April 2018

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Road Not Taken

Perhaps you think fondly of Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Less Traveled," and of the way that you, like Frost, have taken a road less traveled in your life. If so, you're not thinking about Frost's poem but about M. (why the "M"?) Scott Peck's popular psychology book.

Frost's poem, English teachers will tell you, is not about the road less taken. In fact, it's not even clear that the road less taken was taken less, because early in the poem Frost compares the two roads in front of him and writes, "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same, / And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."(I added the underlinings.)

Frost's poem is about the road he didn't take, a road he would never return to. It's about two ways his day and his life might have gone and about how he'll never know about that other road and the people and paths where it would have led him. The poem is a "sigh" about that life he'll never lead.

I wonder often about that paths I didn't take. Perhaps we all do. I don't wonder with regret but with a kind of amazement that my life has turned out as if it were destined but might not have turned out this way at all.

My niece Isabella will soon ring her hands over what university she should attend. She knows that the decision will lead her to a particular life and away from another one. Though she's only 18 years old, she has of course made these decisions before: her decision, for example, to relinquish super-competitive tennis and to pursue her education at a boarding school with a middling tennis program.

I fretted about my college decision the whole time I was in college. What was I missing at the schools I didn't attend? And then when it came time to decide whether or not to marry my college boyfriend (I didn't, and it didn't feel like a choice), I worried about the life I had decided not to live, and I worried that maybe I would regret it as Yeats's narrator in "When You are Old" warns. I worried that I might "Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars." So much anxiety at such a young age.

I've made thousands of decisions when paths have diverged in yellow woods over the almost fifty years of my life. For example, I didn't marry one man, and then I did marry another, and then we divorced, and then I came out, and then I married the woman I love.

For another example, I didn't go directly into graduate school or law school after college. Instead, I taught high school, and then I stopped teaching high school, and then I started again, and then I stopped again, and now I hope I'll be a therapist, but who knows.

And yet another: When I pulled out of that gas station in 2010, I looked left and looked right, but I guess I started pulling out before I looked left again, so I pulled into the path of a racing jeep with a distracted driver. When I saw the jeep coming, I braked, then sped up before he his car hit mine right at the transom. I didn't have time to think much about the braking and accelerating paths, but the paths I chose, luckily, probably saved my life.

I've been thinking about the roads I've taken through my life, and the ones I've passed by since Ann and I went to see her previous school's performance of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits Friday night. I've been thinking about all the times "I kept the first for another" and way led on to way and I never went back.

Seeing the performance stirred Frost's poem and these thoughts because, just before I was diagnosed with my first brain tumor, I was teaching in a public school in a poor area and Laura Ferri, Ann's school's brilliant theatre teacher, and I had been talking about a joint project between her private school and my public one, in which students would perform their families' immigration stories.

Laura and I hadn't yet talked specifics, but I was excited to bring her talent to my students. Though I was nervous about mixing her students of so much privilege with mine of so little privilege, I trusted Laura intuitively and figured that our students would create something lovely together.

We never got the chance. My doctors sent me down the "you need brain surgery soon" road, and I've gone from way to way. I don't regret the paths I've taken, but I am "telling this with a sigh." I wonder where that road might have gone.

Friday night as I was thinking about this road not taken, the possibility of a new road opened to me. During the second intermission (it was a long play based on a long book), Stephen, who teaches math at the school, told Ann and me about the band he plays in. All of their proceeds support a program using art therapy with victims of sex trafficking.

"I'm in an MSW program now and am thinking about writing with people who've been through trauma," I told him. I gave him my email address and perhaps way will lead on to way.

I can see why some faiths believe in reincarnation. We just can't live all the possibilities of our lives in this one life.

And so, yet again, way leads on to way. I wonder where my life will go and where it might have gone. Only now I'm more curious than anxious, perhaps because I'm older (a classmate referred to a 30 year-old man as "middle-aged" last night, so according to her formula I've gone over the hill and down one side and am now headed up another hill).

I'm also curious about the ways that I can't see: not just the future of my life but also the journey into what seems the darkness of death. I'm not in a hurry to get there: I'm no cat, and I won't be killed by curiosity.

I'm just curious. 


  1. Glad you've had so many choices and model for us a wry acceptance of the not-choices. As a teen I was deeply touched by the Bhagavad Gita: To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits. So hard not to focus on those fruits! Also TS Eliot, "I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing."

    1. Thanks, Catherine! I too was a teenage Gita reader. The T.S. Eliot quote is new to me. So right! Mary


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