Some people can tell the history of their lives as a single story that unfolds like a highway that is well marked and is never encumbered with “under construction” detours. Others might say their path was littered with lots of surprises and choices, interruptions and disappointments, and arrivals at some unanticipated places.
My life has been full of interruptions, disappointments, and surprises. For the most part, I’ve been following back roads with unmarked corners and mysterious turnabouts
I never had a well-marked map to guide me other than following the social norms. Although I must admit, on occasion, the rebel inside me would insist I veer off onto some unmarked, narrow track filled with potholes.
I remember only one time in my life when I actually thought about the future in any concrete way. As I recall, it was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I believe it was a session with some sort of guidance counselor. She asked me what I wanted to do when I left school and I said I wanted to be a forest ranger. Her reaction to my longing to find work that involved being in nature was immediate and emphatic. She said that pursuing such a path was not feasible for a woman and I should be thinking about becoming a teacher or a nurse. That was the moment I got imprinted with the culturally bound, narrow path a woman was expected to take at that time. By the time I got to college my life was set out before me like a highway with no curves. I was to be a teacher.
As straight as that path seemed to be, there were surprising, unexpected curves. For instance, after teaching fifth graders for several years, I was asked to teach in an all-black school in Sylacauga, Alabama. It was the late 1960s as integration became mandatory in the South. I’d like to say that I was an activist and sought this position because I was a warrior for this most worthy cause. But the truth is that I was selected as a good candidate for this because my upbringing had been mainly in the North. Even though my roots were Southern, I was brought up in an all-white community north of Chicago. This seemed to qualify me to be part of that larger movement that was painstakingly trudging across the south.
With extreme naïveté I entered that closely-held black community unaware that a part of me was still floating in the amniotic waters of white privilege. I did not see myself as racist or prejudiced in any way. Through the extraordinary graciousness and compassion given to me by this remarkable community, I began to see a much-expanded landscape. I was a goldfish who had been swimming in a bowl thinking it was the great waters. With exceptional dignity, beauty, and charity they introduced me to the ocean. It was grace pure and simple. I then hoisted my sails and set on a course of questioning the assumptions by which I was raised. I had been looking in the dark with only a flashlight; now the floodlights were illuminating the seascape and it was wide and deep.
I’m now in my early 70s, and looking back over the winding path of my life I can see that the continuity, for me, is being a seeker. It is not that I’ve seen clearly what it is that I am seeking, but just the act of following some deep-seated longing has been a driving force in my life. And it seems to have something to do with philosophy and with finding the biggest truth I can find. It is a yearning to find a certainty I can stand on that makes the ground beneath me solid and trustworthy.
I have followed this longing with no small amount of kicking and screaming as well as a large dose of self-doubt. Nevertheless, as a seeker on the road, I can recognize that the choices I’ve made in my life have continued to compel me to look ahead to the next turn in the road rather than taking an off-ramp and making that my final destination. And what has remained ever present is the highway itself, which is the highway of the seeker.
I find it interesting that I now live quite close to Highway 101 in California. That number is often the same number used for college classes to indicate an introductory course. I feel I’m on a perpetual Highway 101, an introductory course to life. The New Dimensions dialogues are my curriculum. Each one reveals some nuance on the path, a dip here, a rise there, a curve to the left, a curve to the right. Or, on occasion, I take a break from this highway and move to a frontage road where I can pause and take time to stroll through some tourist attraction.
I am grateful that, however many tourist attractions grab my attention, no matter how tempting they might be, I’ve chosen not to make them my permanent residence. Some may call me a dilettante, one who is seeking just for amusement, using the path of the seeker as some sort of distraction from the hard work of diving deeper into life’s mysteries. For me, the journey feels rich, and challenging, and deep.
I consider that my life has been guided by my spiritual hunger and deepest yearning to know the biggest truth I can find. I’m an explorer of ideas and part of my soul’s contract is to be a scribe of wisdom. My dear friend Nicki Scully has said my life path is one of Seshat, the Egyptian scribe and keeper of the sacred records. I identify with that title because I am dedicated to preserving and sharing the wisdom and truth I find along the way. The highway that carries me along this path is called “The Seeker 101” and no matter the twists and turns, it remains my true and steady guide.
— Justine Willis Toms