Our church has a theme verse every year. Some years, I hardly know what it is. Others, I feel like it was chosen just for me. And some years, I don’t think much of it, but it comes back to visit later.
A few years ago, nevermind how long exactly, the verse was Jeremiah 6:16:
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.
At the time, I thought, oh, that’s nice. Okay.
But this summer, the Word that is coming to me, every day, in different ways, is this: Stand at the crossroads, and look.
I feel, very suddenly, like things are about to open up for me. I don’t have any concrete reason to think that. But it’s just a sense of expansiveness. All over. Like this is a crossroads, and I don’t know it. Like I don’t need to do anything, but just stand at the crossroads, and look.
I’ve also found myself contemplating the crossroads of my past far more than I ever have. I’m not, by nature, a nostalgic person. I’m much more often daydreaming about things that I hope will happen than about things that happened before. Ironic, since I’m a historian–but while I believe that studying the past can help us unravel our present (and is just interesting in its own right), I’m not somebody who dwells much on my own past. You can never step in the same river twice, so why try?
This summer, though, bits of the past have come surging to the surface and caught me by surprise. Other crossroads, waking me up in the dark of night to say, “Remember this? Remember me? Remember the path you chose, or that chose you? Remember the other path?”
Directing Antony and Cleopatra brought up a lot of memories I rarely think about. When JC and I were in college, he was very sick. I didn’t believe that he would live to be 30. When we finally unraveled what was wrong with him, we discovered that that guess wasn’t far off. It seems so far away now. Once he finally got a diagnosis and treatment, he moved from “kind of surprising he’s lasted this long” to “as likely to die a grumpy old man as the next person.” That’s been eleven years ago, this summer. It’s easy to go many months without looking at my life now, at my children, at our little hobbit house, and not remember how close I came to having an entirely different life.
My junior year of college, though, I didn’t have any idea how all of it would shake out. I went through what I now know was preemptive grieving, trying to prepare my heart for losing JC. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time–I wouldn’t have thought to name it. But I read lots of memoirs by women who had lost partners. I listened to Beth Nielsen Chapman’s Sand and Water on repeat. I checked Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge out from the library so many times that the student worker at the circulation desk asked why I didn’t just buy myself a copy (“Oh, I don’t really need to own this book,” I said glibly. “I’m just going to read it this one more time.” I was wrong.).
And my spring project was directing Antony and Cleopatra as our department’s mainstage show. A story of a woman who loses the man she loves, and who dies because she won’t give up on her love for him.
(Side note: Silas asked me this summer, “Mama, I know you really like Antony and Cleopatra and it’s one of your favorite plays. And you also really like Romeo and Juliet. Do you just like plays about people whose love makes them be dead?” I told Scott about this, in a “kids say the darndest things” kind of way, and he said, “Well, you do really love Duchess…”)
In my notes from when I was working on that production, it’s very clear that I saw Octavius as my proxy in the play. A young person who is just super sick of everyone telling him he’s too young to do a thing that he is obviously good at.
But working on that script this summer, the words that wrenched me back to my much younger self were not the ones about Octavius’ grating against others’ constant reminders of his youth, but what Cleopatra says over Antony’s body: “shall I abide / In this dull world, which in thy absence is / No better than a sty?” And when I stand and look back at that crossroads, I see that I threw myself so intensely into my work so that I would not spend conscious thought on the idea of what the world might look like without my favorite person in it. I had no idea, back then, that I was doing that, but I see it now.
I was also unprepared for how all of those memories would come back to me as we were working, with both incredibly clarity and detail. It felt like a weight slamming into my chest, and also like time shimmering in the heat. I was trying to work, and sometimes these moments knocked my breath out.
A few days ago, I went to New England to see a couple of shows. My first stop was in New Haven. My friends there were working all afternoon, so I spent a couple of hours walking around the city, overhearing coffee shop conversations by newly minted Yalies and returning students catching up with professors. It was like spying through a keyhole at my alternate life.
Here’s something I had completely forgotten about until I was walking past those stone walls again: I auditioned for Yale’s MFA directing program, back in ancient history. A thousand surprises: I didn’t get in. I didn’t know, at the time, that even being invited to audition is a pretty big deal. I didn’t know that many people go through the process several times before they get in. I was just crushed. Being in New Haven for the first time in a decade and a half was overwhelming. I haven’t thought about that possible alternate path in a very long time. But seeing this sliding doors reality, all I could think of was the people I wouldn’t have met and the learning I would have missed out on. I would have learned other things and met other people, I’m sure. At the time, I felt like it was the end of the world, but now–now I’m grateful for where I am, for the work I do, for the people I’ve met along this path. I wouldn’t trade it. But that feeling of reality rippling caught me offguard. When I heard my friend shout to me across the park, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I have now, and to her voice for grounding me and bringing me back to myself. If I had gotten what I wanted when I was 21, this friend would be a stranger.
And here I am, hearing this invitation to stand at the crossroads and look. And I wonder, when I’m fifty, will I look back at this moment of my life and see possibility furling out in a spiderweb of paths?
I’m asking where the good way is, I guess. But not with fear or frustration or sadness. Only with gratitude for all the Ways.