I started keeping a quote book when I was in college. It wasn’t really intentional, but one day I walked into a classroom and saw a quote on the chalkboard that made me gasp: “Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.” It is from an essay by Thomas Huxley, a 19th century English biologist and anthropologist. I doubt he had any idea that 80 years later his words would change forever a girl in the American South.
In all the years since I have been forever on the lookout for phrases, sentences and short paragraphs that articulate life’s great truths. I have been known to entertain, irritate, and/or bore my friends, family and casual conversationalists with serial repetitions of lines from poems, holy books, novels and — on occasion — obscure movies. Last Saturday I found a new one.
I was listening to a podcast, whose name I can’t remember, when the interviewee quoted G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, philosopher, Christian apologist, and literary and art critic. “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there,” he wrote. “The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place[.]”
I don’t think Chesterton meant home in the literal sense — home as in address or birthplace — but as the state of being content, satisfied, fulfilled. The thing about quotes is that they usually take the shape of the experience of the person quoting them and these words struck me as accurate, potent, and particularly memorable.
Late afternoon of the same day, I went walking down our road. (I’ve always thought of it that way — in the possessive sense. For decades no one who didn’t have my last name lived on this four-mile stretch of sand and Georgia clay. My mother’s drapes had hand prints where the panels met in the center, where one of us pulled them aside every time we heard a truck, curious as to who was so audacious as to travel down a road to which they had no right.) Above me, clouds skittered back and forth, forcing me to walk through alternate patches of sunshine and shade as the road narrowed into nothingness in the distance.
I found myself remembering that when we first came here, when it was just becoming our road, it ended at the Canoochee River. The road itself stopped at the very edge of the cold brown river. A dead end.
I stopped. Or, more accurately, I was stopped. Stood there in the shallow ruts created as a result of the previous day’s rain as the truth became clear. G.K. Chesterton, scholar though he was, was wrong. There is a third way home.
I have always been a good navigator. I am rarely lost. I am deft with maps and adept at following directions that include instructions like, “Turn at the instant mart between the CVS and the First Baptist Church and just keep going until you see a bunch of cars on the right.”
That does not mean, however, that I have never reached a dead end. I have. On roads, with ideas, in relationships. Two facts have remained consistent in my unsuccessful attempts to get somewhere, figure something out, save something that is already lost. First, not every dead end is preceded by a bright yellow diamond-shaped sign warning you of its approach. And, second, unless you can fool yourself into believing that the DOT is on its way with graders and dump trucks and a whole lot of asphalt, you have to turn around.
Turn around and go back the way you came. Turn around and acknowledge that that road was never going to take you anywhere you really wanted to be. Turn around and notice that the longer you walk or drive (or run, swim, bike or fly) the closer you get to the place from which you started, a place that looks an awful lot like home.