Steps forward, steps backward

I write this on the day I heard the sad news that Ursula K Le Guin has died and, once again, I think of journeys. She told us it’s ‘the journey that matters, in the end’ (The Left hand of Darkness 1969) and I’ve reflected on that many times over the years.

When I was fifteen, I kept a notebook (what would now be called a writer’s journal, I suppose) and filled it with words. My own writing, then, was mostly poetry full of the anguish and passion of youth, but I also copied onto its pages anything that moved me or resonated with my teenage brain. I was already devouring anything I could find in the school library written in the eighteenth century, and poems ruled my heart.

When I emigrated to Australia sixteen years ago, just a single packing box was lost during the journey and my notebook was in that box, but I still remember with great clarity the power of one particular line and the way it made me feel when I first read it. The long poem it came from was called ‘The Journey’, written by Charles Churchill (1731-1764) and I copied the seven words so they were alone on the page.

‘I on my journey all alone proceed.’

I wasn’t the only teenager ever to feel the grip of disillusion and isolation even in the company of friends but I do remember, as I wrote the words, the sudden conviction that whatever might lie ahead in my life, the steps in that journey were mine alone to make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of those same words and felt very connected to the girl who found a personal truth in a line of poetry. I don’t think of it now as a sad concept, because the years since then have been filled with friendship and love. It’s more the idea that, in the end (even if we happen to be surrounded by family and friends) the choices made, in the moment, belong to each of us. I’ve learned that there was always more in that line of poetry than I realised when I was fifteen. The journey is so many things.

When I write, each day can be a long journey, and so can just one page. Sometimes even a word, if it’s a hard one to find. A single moment can move me from one thought to another, changing the direction of everything.  And each time I sit down at my desk, and wonder whether doing something else might be a better idea, what I choose to do is the next step.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the main character in the novel I’m writing at the moment has a habit of counting her steps. Towards someone, away from something, nearer, further away. Steps forward, steps backward, but always proceeding in life. Like a story.

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