The Road Not Taken
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.
I, like many, have long related to Frost’s infamous poem about decisions. His assertion of choosing the road less traveled echoes Thoreau’s advice for individuals to march to their own drummers. In much of my life, I dreaded, at worst, the road less traveled. At best, I judged myself harshly for wanting to take it. My irony is that when I’ve chosen the more traveled road, I’ve felt completely out of place. And when I journey on the road less traveled, I feel utterly at home.
Growing up, my classmates loved to tease me that I’d be a soccer mom. So far those predictions remain wildly inaccurate, though at the time they all dismissed my protests. My prediction was always that I’d escape Atlanta and the South, although the actual details were never specific.
I’ve never felt as though I’ve lived a typical life, but when I was eighteen, I also didn’t expect my life someday to exemplify unusual decisions. Even though I was the dorky salutatorian of my high school class, far from mainstream popularity, I assumed I’d follow the predictable trajectory of life after high school. After graduation I attended a small liberal arts college, where rumor fondly exaggerates the alumni marriage rate as 85%. As I packed for orientation, I figured that during the four years I’d meet some (generically) “great” guy, and after graduation we’d move somewhere together, and after a lengthy relationship we’d get married. Beyond that I hadn’t considered much. I wasn’t so naive to believe in “happily ever after,” but my thoughts of the future didn’t extend beyond my college graduation year. I saw a path with clear curves and hills, some fuzzy forks, til the bend that signified graduation.
The next four years kept me fully engaged. My determination to work hard and reap the rewards meant that I guzzled caffeine and sugar in my efforts to maintain a GPA above 3.0 every semester. I had to choose the “right” major and excel in my studies, setting myself on the path for a successful degree. During my first year of college, not majoring in English formed an essential basis of that plan. Even though was my favorite subject in high school, I believed it was a useless major for life after college. So I suffered through the dense haze of introductory philosophy, earning my worst grade in my academic career, while I relished every session of literature class. Thus the relatively straight path I saw at orientation acquired its first fork early. I abandoned the path of a “real” major and selected English without second-guessing myself.
Soon after that unexpected decision, I decided to study abroad for a semester, another choice I’d never considered before college. Despite all my nerves about not knowing anyone on the program, I registered for a semester in Sevilla, where I relished life: I learned to embrace siesta, dance flamenco, and abandon my workaholic mentality.
Many passport stamps later, I graduated cum laude and single. That summer, four days after my twenty-second birthday, I moved to Japan in order to teach English. This decision baffled my parents, who, although refraining from outright criticism, expressed mild exasperation about me moving to Asia after completing an English and Spanish degree.
For the first time I truly understood Frost’s reasoning. The only use of “because” in his poem occurs when he explains why he chooses the road less travelled: “because it was grassy and wanted wear.” Otherwise the paths were equally fair, but the lack of wear gave one a “better claim.” The want of wear makes the road less travelled more enticing, the more compelling choice. My unsatisfying rationale to my parents equaled the brevity of Frost’s second stanza. We as humans seek opportunities that want wear; we crave experiences yet unknown. As nomads, as pioneers, we face change, fear, risk: the resulting lines etched on our faces and in our hearts define us.
So I moved halfway around the world, expecting to learn a little Japanese, sing karaoke, and depart upon fulfillment of my one-year contract. Initially, much of my experience matched my expectations: cutting-edge technology, the ubiquity of Hello Kitty, vending machines on every street corner. Six months after my move to Japan, I travelled to Thailand for winter break. On the beach on New Year’s Eve, my friends and I toasted the beginning of 2002. The next week of vacation felt inexplicably strange, like I was constantly underwater. I’d already felt ungrounded due to the move to Asia, yet this sensation was stronger—my own body and mind felt unfamiliar. I was adrift on a deeper level, more than culturally or geographically.
I couldn’t pinpoint the reason until a few weeks later, after I returned to my shoebox apartment in Japan. Through most of my life, I haven’t thought about the future in concrete details—types of jobs, career path, timing of marriage, number of children. I realized that at that time, mid-January of 2002, I had passed the only future and timing I’d ever considered or focused upon: my college graduation in 2001. All the hazy future elements were unattached to dates. I had never actually considered 2002 in any detail at all. My perspective was not unlike the flat earth theory: I’d only ever seen out until a certain point, yet I thought I saw everything. I was in outer space, now that I’d fallen off the edge of the flat earth. My future was in all directions, not just forward; it surrounded me. Time to explore.
To the dismay of my parents and grandmother, I renewed my contract in Japan—a decision that furthered my journey on that unlikely road. The combination of tradition and change, East and West, captivated me enough to prolong my time there. The curious, generous students and teachers at my school challenged me daily. I witnessed indescribable beauty when I encountered the essence of the culture that created Zen, from the serenity of tea ceremony to the thunder of taiko drumming.
