Sunday, April 11, 2004

Idle thoughts of an idle fellow... 

Two days holiday at Easter provides an excellent excuse for sitting down and doing not very much. After weeks of tension and anxiety, it’s time to sit in a comfy chair, gaze out of the window, and let the mind wander where it will, loose from the shackles of daily living, free from the pressure of other people’s schedules.

It was a damp, grey day yesterday, but just the right combination of inky black clouds, clear air and fresh wetness to bring all the green colours of the garden to vibrant life; forest green, grass green, yellow-green, all alive and luminous. I was feeling out of sorts; one of those days when every thought that enters my mind seems to be tied back to a problem, so that every pathway in my mind leads somewhere I don’t want to be.

But looking at the wet grass outside brought a parallel image to mind; wet and very green grass on a hillside in the English Lake District, encountered a couple of years ago on a scramble up Pinnacle Ridge on St. Sunday Crag. The weather was much the same – heavy grey rain-laden skies, and the grass just as green and bright, and soft and springy underfoot as this was a seldom trodden way up the hillside.

I could recall close-up detailed images of that day with astonishing clarity, and as I sat there remembering, the mountains once more worked their magic on me, and the out-of-sorts feeling was replaced with one of wholeness. Mountains feel like home; I always feel more complete, more at ease when tackling their slopes. It feels so right.

Yet in spite of loving mountains so much, I spend very little time there; no more than a handful of days –maybe five or six - each year. Life’s paths have led elsewhere. Sitting there musing and thinking back, I fell to wondering what if I had chosen different paths? Nearly 30 years ago I was at a point where the paths forked, facing a choice of studying physics or geology. Geology was much more interesting to me, but physics seemed a safer bet in the job market. So I went for safety, and veered off past the fork in the road, leaving geology behind.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d taken the other fork. Now I know being a geologist doesn’t necessarily mean spending a life up mountains, or even outdoors. But at least you’re dealing with the outdoors, and fieldwork is an essential element. If I’d taken that fork it’s just possible I might have found a job I actually enjoy doing.

Having regrets isn’t fashionable; responsible people are supposed always to make the best of everything, supposed to believe that the path they’re on is the only path they could be on. Most of the time I believe that too; many things about where I am are very, very good and I wouldn’t want to change any of them. But then I look at all that time and energy wasted in jobs where I didn’t fit, muddling along from day to day with little purpose except to survive until the next day. Suppose I’d taken that other fork in the road…

20-20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when achieved with the aid of rose-tinted spectacles. Looking back it’s easy to see these key decision points, easy to pick out where the paths diverge. But at the time the view was very different. All paths then were indistinct, all futures equally uncertain.

As indeed they are now.

It’s one thing to look back and see apparently obvious choices fluffed; it’s quite another to sit here in the present and try and figure out where the paths lead now and whether there are any forks in the road coming up.

To begin with, life’s choices are like roads radiating out in all directions across a flat plain; it’s possible to choose any of them, and whilst they remain close together, close to the centre where they start, it’s possible to cut across country and change from one to another. But as we get older, the sides start to close in and we find ourselves in a steep-sided ravine. The other roads are further away now and crossing over to them involves effort, hardship and danger. Crossing to another road may be possible, but there’s a high price to pay.

But then again, is this road so great?

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