Updated: Jun 24
The Smithsonian's traveling Museum on Main Street came to the Valley I live in at the end of 2022. I was honored to be invited to share a story from the stage for the Rural Crossroads exhibit kickoff at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls MA. Here is my ramble on the theme of crossroads. (video at the bottom...)
The poet Robert Frost was known to wander in this Valley and wrote in his poem 'The Road Not Taken', about two roads that diverged in the woods and the motion of choosing his way. There are things we learn about ourselves when we come to that spot in the woods (or life) where we pause, choose, and pass through. Frost's poem invites us to consider the moment that is the crossroads. That fabled place where the past is left behind, the future opens, destiny calls, and our myths, both personal and cultural, are born. At intersections where I must choose a way I look for the glow of curiosity and follow.
This is what caused me to leave home too young, hitch hiking all over the country. Picture fifteen year old me, standing at a dusty crossroads north of Taos New Mexico. Alone, waiting for a ride and singing into the emptiness. A little change to jingle in my pocket, a plastic water jug for survival, my backpack to sit on. Four directions to choose from. Not a building or a person in sight. There were no cell phones in 1977. Each road led straight and narrow into the high desert heat mirage.
Forty five years later my journey to that particular crossroad in New Mexico is a blur, and I can't recall the ride I took north, but I remember, oh I remember, the person I became in the few hours I spent there. I shed my childhood like a skin and left it as an offering for the local spirits. For the first time, 2000 miles from home, I chose my direction knowing I was fully responsible for myself. This is the crossroad where I found out that my own true north is in my heart. This is also the day I learned the valuable lesson that it is wiser to travel with a map.
Since then I've come to recognize a good crossroad when I'm in the middle of one, even if I don't see it coming. Lately it feels as if all of humanity is in the midst of a collective crossroad, with climate change and the calamity of mass extinction reshaping our atmosphere, our landscapes, our options. The weathers of war. In the grand scheme of things, whether we're pondering our very existence on a cosmic scale or just deciding which route to take into town, we travel in an existential liminal zone. The collective crossroad. In that moment of choosing a way and passing through we come, and un-become, and then become again.
I sat once with a young man who I met on a hospital bench outside the neonatal intensive care unit. His baby, just hours old and 2 months early, was inside with his partner and her mother. He sat on the bench, stunned. I was a hospital chaplain intern, assigned to that unit and making rounds. I'd meet the young mother with her baby later inside, but first I asked this man if he would like some company. He was finding himself in a crossroad, dropped here by the arrival of a human he was now responsible for. He told me they were both barely twenty, pregnancy was a surprise and discovered late. Early birth, fast and bewildering, a crisis in so many ways. I said reassuring things he would not remember and then I asked, Tell me about your son.
What I witnessed next I'll never forget, a coming, un-becoming, and becoming again. He began to tell me the 'too soon-what now' tale of getting to an urban hospital more than an hour from his rural home. Their uncertainty. His partner's courage and the power of her body. About his baby's cry, a premature newborn's heaving chest. His skin and bones body, tiny limbs with miraculous feet and hands, and perfect ears and wrinkled red face. The oxygen and IV tubes, the polycarbonate basinet, and not being allowed yet to touch him.
And all the while, as I sat listening, I was watching the miracle of birth land in this man's body. Almost as if his shoulders broadened for the load right before my very eyes. His voice got deeper and you could hear the rumble song of a new dad resonating in his chest. Both of us with tears streaming down our faces. I took his hand and whispered welcome to fatherhood. The grandma came out then to trade places with him and I watched a man who had come and un-become, become again in the crossroads, choosing his way forward.
There's a place on a dirt road off the beaten track not far from where that father and I both live, a road I choose when I need to slow down. Cars seldom pass here. There is a brook and the water moves through a stone culvert under the road, passing from one wide-open marshy place into a different reedy marshy place. Migrating birds find sanctuary, there are turtles, otters, sometimes a moose. A crossroad of animal travel, people travel, and water travel. An open place in deep woods, with enough vista to east and west for both sunrise and sunset skies. An atmosphere of elemental co-mingling that calms me.
I leave little offerings here, usually facing in the direction the water comes from. A shell from the ocean, wildflowers or leaves, a strawberry or a stone from some other place. I stopped there a few weeks ago. I was feeling sad about a cousin who died from covid, and the war news, and storms in California, and rising tides all over. I took a golden jingle shell I'd collected on a summer beach and carried it to the middle of the road. I was looking in the direction the water arrives from, feeling overwhelmed by too much coming at me all at once. I turned then, looking to the way the water flows on. On this day, there were coyote tracks in the snow.
I found myself wondering what skin humanity will have to shed in order to move forward, in order to choose a road to a sustainable future. That question may be too big for an ordinary intersection. I left my shell on a stone with a whispered thread of curiosity. An offering to the elements from our place on the curve of the earth. A prayer for the future from a person who does not pray. I wish you all safe travels through these moments of metamorphosis in the crossroads of our time. Un-becoming and becoming once again.
SKIP AHEAD TO 4:20...