Crossroads ... Or Not?
If you’ve ever thought about writing, and probably if you haven’t, you love a metaphor. I don’t care too much about academic literary distinctions. Somehow it doesn’t matter if the figure can be subcategorized into metonymy. I think it’s fun that we all use metaphors all the time without thinking about it. “Top dog, taking a stab at, blowing in the wind, a can of worms, under the gun, between a rock and a hard place, bell, book, and candle ...” You can think of dozens. The first here might well be the road or journey of life.
English crossroads photograph by Patrick Mackie, Geograph Project; Wikimedia Commons
“Crossroads” is a perfectly good noun that carries so much psychological (metaphorical) freight, it’s a perfect candidate to become a metaphor -— so much so that it’s seldom used in any other way except in directions. One of the things I love about this figure of speech is the possibility for multiple interpretations. Decision-making is implied, of course. To me, though, there are fewer choices at a crossroads, and the more interesting ones are out of sight after that first turn (or not) is made.
The word conjures for me a mental picture of a prairie-like landscape — dry, tan, dusty, where two unpaved roads make a perfect plus sign. There, a traveler has four choices: (1) to go straight ahead, (2, which only now occurred to me) to turn and go back the way he came, (3) to turn right, or (4) to turn left. I don’t see any detail near or far that might suggest which option would be most desirable. Thus, my feeling about a metaphorical crossroads immediately suggests a puzzle whose solution could very well be through luck. If the crossroads are concrete, on a map, I picture signposts that can take much of the mystery and burden off the traveler.
People often mention Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken when crossroads come up. For me, the Frost poem conjures a completely different mental image. I see woods all around, with an unpaved road that forks in a Y. For no reason, it’s always twilight. A traveler can choose to return, or to take one branch of the Y: three choices. No metaphor presents itself — except for the poem’s compelling title, once again filled with possibilities for our imaginations and especially recollections. My psyche immediately rejects the choice of turning back. Thus, instead of a puzzle, I sense a dilemma with enormous consequences from either choice remaining. Many a book and poem have been written from that starting point. Most of our lives have been affected by one or more of those forks in a metaphorical road. The impact of some we didn’t imagine at the times we made one of those decisions.
I try to apply each image to people I’ve known or read of who have made life-altering, or merely fortuitous choices, often with unexpected consequences. The woman who decides to accept a marriage proposal seems to me to have been at a fork in her road rather than at a crossroads. The pivotal moment is in the either-or choice. The woman who decides to reject a marriage proposal and study medicine may have stood at a crossroads. From that choice, she may find many others opening afterwards.
That’s probably not as clear as I wish it were, but I suspect real crossroads bear out their metaphorical possibilities in a kind of geometrically broader range than the much more common, deceptively less complex forks in the paths of our lives.
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