I have been reflecting upon a wonderful metaphor/phenomenon that has been occurring in one of the groups I’ve been part of. In what I think of as a hallmark elder achievement the members of the group experience each other as nourishing. In fact, the group has described themselves as a nutrient-rich environment, where people end up feeding each other. The idea that we, in all our differences, could be food for each other is a real testimony to the learning and growth happening.
It occurred to me as I gave this poem one last reading that it spoke of another kind of food that has nourished me throughout my life. You may recall I was greatly touched by the metaphors of “a kind word” and “a bottle of water” that come at the end of the poem. This time I noticed a more difficult and more reliable food source, one I have a much more ambivalent relationship with. Switchbacks. Here again is the poem, but this time I urge you to reflect on the food unexpected and seemingly oppositional change offers.
On the Path to Diamond Head by Jeffrey Young
You climb the steep path of switchbacks,
In the hope of gaining a beautiful perspective.
The path is rough and broken,
With too many stairs for any one person.
Always wondering how much more is required.
There! Below you are others,
Traveling on the same path as you,
Tired and thirsty, slogging through their desire to stop.
If only they could climb straight up,
shortening the endless path of switch back.
They could be where you are now, see what you see, be closer to
But… isn’t their journey hard enough as it is?
Instead of wishing them your vista,
Why not offer a kind word and a bottle of water?
How many times over the course of my lifetime have I “slogged through my desires” only to find that I am thwarted by something unexpected. This is the kind of food I prefer to ignore, to complain about, and often refuse to eat. Life has fed me with another switchback. Even when I know it is coming, and that I have chosen this path, I fail to appreciate the switchback. Another more ‘beautiful perspective” might be ahead, but only if I will willingly negotiate a twist of fate that I don’t want. This is the kind of kindness, direction, and nourishing I have trouble with.
Switchbacks linger at my edges. They sometimes are indistinguishable from edge phenomena. There before me is the person or situation I don’t like, or the family feeling, or unpleasant truth I’ve been trying to ignore. They don’t look like nourishing food. I want something else. I don’t want to know myself, or anyone, that much. Still, here it is, the bitter medicine of some greater truth which propels me forward. Switchbacks make my life better, enriching me, keeping me on the path, guiding me towards completion. They make this life compelling, mysterious, and completely surprising.
Switchbacks add drama to this journey. And yet, I think I could live without them. I don’t like the whiplash and redirection they provide. I’m tired of the climb, tired of the tedium, tired of the predictable ritual of having to turn onto another sloping segment of the journey. Switchbacks may be helping me get there, may be helping me do the impossible, and are probably allowing me to know possibilities I could never have arrived at without them. But, I can’t say I am ever looking forward to them. This is a form of nourishment, which is so undelectable that I would happily forgo it.
Switchbacks. I can’t live with them, and can’t live without them. It’s a good thing I don’t seem to have any control of them. Despite me, they just knock over my apple cart. They seem to me like some kind of karmic bullies that make the playground an unsafe place. All my efforts to avoid them are smoke signals and signs that guide them in. They are the smelly and unkempt relatives, who keep showing up at my birthday party. I don’t know how they know all my dirty little secrets, but they do, and they aren’t satisfied till everybody else does too. Switchbacks, the food source that keeps on giving and sometimes over feeds me.
I know, I should be grateful. Probably, I am. I have my moments of abstract awareness of some kind of oneness. I even have, fewer admittedly, moments when I genuinely know how blessed I am. Switchbacks carry me to places I wouldn’t willingly go. They are the guarantors of my journey. They seem to reflect some greater knowledge of my potential. In short, they are a blessing and a curse. The journey wouldn’t mean anything, wouldn’t hold any suspense, wouldn’t even be compelling, without them. They are the rocks in the road that let me know I’m getting somewhere. And, all along, switchbacks are food, real food, providing me with substantial energy, maturity and growth. I’ll probably keep moaning about not being fed what I want, but I’ll never have a better, more reliable source of nutrition. The journey, my journey, relies on them. I can’t get over, around, or past them. Mystery makes me through them!