The Paths We Follow

We’ve all heard the Robert Frost poem that talks about two roads diverging in the woods. A couple of weeks ago, I heard a different poem about paths that captured my attention and has continued to bounce around in my head since then. I think it fits well with the theme of a Depth Year, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Let’s see if you come to the same conclusion.

(I have slightly changed the formatting for ease of scrolling but you are welcome to find the poem in its original form here.)

The Calf-Path by Sam Foss

I. One day through the primeval wood, a calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew, a crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled, and I infer the calf is dead.                                       

II. But still he left behind his trail, and thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day, by a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too, as good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade, through those old woods a path was made.                 

III. And many men wound in and out, and dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath, because t’was such a crooked path;
But still they followed–do not laugh–the first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked because he wobbled when he walked.

IV. This forest path became a lane, that bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road, where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun, and traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half, they trod the footsteps of that calf.

V. The years passed on in swiftness fleet, the road became a village street;
And this, before men were aware, a city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half, trod in the footsteps of that calf.

VI. Each day a hundred thousand rout followed the zigzag calf about
And o’er his crooked journey went the traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led, by one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way, and lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent, to well-established precedent.                           

VII. A moral lesson this might teach were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind along the calf-paths of the mind.
And work away from sun to sun, to do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track, and out and in, and forth and back.
And still their devious course pursue, to keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove, along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh, who saw the first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach–but I am not ordained to preach.


Nor am I “ordained to preach”…but I’ll take a gander at interpretation related to my pursuit of a Depth Year. As those of us following this challenge are limiting extraneous input, seeking mainly to strengthen the relationships with what we already have and are, it might do well to spend a bit of thought on the origin of the paths we trod. Shall we make sure they are not just followed out of tradition, but truly merit our frequent travel? Are there a few to discard? Shall we carve some new paths instead?

A lot of bloggers choose not to comment on the current political climate, because it’s such a maelstrom: a situation or state of confused movement or violent turmoil. While I won’t voice my thoughts in detail, I will say that the past five years have been a period of tremendous questioning of an affiliation I once held onto strongly. As I unraveled the origin of that allegiance in my family’s history, and evaluated from a new perspective the reprehensible state of current affairs, I’ve cast it off as far as possible and become a different thinker and voter. Incidentally, most of my family has as well. It no longer represents who we are, so goodbye to a crooked highway headed in the opposite direction of where we’d like to go. Closest exit to a back road, please!

Another controversial topic is religion, but it’s probably an example most can identify with. Recently, a childhood friend severed his association with and belief in our shared faith. While I’ll admit this has been painful for me to watch, and infinitely more painful for him as he extricates something that was always a fundamental part of his personality, it’s caused me to deeply explore why I choose to remain committed. This month has been full of heartfelt questions, prayers, seeking. There are cultural behaviors quite ingrained that I realize, like him, I no longer want to support, but the canon of faith is one that still resonates with and guides me, and brings me peace. I have had spiritual experiences I can’t deny, so it is something I choose to continue to follow. However, if I am true to the spirit of independence of thought, I should allow my friend to follow the course which resonates with his soul, without bullying or a withdrawal of closeness just because it’s a different route than I’ve chosen. It’s hard when others reject a path that is so important to you, but we are each accountable for our own journey in life.

The author of the poem above makes a strong case, I believe, against daily grind work that brings you little or no joy. Amen! While supporting yourself/family isn’t typically an optional pursuit, and yes, brings growth and development, are you spending your life on work you love? Work that makes a difference? Work that improves the lives of others? I had a career shift two years ago and put a tremendous amount of research into figuring out the right direction for me that answered those deep questions. Now that my business is off the ground, I find the longtime yearning in my soul to write has only intensified, and because of my Depth Year, am able to carve out time to pursue it.

The last topic I want to address in this vein is relationships. We often find ourselves in a familiar rut of behavior, falling into the creases heavily marked in dried clay whether they’re the best route or not. One of my goals this year is to worry less about finding new relationships and spend more time strengthening the ones that already exist in my life. I want to ask deeper questions. Last week, I noticed that a friend who always calls to check up on me is often sent to voicemail because of the frequency and predictability of her inquiries. Can you relate?I asked myself as I listened to yet another message from her if that was the way to treat a kind, concerned friend. Not really. My excuse of busyness felt trite and tired. So I called her back, and asked some questions I’ve never asked before about her life. Her answers included a few horrific stories I would have never guessed happened in her childhood, and how she overcame them. I was humbled, edified from the wisdom she shared. And our hearts were drawn closer together than they have ever been.

Another friend I haven’t seen in months treated me to dinner this weekend. A couple of years ago, I craved his company and was perplexed when there seemed a shift that created a distance between us. Instead of just going through the motions that have become familiar since then: Hi, how are you, How are your kids, How’s work…I took a deep breath and asked what happened. I explained my perspective, and why I pulled away. He respectfully listened and then opened up in a way I’ve never seen before, answering all my questions and turning my perception on its head with a completely different and valid point of view. I had to hold my face in my hands to steady myself as the seismic shift thrust me from the vista I’d stood atop for years to another with a view of a vastly different landscape below. And now I have a choice of what to do with that information.

All because I questioned the path we were on and got back to the business of creating an authentic one.

What are familiar pathways in your own life that you can see are leading you nowhere? I’m not talking about jumping ship from the hard or banal parts of voyages that will take time and discipline to complete, but rather the calf-paths of the mind that are followed without questioning their origin or usefulness. What is taking more energy than is actually required to get from Point A to Point B? Are you on a road just because your predecessors always traveled it? Do you even like the view? I’d encourage you to stop, evaluate, ask deep questions, and take that exit, if needed, to a fresh new field or grove, one without well-established precedent. Let the tall grass bend under your feet in a brave new trail.




8 thoughts on “The Paths We Follow

  1. Mary! This post is so thoughtful and well written! I love your writing style and I’d like to share this one on Facebook- I assume that’s ok, right? Having grown up in the Bible Belt Midwest, I’ve often struggled with how to gently challenge the status quo for many of my oldest friends and I think you’ve managed to do that in a most respectful and intelligent way while still appealing to the heart of things (not just the intellect).

    Love! Lena

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Mary,

    Thank you for an extremely well thought out and well presented idea.

    I will you well as you follow wherever your paths, old and new, lead.



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