My husband is building a wall in our back yard. When his mother called yesterday to thank us for her Mother’s Day flowers, I heard him laughingly tell her, “yeah, we’re ten years into our five-year plan.”
I frequently hear my colleagues in Academic Advising quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in considering the importance of their work with their advisees…
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
…their point being that it is crucial that students develop a plan of study for the short-term (their time in college) that will facilitate their plan of action and goals for the long term (enjoyment of their life’s work). And it is a critical concept; if the student has no idea where she is headed, then clearly that must be figured out before the advisor can assist her in getting there.
But Alice had more to say…
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
As my husband said to his Mom, in two weeks we will reach the 10-year mark since moving into our home. When we purchased it, he was convinced that he would have his dream environment fully created within five years. But his dream was – as dreamscapes often are – rather fuzzy. He had a “vision” for what this little place could become – a vision that I found quite enticing – and we began working towards it with great gusto as soon as it was ours. But the “vision” was more concept than picture. It was not clear, and we did not have any sort of master plan laid out for what we hoped to accomplish; we just knew that the jungle that was our back yard should be cultivated and coaxed into a pleasant, peaceful retreat. We knew we had begun a journey, and we just began walking it.
One step led to the next… new ideas arose… the vision shifted… “stuff” happened… one path closed, another opened…
And ten years later, we are still journeying toward… well, we still don’t know exactly what, but we do know we are enjoying the adventure and we haven’t yet reached journey’s end.
When one is working towards a college degree, not having a destination in mind is, no doubt, a precarious position. While we will hopefully all be lifelong learners, for the majority of us who are not independently wealthy, being perpetual students is not a viable alternative; we need to complete a degree. We have to get jobs that will put roofs over our heads, food on our tables, and shoes on our children’s feet. And our advisors do well in counseling us that it will probably be better for us if we plan in such a way that our jobs are not just jobs, but careers that we are passionate about and that supply adequate incomes to pursue other dreams and passions… and thus the fittingness of their using the segment of conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat to illustrate their point.
But there is also a point to be considered from the remainder of their conversation. As long as we are walking (so long as we are not walking in circles), we ARE getting somewhere, even if we are wandering with no specific destination in mind. As Tolkien noted in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Gary and I may still not know exactly what our landscape will end up being, but we certainly agree, when we look back at the pictures of where we began, that despite our meandering, we have made a great deal of positive progress. We are certainly getting SOMEWHERE.
Greg Anderson, founder of the American Wellness Project, is said to have encouraged us to “focus on the journey, not on the destination,” for “joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” This may not be true of all things, but it does ring true for our backyard, and I am pondering that it is likely true for my career as well.
I completed my degrees in a very different economy than that which we find ourselves today, so maybe I was fortunate and perhaps my experience could not be replicated today… I don’t know. What I do know is that our backyard makes a pretty good analogy for my life’s work. I had no clear goals in mind when, after 17 years as a homemaker, I returned to higher ed as an adult learner in my mid-30s. I just knew that I wanted to learn and grow, and that I wanted to do something with the next chapter of my life that would help people and allow me to, when the time came for my book to close, leave the world just a tiny bit better than I found it. Along the way, I learned that Erik Erikson had developed a theory to describe what I felt; I want my journey to end in “integrity” rather than “despair.”
So, as with our backyard, I had a conceptual vision for where I wanted to end up, but no clear picture of what that would look like. I’ve made most of my career decisions with my “heart” (or, some might say, my “gut”) rather than my head (and sometimes, much to the dismay of those who counseled and cared for me). My paternal grandparents were acquainted with the poet Robert Frost; my grandmother often read his works to me when I was a child, and his imagery came to mind when a decision lay before me. As “two roads diverged in the yellow wood,” I often felt that tug of sorrow that “I could not travel both and be one traveler.”
After ten years of hard labor, our backyard is nothing like ready to be on the local homes show circuit (and I don’t expect ever will be); it is still very much a work in progress. Likewise in my career, the title is less prestigious, the awards fewer, and the paycheck smaller than might have been had I had a more focused target in mind. Yet, as the end of my career begins to loom closer than its beginning, I find that I am very glad that I have chosen, from time to time, to “stop and smell the roses.” I still don’t have a specific goal in mind for where I want to end up, but I do feel that I’ve had wonderful – frequently unexpected – opportunities to help others, and that I’m moving positively towards leaving the world just a tiny bit better than I found it.
I’m getting SOMEWHERE, and like Ol’ Blue Eyes, “regrets, I’ve had a few… but then again, too few to mention.”
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin