat. His father has also informed me that Yuri regularly cleans up around the house, unprompted.

For weeks now, Jonah, another boy who is often down on his knees cleaning up after himself because that's what he's thought of for himself, has been using one of our child-sized push brooms on the wood chips outdoors. For several days running, he set up shop at the base of our lesser concrete slope where he spent large chunks of time, on his own, pushing chips to the top, only to have most of them slide back down. But lately, he's branched out and is now carving out long, winding paths in the wood chips. 

Several times I've said to him things like,  "You're making a road," or "I'm going to walk on your road." Like Yuri did while sweeping, he acknowledges me without letting it interrupt his flow.

At the time, I gave my colleague grief for his cubicle sign, saying something like, "I happen to know we're all going to the same place: I'm going to choose the scenic route." I long thought that I'd been quite a wit, but kids like Yuri and Jonah have let me understand my feelings differently as I stand where I am today a quarter of a century removed. It wasn't the idea of a goal-setting that bothered me, but rather that I was expected to follow someone else's road to get there.

It's the same feeling I get today when I hear someone talk of five-year-olds as needing to be somehow "career-" or even "college-ready." How is a well-travelled road different than a mere assembly line, a journey perhaps, but one of rote and conformity; where those who match their socks to their braces are rejected as frivolous.

No, I'm not that lazy, and I'm no longer that afraid. I won't just do what mom and dad tell me, but I will clean up after myself. I'll nod in acknowledgement at the roads others have prepared for me, but I'll be making my own road, thank you very much. It's not the goal, but the road that matters: it's where we spend all our time.

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