You are accompanying me on a path back to the rural Midwest, sometime around July 1979. Here is what you hear while joining me on this path:

“Hey Kristin, I’m riding my bike. Wanna come with?”

“Sure! I definitely wanna come with!”

My friends and I grew up using the phrase “wanna come with?” much to the dismay of any grumpy grammarians who couldn’t stand ending a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes the path was clear. Usually it included banana seat bikes, the pool, and a stop at the Dari King to get grape slushies.  And, predictably, we always had to be home at 5:30 because there was always someone in the group whose mom said they had to be home at 5:30.

But sometimes the invitation to “come with” left the options open – with which people? Where? To what activity? For us rural midwestern kids, being asked “wanna come with?”  infused mystery into our unmysterious lives. Despite, or perhaps because of, the mystery, this kind of invitation also helped us to be prepared for anything, because a ride on the bike in the afternoon in July meant you needed to bring $2, a towel, a comb, an umbrella, a case for your stunning 1970s prescription eyeglasses so they wouldn’t break when you finally got up enough nerve to jump off the high dive even though you couldn’t see the bottom of the pool, and probably a magazine to give you something to discuss at a pool, a friend’s house, a park, or at a picnic table outside the Dari King.

Let’s say I am on a path in the woods, and that I want others to come with (me) on this particular path at this particular time. I would say to those near me, “wanna come with?” And then, some of the people invited may say, “nope, I don’t ‘wanna come with,’ and not just because that phrase has a dangling preposition.” For some the mystery may just be too great for them to say “sure.” For others, they’re pretty sure they don’t like the possible activities involved. For still others, they may not feel prepared because they don’t have a case for their stunning 1970s prescription eyeglasses.

So how do I respond to this refusal? If I think the only right path right now is the one I’m on, regardless of whether you have a glasses case, my response could be to say, “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.” Maybe this is a good response because the path I’m on is the only and best path here and now. Also, we know that neutral stances can yield horrible problems. Just look at the Bible. Or quotes from Desmond Tutu. Or Star Wars. Further, maybe I have confidence that there is good reason to claim this. I demonstrate this confidence by invoking personal stories or data, or by invoking stories about data or data about stories. Slushies are only 79 cents today at the Dari King, and I heard they are allowing us to mix flavors! You should come with!

There is often a right path. I certainly have paths I’d put in the right and wrong direction categories. I do this every day with easy and difficult subjects, often when talking with my son as he wrestles with messages that meme-ify “If you’re not (visibly) with me, then you’re against me.” This week I also did this when teaching him how to use a jigsaw. Definitely right and wrong directions when using power tools.

At the same time, maybe it could be useful to imagine that there are a lot of different ways to finish the sentence “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.”

If you’re not with me, then…

…you can afford to ignore me.

…you think I’m not like you in ways that matter to you.

…you’re still thinking but worry that that may not make good things happen fast enough.

…you are confused about what would help the most.

…you are not at the same place as I am in terms of seeing things as “either/or.”

…you need time to process even while you recognize having time is a privilege.

…you have wandered off to explore the woods because you want to avoid the hard path and you have decent shoes to do the exploring.

…you have wandered off to explore the woods because SQUIRREL!

…you are the type of person who needs to see a map before heading down a path, and you perceive the map to be elusive, tentative, or inaccurate, which I find insulting.

…well, you ARE with me but sometimes it’s hard to see because you’re not showing this in the loud places where I am looking.

…you think you’re above me.

…you are afraid that something will be taken away from you on this path but the other path will let you keep it.

…you know and love people who’ve taken different paths and that is enough to make you unsure about this path.

…you think this path is only popular now, and you want to find a path that seems more timelessly good.

…you are being drawn toward someone else you care about on another path, which I understand.

…you are being drawn toward someone else you care about on another path, and this someone else seems dangerous to me so I don’t understand you.

…you are living in a hidey hole and don’t show anyone which paths you take.

…you are living near and with others who decorate their hidey holes exactly the same way you do and your décor nauseates me.

…you had a bad experience with this path in the past.

…you can’t walk as fast and you’re not ashamed of this.

…you can’t walk as fast and you’re afraid you’ll slow down the rest of the people taking the path because you’re new to hiking.

…you refuse to walk as fast because you’re still figuring out how unstable the path is.

…you refuse to walk as fast because you are afraid of the consequences that may come about because you don’t have very much power to deal with those consequences.

…you refuse to walk as fast because you are afraid of the consequences but these consequences come across to me as small relative to what would happen if you don’t follow my path.

…you refuse to walk the path because you think it has a misleading or unfortunate name that you do not want associated with your name, which I think is cowardly.

…you refuse to walk the path because you think it has a misleading or unfortunate name that you do not want associated with your name, which I understand because that has happened to me.

…you are the one who built the other path that I am trying to replace with my path.

…you are afraid of this path for your own health.

…you’re annoyingly diluting the path issue by thinking or writing or puzzling over what “with” means in a blog post.

…you hate me and you are, in fact, against me.

My most recent memorable path experience was in the woods in the rainforest part of the Olympic peninsula here in Washington state. Importantly, in my top ten list of things I don’t like, I include hiking on uneven ground, humidity, and bug bites. The hike started great, and my husband and son will tell you even I was optimistic. It started in the cool, dry shade. And then we hit the sunny part of the path and my skin radiated the message “come here and eat me, bugs.” The biting flies came in droves. Just to me. Not to my husband or son. My response, of course, was to run fast and get sweatier, thus attracting even more flies. At least I didn’t twist my ankle on the uneven ground over which I was sprinting, but I ended the hike in tears and covered in bites. I look back at this with a combination of horror and laughter, but mostly horror. In the end, I still don’t know what to make of this experience. I am bombarded with messages in the Pacific Northwest that people are supposed to like hiking, and I always feel sheepish in my circle of friends and colleagues when I say that I don’t really like the outdoors unless there’s a pool and grape slushies. And of course there are ways I can nurture the outdoors without hiking. I don’t think it was the wrong path, but I’m sure the outcome made me not want to go on another path like that anytime soon, even if I rationalize it by remembering that I did not twist my ankle. I’m not sure I learned anything huge like “adversity builds character” or “hiking is good for the world.” Or maybe I’m just being lazy. Or maybe I was always going to dislike the hike because I started with that opinion and, sure enough, stuff happened to support my opinion. In any case, if you invite me to go hiking on uneven ground on a sunny day where there are bugs, I’m probably going to say nope, and now you know the complex reason for my nope.

To bring us back to the grammar portion of this post, the word “with” is a preposition, and so is the word “against.” I’m pretty sure my sweaty fly bite hike happened because my son asked “wanna come with (us), Mom?” If he would have phrased it as “wanna go against (those biting flies), Mom?” I’m not so sure I’d have gone. To this day, I am left with questions.

Wanna come with?

Wanna go against?

Listen to how different these questions sound when you say them out loud. Would they yield different outcomes? Yes, very likely in terms of who joins the path. Does the outcome depend on what happens on the path, not just on the named path itself? Yep, we humans are really good at this. And do the people who choose a path tend towards viewing that path as good because they chose it? Big hint: sociologists say yes, indeed.

Come with us, Mom.

Go against the flies and sweaty panic run, Mom.

Three cheers for the dangling preposition when it makes us think about how we do and don’t invite others along our paths.

Or, I should say, invite others along.

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