Finding the Paths

There is a story I remember, although I don’t remember where I read it. It’s about the president of a small New England college, in New Hampshire or Maine or Vermont, one of those northern states. He wanted to renovate the central lawn of his campus. Between two academic semesters, a beautiful green lawn was laid down — a rectangle right in the middle of campus, between all the old college buildings. When the grass had grown into a rectangular green carpet, the head groundskeeper said to him, “But there are no paths.” The college president said, “Just wait. In a few weeks, there will be.” When the college students returned, they started walking across the grass, and where they walked the most, they wore it down into dirt. The college president said to the head groundskeeper, “There are your paths. Put the bricks down there.”

I remember this story partly because I’ve lived and worked on college campuses, and you always see the auxiliary paths. There are the official paths, the ones in brick or concrete or asphalt, where students are supposed to walk. And then there are the auxiliary paths where they often actually walk, when the official paths are inconvenient — when they are not the quickest way between two buildings, for example. A long time ago, I used to ride horses, and you would see these sorts of paths across the field as well, made by the horses when they walk in single file. They would create their own preferred paths, then use them over and over again. Human beings are, in some ways, not that different from horses. They decide where they want to go, and the paths remain as evidence of their decision-making process. The official paths are an ideal, a vision of the planner or architect for how the field should look, where the people should walk. The auxiliary paths are the reality of how people move and interact.

I was thinking about this recently because I’m trying to redecorate my apartment. It was very pretty before, filled with furniture I had picked up here and there, some of it from antiques stores, some of it from thrift shops, none of it very expensive but all meaningful because they came from the days when I was a graduate student and had very little money. But I realized that there were spaces in the apartment I was simply not using, furniture that was serving merely a decorative purpose. And an armchair should be more than just decorative . . . Also, my life had changed — my daughter had become a college student, and my apartment had to work for her as well as for me. It needed, for example, not a pretty antique armchair, suitable for a tea party, but a big comfortable one to flop down in, to curl up in and read a book.

So I became that college president watching students walk across the grass, although I was the president as well as the students. My apartment was the grass. I observed the way I used it: Where did I spend time? What did parts of it did I use, and how? What did I really need to make my life in it productive and comfortable? Because that apartment also had to work for me — it was my office as well as my living space. It was where I worked and wrote and often researched, because all my books are in it, ranged around the walls in shelves. There is a sense in which I live in a library that is also an art gallery, which just happens to have some furniture in it.

I ended up changing quite a lot, turning the apartment around so the former office became a bedroom and vice versa. And I’m not done yet–I still need a big, comfortable sofa to flop down in, to curl up on and watch episodes of Hercules Poirot on BritBox. But it’s an interesting exercise, to observe yourself and try to figure out who you are, as opposed to some ideal, some vision of yourself that you created in your head. Because at least some of the old furniture came from who I thought I was supposed to be, or thought I might become. But I never actually turned into the person who would have tea parties with guests sitting upright and elegant. When I have guests, they want to flop down on comfortable sofas as well, drinking from big mugs of herbal tea.

There’s still work to do on the apartment, but I wanted to write about this idea, that you have to find your paths, figure out what you actually do, who you actually are, even for something as seemingly simple as buying an armchair.

(This is a path in the Halls Pond Sanctuary, where I took my students on a field trip after we had studied the essays of Emerson and Thoreau. I wanted to them to experience a bit of nature themselves, to pause and breathe in the middle of a very busy semester.)

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3 Responses to Finding the Paths

  1. Beautiful way to think of home, letting the paths form in useful ways. ❤

  2. Nancy D says:

    Profound wisdom!

  3. Kat says:

    I have some observing to do………….

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