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.