August 5, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
I often think of education in terms of a path. For some, the path is direct. Most often, however, it is not, but rather wanders a circuitous route through various disciplines and ideas. Many reasons exist for this wandering nature of education. Most importantly, however, we discover ourselves along the way.
Recently, I read Torbjørn Ekelund’s book In Praise of Paths. He writes: “A path is always small, which is why it is called a path. If it expands and becomes larger, it is not longer a path, but has become something else.” This reminds me of the way that I have wound through educational programs, both big and small. First, we take the road of some large department (in my case, literature), but then necessarily branch off of the road at certain points (in my case, poetry and translation). We may join it again to find another tangent that grabs our attention. The point is that we make our own path. In addition, we add our own expertise to the flow. For example, I have a lot of experience in athletics, which often informs my experiences of art, literature, and education. These intersections make us powerful, interesting, and unique.
In reading more about the nature of paths, however, I finally understood that the path not only makes us unique, but links us to both past and future. We walk the path, and in doing so, maintain some sort of heritage because likely a path only exists where someone has walked before. Yet, in choosing a particular path, we maintain it for the future. Not only do we connect with existing traditions, we pass on the ones that may be of most value to us. Ekelund writes: “We think of a path as the way to something else, toward the future and whatever lies ahead. But a path also points backward, to the time and the place we came from. When we walk on it, we are taking part in a universal and timeless act. We walk through the landscape that has formed us and the people who have formed us and those who came before us, through work and leisure time, curiosity, and escape.” Expanding upon this idea, Ekelund compares the nature of fairy tales with that of paths, both of which evolve by movement. He writes:
“Fairy tales came into existence through movement, and they were collected through movement. Initially, the stories were passed from mouth to mouth; later Asbørnsen and Moe gathered them as they passed from village to village. Until the moment when the stories were written down, they had developed and changed, the way it always is with stories that are passed along orally. Stories are embellished by the storyteller, who leaves something out or adds something in. A path is no different. Those who walk on a path follow its main impression, but every now and then they deviate from it, not by very much perhaps, but a little; for example, when the path is flooded after a heavy downpour or when a tree has fallen across it. Paths and folktales both evolve over time. They are never static; they are always shifting, influenced by the people who walk or retell them. As far as fairy tales are concerned, this constant evolution gives them greater value as folklore, though less credibility as truth and reality. Fairy tales are said to have come ‘through the grapevine,’ an expression that is now almost synonymous with ‘gossip’ and thus makes them less credible and also less reputable. This modern understanding implies they promote ideas that can be construed as untrue, or even malicious.
“The path is reminiscent of folktales both in its essence and in its creation. No single person is responsible for a path; instead, it is the sum of the actions of numerous people over a period of time that dates back to the distant past. As such, paths are like stories. Both constitute a movement from a beginning to an end, and they both have a middle. In storytelling, this midpoint is the moment in the story when the plot gains momentum. On the path, it is called the halfway point. Many of us think of it as the point of no return, because from this point on there’s no sense in turning around; we might as well continue to the end of the path.”
I appreciate the insights that this offers for fairy tales, but also for narrative in general. So many of the narratives that we read are not new, but refashioned in a way that might make sense to the present or future public. He also noted that, “The path is order in chaos. Its significance is revealed only after you have walked through a forest without a path.” Walking through a dense forest, one meanders aimlessly, often trapped by dense vegetation and impassable roots, bogs, spiderwebs, or other features. Whereas a path is a simple trail, offering a brief respite from absolute chaos. In other words, though we forge our own paths in some sense, we also pay attention to our current climate. It is nearly impossible to avoid current rhetoric and debate. Even if we avoid topics that we do not wish to discuss, the avoidance speaks volumes.
Finally, In Praise of Paths offers other gems of advice and observation, but I will leave you with only this final note. For some reason, humans walk upright, unlike much of the animal kingdom. Yet, like much of the animal world, Ekelund believes that we were born to move. Since walking generates many of the ideas that I write about (both here and in other places), I offer his note on the benefits of walking in hopes that you, too, will enjoy a walkabout on these long summer days.
“If you walk five miles a day at a normal pace, it will take you nearly two hours. If you do this every day, you will walk a total of thirty miles each week and spend fourteen hours moving, which is fourteen times as much as that single hour at the fitness studio. It’s as simple as that. If you make a habit of telling yourself that you’re a person who walks – to your job, to school, to the store – you’ll end up getting all the exercise your body needs without even thinking about it. You will merely be doing what you were born to do.”
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