When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing instead a title of my own: “Free Association.”
Five years later I instructed the cemetery director to add these lines to my father’s headstone:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by”.
I read recently that Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road. Actually, Frost was poking fun at Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, many readers believe Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.
We can’t imagine a life we didn’t lead—we only know the road we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.
Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. He carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts.
Naturally I inherited his nerves. I was hurting so bad after college I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses. But it’s easy, when you think about it, to fit a bottle in your mouth.
There is no magic pill, I’ve learned, no invisible ink for writing goodbye. Once you’re born, you’re in the thick of things. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.
There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.
Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down. “This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”
These are the pictures I paint of him in poems, stories and songs. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father, recasting his shadows, repeating his sins.
Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. Faith requires both a leap and a precipice.
It’s easy to get lost in the woods.