How We Get There Is Where We’ll Arrive

how we get there

Heading Out

Beyond here there’s no map.
How you get there is where
you’ll arrive; how, dawn by
dawn, you can see your way
clear: in ponds, sky, just as
woods you walk through give
to fields. And rivers: beyond
all burning, you’ll cross on bridges
you’ve long lugged with you.
Whatever your route, go lightly,
toward light. Once you give away
all save necessity, all’s
mostly well: what you used to
believe you owned is nothing,
nothing beside how you’ve come
to feel. You’ve no need now
to give in or give out: the way
you’re going your body seems
willing. Slowly as it may
otherwise tell you, whatever
it comes to you’re bound to know.

– Philip Booth

“Beyond here there’s no map.”  Traveling the path toward truth, goodness, and beauty, whether it be in our teaching and learning, our spiritual life, or any such sacred endeavor, can sometimes feel like we’re in mapless territory—a benighted forest with little sign of a clearing. And though we have some helpful travel guides—for example, the time-tested tradition of classical education in the West, the Great Books, Holy Scripture, and sacred tradition— still, traveling the way is not always easy. We can feel lost, isolated, and worn out—sometimes even questioning whether it’s all worth it.

Inspired by some of the more modern poems I’d been writing about in the latest installment of the Memoria Press Poetry Study Guides (Poetry Book III: The Romantic and Victorian Era,) I re-read this Philip Booth poem and was struck by one of its key points: How we get to any worthy destination may in fact be the most important part of the experience. Consider Hamlet, who could not know to what end his dire situation would come to, yet wisely knew that he must continually be preparing, because “the readiness is all.” He knew that ultimately, God is in control: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now” (Hamlet, 5.2.11-5).

Though understandable, perhaps we sometimes place too much emphasis and focus on reaching future goals or destinations. For example, in academics, most students want to receive high grades at the end of the semester, receive credit for their courses, and finally receive their diplomas. In sports, the goal is to win the league, state, or national championship. In a homeschool, a mother might endeavor to complete all the subjects in the MP Classical Core Curriculum by the end of the year. In the workplace, many employees seek to reach a higher position in the company. Alas, we are surrounded by a culture that is almost exclusively goal-driven.

Yet how often do we think about the inner growth that can take place in our souls and minds in the moment-by-moment daily grind of life? Booths meandering, metaphorical poem offers a short glimpse into the expansion possible through the active present, the day-by-day walk through life—which, paradoxically, already is the destination. This critical, profound journey happens externally in each passing moment, but even more so internally, in a kind of heading out characterized by epiphany, being, and spirit. The poem offers encouragement through its tone and imagery, along with its key idea: “How you get there is where you’ll arrive.”

After reading this poem with my students, I challenged them to stop a few random people between classes and simply say, “How you get there is where you’ll arrive,” and then walk away. They had fun with this activity. In our discussion of the poem, we could see that the “how” involves character and process, essentials for the journey—and that the being verb “is” implies a present, continual arrival. Linear time folds in upon itself. Could this be akin to God’s perspective, outside of time?

The next lines, “how, dawn by dawn, you can see your way clear,” not only repeats the word how, but initiates a kind of enlightenment, a clarity of vision and understanding. The following lines (5-9) feature important physical settings: ponds, sky, woods, fields, and rivers, which serve as fitting metaphors—elements of natural beauty that inspire us and keep us going. After all, the sky reflects light, woods give way to fields, and bridges cross rivers.

Not coincidentally, Booth allows the middle two lines (10-11) to present the poems highest moment: “Whatever your route, go lightly, toward light.” Here, the light could be understood as the light of truth, or the light of Christ, toward which we move in spirit, in the daily activity of faith and action. The subsequent lines (11-15) offer tangible, ascetic wisdom on how to proceed on this epiphanal journey: “Once you give away all save necessity, all’s mostly well: what you used to believe you owned is nothing…” In some ways, these lines resonate with Christs words in Matthew 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow Me”; or in Luke 9:24: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”

May this poem inspire us to continue “heading out,” being present in each moment, continually arriving at all that is good and true— embracing the daily struggle to live in two kingdoms at once, in time and beyond time—moving into the dawn with nothing but what is necessary, walking lightly toward the light.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher  Winter 2018 edition

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