‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
(Alice asks the Cheshire Cat)
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
For those who do not recognize this, it is the discourse between Alice, and a mysterious grinning cat in Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland. It was printed out and displayed for years, on the wall of my Dad’s study.
It is also a childhood mystery. I would read the lines and puzzle over their cryptic meaning. The author Lewis Carroll, wrote Alice in Wonderland as a kind of nonsensical children’s book, but the fact is that he himself was one of many opium addicts of the age. The quirky banter throughout the book and the odd things Alice sees are said to be the literary product of a drug-addled mind, not the stuff of inspirational quotes.
What does the conversation with the Cheshire cat mean? More specifically, what did it mean to my Dad? Why did he put it on display as if to remind himself of something? Every time I read the quote it would bother me somehow although I could not pinpoint exactly why.
My dad of course, is long gone. Like many things that come back to you about your parents, the wherefore’s and the why’s remain a mystery, pieces of a puzzle that you are left to solve on your own.
Having retread some of the same footsteps as my father by now, I can only speculate. Thinking about your parents leaves everyone with some decisions to make. First, you discover that you are like your parents in uncanny ways you did not intend. Second, you find things you would consciously do differently. Of course, the comeuppance of life is that my kids will arrive at similar conclusions about me, and so I tread lightly when I enter into the mystery of the Cheshire Cat.
One constant with my Dad, was that he was generally under siege by life itself. He was born into dubious circumstances, and had to battle it out on his own, to figure out how best to live in the world with the cards he was played. My dad also churned out a fairly large family by today’s standards so he had a lot of responsibility early on. He therefore had to jump through a few hoops, work some jobs he did not like, and push very hard to notch his way up the career ladder. He also (I am sorry to say), got to benefit very little from all that hard work. He lived a fairly tough life, got old and died without a lot of enjoyment along the way. I hope we (kids) provided him with some satisfaction but I can only guess. Because my dad was a very quiet man, he will always remain somewhat of a mystery.
Which brings me back to the Cheshire Cat and its message. When I read the nonsensical lines, they seem to say in a cynical and offhand way, that what road you choose to take does not really matter, and I think that is what bothers me. I would like to know that despite the setbacks and hardships, my dad thought this whole ride was worthwhile.
By the time you hit middle age, you have to make good with the deficit between what you have aimed for and what life has brought your way. To say that suffering and sacrifice bear no fruit, speaks to a lack of faith. Sometimes the fruit of labour passes on to another and I would like to think I am good with that concept of paying it forward. One plants, and another reaps, according to the Apostle Paul.
If there is a gift I would like to give to my own kids going forward, it is to say that it was all worth it. Especially if I managed to build anything that was lasting, or made anything better along the way. I am ok with digging in at present. In many ways, life is always under siege, but I would like to think we are prisoners of hope.
I do not know all the answers. I doubt I will during the course of my lifetime. But if I had a fork in the road and one side said “hope”, and the other said “despair”, I would choose hope every time.
Because... the road matters. And it is enough simply to believe that it is all worthwhile.