At the end of my contract, the flight between Tokyo and Atlanta lasted long enough to convert from an enthusiastic teacher to a reluctant one. Like finding the “right” major, I thought teaching wasn’t the “right” job. Moreover, I recognized the unfortunate difference between Japanese reverence for education and frequent American disregard for it. I wanted employment in any sector but education, despite encouragement to the contrary from my family and friends. I investigated everything from marketing in Atlanta to interning in Chile, but instead, unexpectedly, I acquired a 9-to-5 office job, working at a subsidiary of a Japanese corporation.
Abruptly I shifted to a road more traveled, closer to what I had originally imagined at the onset of college. Had the timing been different, perhaps that job would have felt more appropriate. Yet that vision no longer fit. Like Frost’s acceptance of the unlikelihood of returning the first road on another day, I knew I couldn’t return to my flat earth. My present and future were far too multidimensional and multifaceted. Thus on the first day I knew that I had not started a career, even though it was the perfect situation for long-term stability. My job was secure, with understood, eventual advancement by seniority. After eight months, I was promoted from “assistant” to “associate,” a meaningless change that granted me new business cards and a small raise. The company had “holiday dinners” instead of “parties” and “incentive pay” in place of “bonuses.” Even though I wore pantyhose as little as possible, the professional version of me was a person I never thought I would be. Sometimes people didn’t recognize me in my work clothes. I vowed that I would quit after two years in order to travel abroad, thus making my first future plans.
Somehow I recognized that I needed to balance what no longer felt “right.” I discovered Ashtanga yoga, which helped reconcile my discomfort with my mainstream job. Ashtanga’s physical and spiritual intensity compensated my soul for my job of money, deadlines, money, schedules, money. In all, that corporate life lasted about eighteen months. Although still shy of my original plan of two years, I decided that I should walk what I talk, that I couldn’t work solely for money. I finally enacted that idea, and my subsequent employment teaching yoga and managing a gym surprised many, particularly because I earned less and received no benefits. Thus I veered away from the more traveled road, ecstatic to be a teacher again. The only remnants of the corporate life were some boxes of business cards, which my mother and I still use for grocery lists. Before I went to India, I gave all but three work outfits to a friend who had started graduate school for a Master’s degree. That road doesn’t want wear, and I knew I no longer needed its attire not to tread on it.
The travel aspirations had formed into a trip to India to study yoga. Four months after quitting the corporate job, I traveled to south India for five months, taking yoga classes six days a week. Even in towns with high tourist populations, I chose to live and interact with Indians as much as possible, far from westerners. I ended up living in an Indian guest house and later an Indian family. Despite living as an outsider, that period was the most normal I’ve ever felt, in another country and in the company of many like-minded people.
While in India, I considered moving to another city upon my return to the US. However, the miniscule bank balance upon my return prevented major financial upheaval. Before the jet lag had fully subsided, I returned to my prior employment. Additionally, other yoga studios wanted me to teach. So I biked to various work locations for a few years while living in Midtown, during which time I never entered all the bars around the corner from my house. I existed as an invisible female in the epicenter of gay male activity in the city. Eventually I moved to another neighborhood, nearby but starkly different. (An aside: the men there were quite vocal towards me, and at first I struggled to identify what factor made them so: race, socioeconomics, je ne sais quoi. Finally I realized they were heterosexual.) I also found more education-related employment, mildly corporate but not requiring awkward clothing. Most importantly, it incorporates both my interests and background. And I still teach yoga.
I’ve always been a simple, unextravagant person. Sartre defined existentialism as “existence precedes essence.” In other words, I am what I do and how I live. I strive to live a peaceful existence. I wake up before dawn, happy to be alive. I practice yoga in the morning. I work. I teach. I earn less money than nearly everyone I know, and I savor that which money is powerless to provide. That free-ness affords a honeysuckle-sweet freedom. (And the support of my friends and family sustains me more than I ever could conceive.)
Many people achieve living the life they imagined, reaching their goals and maybe more. In my case, the scope of my imagination wasn’t enough to encompass the life I have. My expectations have diminished, and my understanding of possibility has broadened. My dreams have grown tremendously. Notably, the title of Frost’s poem is not about the road he chose (the one less traveled), but rather “The Road Not Taken.” The other one. I seek what wants wear, knowing that ultimately the choices are equally fair. And I can sigh, not in regret, but in awe and appreciation of the unlikely decisions that revealed my path. I love living my own life.
Fiddler Jones (an epitaph in Spoon River Anthology)
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Read-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill – only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That someone did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle –
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.
~ Edgar Lee Masters
SK © 2010