Tag Archives: family

A Leap And A Precipice

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 a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, 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.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much 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 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.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Mental Wealth

The people I love
Are my destiny

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Filed under Life, Philosophy, Poetry

The Other Me

I’ve enjoyed the new series The Affair on Showtime the last few weeks. A married man named Noah meets a married woman named Alison, they fall for each other, someone connected to them dies (is murdered?) and they’re each being questioned by police at some point (years?) after the summer they met.

In episode 2 Noah introduces an intriguing concept. He’s speaking to Alison about his favorite physics theory from college. If you could go back to one point in your life and make a different choice, and you did, how might this alter the life you currently lead?

We’ve encountered such thoughts on this blog before. But Noah adds a twist: What if there’s a parallel world in which another version of you exists, the one who made a different choice at a crucial moment? What if there’s an Other Me on another Earth living his life (mine?) in a different way?

Of course Noah says this in the context of his budding relationship with Alison. He’s trying to picture one world in which he meets his wife in college, marries her right after graduation, and they build a life with their four kids (his “actual” life right now). But he’s tempted by the thought of leaving all that behind for Alison. Can both desires—one for family, the other for a fling—exist simultaneously?

I’m fascinated with the intricacies of choice-making. Our freedom to choose—whether it be from what to eat for lunch or what profession to pursue—is empowering, but it also exposes our vulnerabilities. On the edge of a cliff, one false step means disaster, one right move and you’re still on your feet.

As always, I’m left with a series of questions. What choices would I change if I could? Shouldn’t I simply accept every choice I’ve made? I’m always hearing how I have only this life and nothing more, and yet I find myself choosing to write about parallel worlds and other lives I might have led.

Wherever I end up, there will be moments of suffering and moments of joy. If he’s out there, does the Other Me think the same way? Does he wonder how my life is going?

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The Child Is Father Of The Man

Eight years ago today my father died.

It’s always tough, but with each anniversary my sense of loss has changed. The other night I looked at his picture and cried, but the heartache, vast for a moment, passed.

I remember pushing my toy chest into his room as a child. I’d sell him a stuffed animal or Matchbox car and he’d pay me in hugs. The chest was heavy and the wheels were thin, but I forged ahead.

My father, I like to think, is asleep behind a series of doors in the middle of an endless hallway. Perhaps one day he’ll wake from a dream to find I’ve arrived, and recognize the child in me.

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