Years ago, a friend told me about something his old university did that was so sensible, it has always stuck with me. He said that when the campus was first established, the administration didn’t lay down sidewalks right away. They allowed people to walk wherever they chose, making their own paths from one building to the next. After several weeks, they marked where the grass was beaten and worn, and that’s where they laid their sidewalks.
We all have footprints from people who’ve come into our lives, people with whom we’ve crossed paths. The tumult of the last four years has pushed me to consider where my own sidewalks are laid; how I’ve allowed people to walk through my life, who has chosen to come into my life and who has chosen to stay out, what the resulting paths look like, and where I want to lay my sidewalks.
Making that decision has never been easy for me. I’ve always been content with whoever happens across my path. I gave up worrying about who didn’t want to be in my life some time ago, a result of being rejected as a teenager and ill-fitted to most social groups as an adult. This contributed to being a “loner.” Living in a university town for so many years, I adapted to the vicissitudes of friendships in a transient population. People entered and left my life every semester. In a university setting, connections are often made quickly and are intense, passionate affairs that brew in the heat of late nights studying and long hours at the library. Not just romantic connections, either; people with whom you’ve gone through the gauntlet of Dr. Lamb’s Shakespeare (Dark) share an intellectual camaraderie, a sense of having weathered together a kind of battle that no one else will ever understand. Before the Internet made it easy for people to keep in touch from long distances, I retained only a handful of people who had become meaningful to me in a short time.
Electronic communication has changed this equation significantly. In addition to being able to stay in touch with people I’ve met in person (I won’t use the phrase “in real life”, because I reject the notion that electronic connection is, necessarily, not reality. Think of all the people with physical disabilities who can *only* communicate electronically. Is their connection not reality?), I’ve encountered a great number of people who have improved my life in very tangible ways. I’ve learned and grown from the connections fostered by volunteering, support groups, sports and TV program discussions–all directly and exclusively through the Internet. Two of the people I consider my closest friends are among those I’ve never met in person. Two others I’ve met in person for inconsequential amounts of time, and yet now we share a deep understanding that surpasses what I share with some family members.
Some of the paths in my life have been created in unexpected, utterly unused areas; surprise gifts of visitors who have brought great beauty and understanding. Far beyond just treading a path, these people have come in and created virtual gardens in neglected corners of my life, helping me to clear out the overgrowth that hid the natural features I didn’t realize were there. My landscape is permanently changed by these visitors, enhanced, and made new. I don’t want to return to what it once was.
Looking at some of the paths that have been left, though, I think I made some of the sidewalks permanent prematurely. I see a wreckage of concrete, broken and cracked, in areas that are now fallen into disuse. Why should I maintain sidewalks where people no longer choose to walk? Worse yet is the act of retaining space for people whose presence causes decay, destruction. Do vandals earn a place among my paths? Or people who are only using my paths as a way to get somewhere else?
Being open to experiences and people has given me a great bounty of joy and enlightenment and growth I know I would never have had if I had closed myself off altogether. But the time has come for me to be more discerning about those for whom I make a permanent path. Some of the concrete needs to be removed, and the ground returned to its natural state, and given some time to breathe. A rest, some contemplation will allow me to properly consider the terms of my next permanent sidewalks.
What I want to avoid is becoming an empty stretch of concrete, laid waste by years of misuse. I have a responsibility to protect the sections that are of value, There will still be some areas where wandering free is encouraged, but I’m old enough now to what I want to have in my life permanently, and what I don’t. Now the task will be conveying that information.
Who knew being middle-aged would be so much work?