Stef Coetzee

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I recently caught my mind wandering while I was in the midst of marking up an ocean of piping and instrumentation diagrams. A scene, as though from a film, filled my field of vision. There I was: 40 years young, greying at the temples, wrinkles cutting across my forehead, resembling tilled farmland.

I’m bent over my laptop, ever so slightly pear shaped—though my loosely-fitted dress shirt tries its best to convince passers-by of the contrary. I cannot tell what middle-aged me is working on, but it doesn’t seem to matter. For, as the workday passes in a blur, the only constant is the agonizing boredom etched on his face. He looks up, his weary eyes meeting mine as if to ask: Is this in store for me?

Throughout most of my life, one could say I was sleepwalking. Aside from my hyperactive tendencies occasionally flaring up, I just did what I was told—much of it without even questioning why I was doing it in the first place. As I look back now, there seems to be precious little I did that was out of the ordinary.

I grew up in a two-parent household in a sleepy coastal town on the West Coast. Early excursions into the surrounding wilderness with my brother and friends come to mind. How we didn’t injure ourselves more than we did, I’ll never know.

I look back fondly on most of my primary schooling. Aside from the occasional scrap on the rugby field and a lone school-yard scuffle, it was what you’d expect. Summer and winter sports, school-concert practice, and music lessons filled the time between the last bell ringing at the end of the school day and the four-thirty bus home.

In class, we’d try our best to stay awake as we learned about long division, ecosystems, and the correct spelling of colour. That is, ending with ‘o-u-r’, this isn’t America.

I changed schools at the start Grade 9 and, aside from the significantly shorter commute, I don’t recall doing much that wasn’t expected from run-of-the-mill, straight-A, “yes ma’am, no sir” students. That is, until Grade 10.

I’d always enjoyed mathematics and the sciences. What had changed was the kind of literature we studied in Afrikaans and English. I took both as home-language subjects. Serendipitously, this afforded me exposure to some of the most unusual stories and poems I have ever come across.

We were discussing the struggles of a queer kid growing up in a conservative community one day, and glory-seeking explorers’ delusions of grandeur the next. Spoiler alert: the teenager ultimately takes his own life, while the explorers meet an untimely end in central Africa, their discoveries known only to themselves.

Poems of love lost and dreams dreamt; a drama about the plight of a book reviewer at a failing newspaper; a comedic play about adultery in a royal family. These tales were quirky, weird, odd-balled.

Looking back, the contrast before and after this period is stark. Imagine a paint wholesaler’s warehouse exploding, myriad colours flooding an otherwise greyscale world. I was forever changed.

In a final act of conformity, I applied to a local electrical engineering program on my father’s recommendation. It was what he had studied and, in his words, it was “pretty darn difficult and will teach you how to think”. Stellenbosch University had long held a mysterious allure to me, and at the time it made sense to only submit the one application. Luckily, I was accepted.

My parents couldn’t afford to cover my tuition and accommodation costs. A mixture of academic merit discounts, bursaries, my grandma and part-time jobs eased the financial strain considerably.

Aside from academics, I attended lectures by artists and entrepreneurs, sat in on economics classes, and made the most of the university library. The well of knowledge had been revealed to me and I intended to drown in it.

We attended concerts in gardens and dive bars, and food festivals on wine farms. We organized a few events of our and, sometimes, people even showed up. It was a magical time.

I’m at a crossroads now and I think I’m afraid that the magic act might be at an end, that the vivid wonderland is giving way to monotony.

I started by quoting the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”. While it is an old favourite used in addresses far and wide, many—if not most—omit the two lines preceding this well-known last bit, which are:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

For the speaker delivers his remarks not without reservation. He is mindful that, although his may be the road less travelled, it is not necessarily better. Always insisting on choosing the alternate road is just another kind of conformity. He sighs, cognizant of the fact that by choosing one way over the other he relinquishes certain experiences. Experiences that might’ve led to a different future altogether.

I don’t think I’m doomed to nine-to-five drudgery, so long as I remain aware of the wonder of existence. The choices available to me are different, yes, but the odd dose of creativity might just open up opportunities hidden in plain sight. It remains up to me.

Whichever roads you and I choose to take, may our lives may be colo(u)rful.

Thanks for reading!



photo of post author
Stef Coetzee works as a control and automation engineer in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is an avid full-stack Ruby on Rails web developer and technological progress enthusiast.

Stay in touch
Get new posts in your inbox. Unsubscribe anytime.