The Road Not Taken

Lately I’ve been thinking about Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken.  My thoughts about living life one way has a sort of natural connection to the poem.  I’ve spent some time reading other people’s thoughts on what the poem says and what it means, and have come to a conclusion that a lot of what’s been written about it may be a bit off target.  Of course everyone is entitled to their own reading, and my reading may be as off as anyone’s, but I thought I’d share it and see if anyone has other thoughts.  (Ah, the tough thing of course about starting a blog is that nobody reads it in the beginning.  Hopefully someday someone stumbles on this and comments.)  Here’s the poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

A lot of the discussion I’ve found deals with  how a casual reading can leave a wrong impression, namely that there was actually a less traveled road that the speaker took.  A more careful reading would reveal that the roads were about equally traveled, and the speaker, being aware of this fact, sighs and tells a fib – that he took the one less traveled by.  Proponents of this point of view point to the second and third stanzas as evidence of the similarity of the roads, and dismiss the bit about the one road that was grassy and wanted wear.

I cannot agree.  The analysis they offer doesn’t go deep enough.  Must the sigh indicate awareness by the future speaker that he’s about to tell a fib?  Or could the sigh actually be a realization of some deeper understanding of what it meant to be standing there in the woods where two roads diverged?

I suppose how you interpret the sigh depends on whether or not you believe there was a less traveled road.  Here’s my take.  Before the speaker decides which road to take, the roads looked about equally traveled but there was a difference in them.  One did in fact look a little less traveled:

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

The other road apparently was not grassy.  Knowing these two things, how do we know which road the speaker took?

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

He took the grassy one that wanted wear, but in doing so made the road about the same as the other.  Aha!  After taking the grassy road they became equally traveled.  Except…

The grassy road has had it’s leaves stepped on and trodden black – the other road was still covered In leaves no step had trodden black.  What we have here then is a realization by the speaker not that he will fib about his story in the future, but that he in fact took the less traveled road but in doing so made it the more traveled road.

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Taking the one less traveled changed the nature of the speaker’s choice.  That’s the cause of his sigh.

I doubted if I should ever come back

The speaker will not get the chance to take the road which is now the one less traveled, The Road Not Taken.  At the very least, the road not taken is the one less traveled by the speaker himself.  It is the road that could never be taken.  Life is filled with situations where you can’t choose to do multiple things, or at least to do multiple things at the same time.

It is true that in life you can sometimes try one thing and later go back to try another.  That is certainly the case when you live life without constantly moving from place to place.  You can, for example, choose one restaurant today and another next week – providing you’re still in that place next week.

But that is not this speaker.  He is a traveler, and his sigh may be a realization that living the life of a traveler means giving up the ability to go back and experience a place in different ways.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

He is a lone traveler, living life one way.

Posted in Exploration

The Man from Earth

The Man from Earth movie posterThe Man from Earth is one of those strange little films that you discover late one evening while searching through scores of made for cable streaming movies used to bulk up content so claims like “thousands of movies on available for streaming” can be made.  It is the kind of film that you aren’t sure will be any good but, hey, since you want to relax and unwind with something that doesn’t require much thought you decide to give it a watch.  But then it turns out to be something really special, really thought provoking, and it keeps you up much later than you either expected or wanted.  [Amazon Streaming, DVD]

This film struck a chord with me.  There are many things in life that make one aware of the passage of time.  That’s one aspect to the film.  But the film also resonated with me on a different (and yet related) theme, what I will call a movement through place.

Everyone has experienced the movement through place phenomenon in its simplest form, the inability to return home again.  Most people give cursory thought as to why this is.  Some come up with an answer somewhere around the idea that it is they who have grown or changed over time.  And while there is certainly some truth to this, I have come to feel that a big part of the change in people is due to the movement through place .  I’ll write more about movement through place in a later post.

Man from Earth plays as though it was written and directed for the stage – an approach that works really well with the subject matter.  (The film’s director has written a stage adaptation.)  Someday I’d like to actually see it performed on stage.

So, what’s the film about?  The producers of the film offer the following summary:

After history professor John Oldman unexpectedly resigns from the University, his startled colleagues impulsively invite themselves to his home, pressing him for an explanation. But they’re shocked to hear his reason for premature retirement: John claims he must move on because he is immortal, and cannot stay in one place for more than ten years without his secret being discovered. Tempers rise and emotions flow as John’s fellow professors attempt to poke holes in his story, but it soon becomes clear that his tale is as impossible to disprove as it is to verify. What starts out as a friendly gathering soon builds to an unexpected and shattering climax. Acclaimed science fiction writer Jerome Bixby, writer of the original ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’, originally conceived this story back in the early 1960’s. It would come to be his last great work.

That’s actually a pretty good description without giving anything away, as you learn John Oldman’s secret in the first few minutes of the film.  The rest of the movie is really about judging the veracity of John’s story.  Is the story plausible?  Even if his fellow professors have a hard time believing the story, do they still believe the storyteller?  One of the things I really like about the film is how John Oldman explains his understanding of the passage of time through his movement through place.

So if you have 90 minutes, I highly recommend the film.

Posted in Review Tagged movement through place

The Ultimate Life One Way?

When I think about what living a life one way might mean, I sometimes look back in my own family history at those brave ancestors who set sail for the new world, never to return to the old one.  How did they find the courage to undertake such a dangerous journey and uncertain future?  When you consider the relative ease with which people are able to shuffle about the planet today, it can be hard to fathom just how irreversible the decision to migrate from one place to another really was.  Of course many if not most of the people who left their homeland did so out of necessity, to find a better or more sustainable life for themselves or their families.

Today, the decision to live life one way is a choice.  Very few people, at least in the better developed parts of this planet, would ever have the need to leave home for other lands.  And should someone need to make such a move, the cost of returning at some future time would likely be within reach.

Will there ever again be a time when people are faced with the decision of embarking upon a journey with certain knowledge that there is no going back, only forward?

The most challenging impediment to human travel to Mars does not seem to involve the complicated launching, propulsion, guidance or landing technologies but something far more mundane: the radiation emanating from the Sun’s cosmic rays. The shielding necessary to ensure the astronauts do not get a lethal dose of solar radiation on a round trip to Mars may very well make the spacecraft so heavy that the amount of fuel needed becomes prohibitive.

While the idea of sending astronauts aloft never to return is jarring upon first hearing, the rationale for one-way trips into space has both historical and practical roots. Colonists and pilgrims seldom set off for the New World with the expectation of a return trip, usually because the places they were leaving were pretty intolerable anyway. Give us a century or two and we may turn the whole planet into a place from which many people might be happy to depart.

Moreover, one of the reasons that is sometimes given for sending humans into space is that we need to move beyond Earth if we are to improve our species’ chances of survival should something terrible happen back home. This requires people to leave, and stay away.

A One-Way Ticket to Mars

The last bit is the most interesting for me – that people may need to reconnect with the realities of living life one way in order to help ensure not just the survival of oneself or one’s immediate family, but the survival of humanity.

Posted in Exploration

A Starting Place…

I am just starting my exploration, my journey, and it feels right that I start as the year is coming to an end and winter approaches.

Posted in Exploration