A road less travelled

In May of this year I was invited to be on a four-person panel discussing our autobiographical accounts on the topic: “The Roads Less Travelled”; part of a week-long 50th Reunion celebration of the Harvard/Radcliffe class of 1968. It was held in a rather large lecture hall at Harvard’s Science Center with an audience of around 170 people. The best part — from a visual perspective — was the large 10-foot x 14-foot screen where our images were shown.

In a nutshell, I spoke on the journey my life took after graduation: Peace Corps@Korea, Apprenticeship in carpentry and cabinet making @Alaska, Furniture design and fabrication @Penland School/North Carolina, Teaching design @UTas/Tasmania and, for the past 25 years, my life @Windgrove: a Refuge for Learning

The common thread behind all of my life’s choices — besides being “unconventional”— was to be of greater service to the common good of humanity and the wider world. In Alaska, I usually worked in the bush building homes, hospitals, schools for the native peoples of the region.

During the last week of 1990, I canoed with friends down the Arthur River in northwest Tasmania. While walking by myself after an evening meal and pondering what New Year’s resolution to make, I spontaneously knelt down and audibly said to the trees and river: “I am ready to be of greater service”. At the time I was living in the house I had designed and was a tenured lecturer at the University of Tasmania.

But a month and a half later a bushfire took out my home. Total destruction.

Inwardly knowing that I was ready for a different life — another road less travelled moment — I quit my lectureship, bought 100 acres of barren, degraded land next to Roaring Beach, and began the 25 year long journey to find out what I meant when I said “I wanted to be of greater service”.

The most obvious sign of what I’ve done is to plant trees.

After Harvard, I gave a slightly longer presentation on a hilltop in North Carolina to a small group of Penland friends. Surrounded by tiki lamps and a mellowing sunset, while the image below of me smiling was up on the desktop screen, I asked the rhetorical question: Why was I happy?

The answer I gave was this passage from the Marge Piercy poem:

If they come in the night

Long ago on a night of danger and vigil
a friend said, Why are you happy?
He explained (we lay together on a hard cold floor) what prison
meant because he had done
time, and I talked of the death
of friends. Why are you happy then,
he asked, close
to angry.

I said, I like my life. If I
have to give it back, if they
take it from me, let me only
not feel I wasted any, let me
not feel I forgot to love anyone
I meant to love, that I forgot
to give what I held in my hands,
that I forgot to do some little
piece of the work that wanted
to come through.

In late 1975, after I decided to quit a well-paying job as a foreman on the Alaska pipeline (and a relationship) to study art in Wisconsin, Paul Simon recorded “Still Crazy After All These Years”.

We’re now in the year 2018 and I’m-Still-Planting-After-All-These Years. Another banksia put into the ground three days ago means another flowering delight for someone in ten years time.

The poet Rilke speaks to me when he writes:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

None of the past 50 years has been all sugar and honey. As much as I felt honoured to have been invited to speak at Harvard with the resultant heartfelt applause from the audience after my slide presentation, over the years the multiple personal decisions to walk a path “not the norm” has been full of personal potholes and is still full of potholes.

But one thing is certain, and well worth the price:

Perhaps those who find the thought of dangling over the precipice a bit too harrowing, well maybe they aren’t the ones to ever be asked to be on a panel “The Road Less Travelled”.

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