I first encountered Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in elementary school, when I memorized and performed it for the school assembly. The way my teachers explained it to me back then, I thought Robert Frost seemed like an artsy sort of motivational speaker—a popularized self-help poet. The message was essentially this: Go after your dreams, even if its difficult. Take the road less traveled. I have often heard “The Road Not Taken” referenced in ways that, paraphrased, encourage people to “take the higher road” or “make your own way.” I think of our meme-saturated social media that pulls choice lines from great literary works and turns them into the equivalent of the terrified kitten, paws clinging to a tree branch—“Hang in there, baby!”—and I see that popular attention to the poem largely rests in the last two lines: I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference. Given a closer (and more comprehensive) reading, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” does little to satisfy a broad cultural impulse toward the moral of the story or any simplistic resolution to make us feel better about ourselves and our choices.
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” —Parker Palmer
I recently spent some time sorting through boxes in my parent’s garage in preparation for an epic yard sale (I have a healthy respect for anyone who has done this more than twice in a lifetime). The dust, barely visible on my hands and collected in drifts across the concrete garage floor, added a visceral grit to those hours that mirrored the inner work of re-living memories, sorting through boxes and boxes filled with the past. With an endless stack of boxes in front of me, I sneezed and shook my head, then settled myself on a tattered old towel to fight through tears and dust. This is going to take a while.
There was a lot of junk uncovered during those hours. There were treasures, too. The junk tended to be objects we’d purchased; the treasures were the things made or enhanced with that personal touch. The treasures were often the things that might easily be mistaken for trash—like a piece of paper, wrinkled and creased into something like a tiny book.
“Without the truths that are lodged in every life’s telling, the old narratives thin, become brittle, and shatter, and we are left in chaos, no trail to follow home.” —Kim Barnes
The scratch and tap of pencils filled the room, punctuated by miniature drum beats pattering through a set of headphones. I was substitute teaching in a high school classroom. When I’d arrived that morning, the teacher’s scrawled instructions were waiting on my desk: Have them write a response—“If you were to create a self-portrait, how would you reveal yourself and what materials would you use?” After a collective groan, my students set about their task. I drifted between desks, answering questions along a trail of pencils poked into the air. With a distraught sigh, Sarah raised her hand. When I reached her desk, she looked at the floor and shuffled her feet. “I dunno what to write,” she whispered, fighting tears. “Besides, nobody’s gonna read this shit.”
In a culture requiring little more of our stories than a 140-character “tweet,” areas of language easily fall into misappropriation and disuse; our abilities to think critically and exercise imagination suffer. Stories are a primary means of establishing identity and forming relationships. But as I read through the pile of essays left on my desk that day, I realized that the limited capacity for language that so restricted the expression of my students’ stories was only a microcosm. I could see traces of the same limitation in my own use of language and hesitance to see my story as a thing that others needed to hear.
Not a day goes by that I don’t look down and see it. Every day, at least one person asks about the symbol tattooed on my arm.
“What’s your tattoo mean?” I never know how to answer that question. Well, that’s kind of a long story . . . it’s from this book I read . . .
Fin Button (the protagonist in Fiddler’s Gun and Fiddler’s Green) is an icon of my own passions and fears, my own wounds, my own desire to voyage out into the world to do something with my burning heart. She embodies some of the most fundamental aspects of our human existence: the need to love and be loved, the yearning for a place to belong, the burning desire to be who we are in the world and to nurture and protect the places and people we hold dear. Every time I return to Fin’s story, I hear the last stanza of Christian Wiman’s poem, “And I Said To My Soul Be Loud”:
For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things
and I will ride this tantrum back to God
until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self
withers in me like a salted slug
Fin’s journey through pain and into beauty is, like our own, dizzy with light and darkness, joy and suffering. It follows no pre-determined formula for traveling from Point A to Point B and takes on the non-linear and wildly free traveling pattern of a ship at sea—destination in mind, but swept along by the breeze of life. There are enemies and allies, tragedies and victories; mistakes are made, and lives are taken. The smell of gunpowder is strong, but there is music floating across the deck of the Rattlesnake. In the transformation of pain into beauty, what is calcified in us is softened; what is artificial and grief-stricken finds its way to joyful authenticity; what is confined and lost in wonderlessness recovers the innocent eyes and imagination of childhood.*
“There’s nothing worthless about being wordless, it will only save your mouth from talking gibberish.” —Michael Bassey Johnson
“Good morning, maestra. How are you?”
“I’m well, how are you?”
“I am good . . . thank you.”
Her English is halting and deeply sincere. We look into each other’s eyes for a brief moment, both of us willing to say more—if only we spoke the same language. We are building a bridge as the weeks pass, but our work doesn’t seem like progress. She learns my language more quickly than I learn hers—that is, after all, why we meet. She wants to learn English; I can speak it. She is one of a handful of adult students from Mexico, China, and Vietnam. We sit together for an hour every morning, enter into the same rhythm: I read, they repeat, I annunciate, they repeat. They strain to wrap their lips around the contours of this strange language, but their tongues refuse reform. Their accents add intricate flourishes to words that would otherwise escape my notice.
[Barbara Lane has been a lurker in these parts for years. She's a fine writer, an alumnus of multiple Glen Workshops, a gifted doodler, an imbiber of fine ales, and has impeccable taste in tattoos. Here she is with the first of what I hope will be many excellent Rabbit Room posts.]
“My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others.”—C.S. Lewis
“Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see . . .”—Mumford & Sons
On one of those rare sunny days in the middle of a Michigan winter, light and warmth hinted at spring but failed to break through the deep chill that would persist for another few months. The road was covered in muddy slush, undoing my earlier efforts at the car wash. I came around a bend in the road and swerved to keep from hitting a slumped figure on the side of the road—a woman, bundled in layers of sweaters and t-shirts, hands clasped around a grocery bag. She held out her thumb, a silent plea for a ride. Our eyes met as my car swished past her and, without my conscious intent, my foot eased down on the breaks. I pulled onto the narrow shoulder of the road and waited for the woman to shuffle closer. My thoughts raced. What am I doing? A hitchhiker? Really? Not your greatest idea, Lane.