Really About the Same

If you are not familiar with the artist Mary Engelbreit, I highly recommend her work, it’s playful and thoughtful and beautiful. She often accompanies her pictures with quotations or aphorisms that add greatly to the scene she depicts. One of my favorite of her works shows a traveler having just passed a fork in the road, walking down one of the paths. The sign at the fork points that direction and says YOUR LIFE and the other direction is labeled NO LONGER AN OPTION. The banner above the picture reads DON’T LOOK BACK.

This week had a lovely start at the Maritime Parade, a seasonal fixture of Gig Harbor. It’s officially summer, basically. Though we feared rain or at least overcast, the weather turned out to be warm and sunny, which was fabulous. It wasn’t much as parades go but it was fun and my brother was marching with the high school band so that was nice.

In the intervening days, I had several opportunities for catching up arise all at once. I felt very grateful to have time with old friends, catching up and passing the time. Waffles were made, games were played, and years worth of lives were recounted. Sometimes the routes we’ve taken surprise even ourselves. On that note.

One of my biggest poetry pet peeves (because that’s definitely a category of pet peeves that I have) is Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Robert Frost is in my top three poets of all time (with Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickenson) but come on. I cannot pretend to know exactly what he was thinking when he wrote it, but there is substantial evidence in the poem to support my titular thesis about that particular work: he did not, in fact, take the road less traveled because “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.”

This, I think, is the crux of the narrator’s point: it does not matter whether you actually took the path that fewer took, it matters mostly that you chose a path. The title, you’ll note, is not The Road Less Traveled (as some erroneously believe), it is The Road Not Taken. The important point is that there will always be a road (correction: many roads) that we do not take. However we may justify the choices that we make for ourselves, good or poor, the important thing is that we chose. One cannot go back.

I could have gone to Columbia to study Russia instead of Trinity to study… whatever it was that I studied there. I could have stayed at home until I found something a little more suitable than a job in Korea which, to be honest, I did not really want. I could have come out a long time ago and probably saved myself a lot of trouble. I could have pursued any number of opportunities and avenues and possibilities and skills. But I did not and here I am.

A friend recently told me in a moment of incredibly clear and concise insight that my life has basically been a series of random choices with little coherent meaning. Except he said it in a kind way.

“I think your problem is that even though you have done a ton of incredible things it has usually not really been part of a plan beyond going abroad which means even when you do talk about it you feel insecure because when you have to explain why you do anything even to yourself you know the only real answer is that it is because you had to do something.”

A fairly accurate assessment of most of the choices I’ve made as an adult. It’s not even a bad thing, I don’t feel like I’ve made a series of mistakes (most of the time). I have directed the course of my life with very little thought to a grand plan which I sort of thought was going to be a plan when I was in high school. But at the same time, it’s not like I’m thirty and have been working as a bartender with broken dreams for the past ten years. I have actually done stuff with my life, plan notwithstanding.

My life would be very different if I had made different choices at some key intersections. I feel, though, that the roads would end up being really about the same. Experiences and things would be different but my general, overall existence would be approximately comparable. Having given life a go in a number of varying contexts, I think I really could have made most of those decisions work. I think I would be okay.

If happiness and life were simple, I should probably be seriously getting down to work being a Croatian orchardist. But they are not. So I’ll continue to make decisions that are just this side of random and have faith that mistakes are mistakes but mistaken choices are less mistakes and more just different paths that, in the end, are probably not that different.

All of this is to say: I have received and accepted a job offer. It is, needless to say, not quite what I had in mind. This post has dragged on long enough or I would provide some more details.

As it is, suffice to say that it is in Michigan. So there’s that.

Not Elves Exactly

So you guys know that I don’t like choosing favorites for most things. You also know that I’m a poetry kind of guy. I really like poetry and I like a lot of poets but I am comfortable naming, like movies, a top three-in-no-particular-order. They are Edna St Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. This week, I’d like to talk about one particular poem by Mr Frost which, I think, will take little explanation to show relevance.

Before I reproduce the poem for you (published in 1914) I’d like to say a few further words. The sermon at my church this past Sunday told a section of the story of Elijah (which was cool, I was singing along the whole reading). One verse served as a major focal point– 1 Kings 18:21 which says, “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.”

The people said nothing.

The poem is entitled simply Mending Wall. 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

It’s not elves, exactly, but something there is. Do you feel it? Walls are powerful things. They can protect, shelter, defend, separate, grow, crumble. To be clear, there are internal and metaphorical walls aplenty. But the US border wall is a childish fantasy of ineffective and harmful policy created and supported by cruel, ignorant, and short-sighted people. In no universe is it okay. I need not remind you of how Jesus defined ‘neighbor.’

The question presents itself: how do we act in such a way as to focus on the things we love and support while defeating the things we don’t? What actions can be taken? I think I’ve done a few, made calls, written some letters, signed a couple petitions, had important conversations. Beyond that, I’m not really sure what is accessible to me and others in a similar position. Something there is that lights candles rather than cursing darkness and all that, but it seems an elusive something loathe to give us any guidance.

So I’m just sitting here, preparing to leave the country, wondering. Hoping. Dreaming. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, and it’s me.

But I’d rather you say it for yourselves.