I remember meeting with my guidance counselor in seventh grade and, while I can’t recall their name or gender, I can recall knowing the answer to their VERY SERIOUS QUESTION but not whether it was the right answer. Which, when you are a somewhat bookish kid and also a pleaser, yanks your innards in a most nauseating tug of war.
The question, of course–What do you want to BE when you grow up?
A writer, I said. I want to write stories.
And so they checked off the box that said JOURNALIST, which wasn’t what I meant at all.
In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” (Read it here) the unnamed traveler stands before two paths unspooling within an autumn wood. He must choose between them, and so considers their respective merits before continuing. Much has been made of that choice, with some concluding its message is that one’s life can be dramatically improved by eschewing conformity and crowds.
To which I say, No. That’s not what the poem is about at all.
First, the traveler’s choice of paths is neither deliberate nor deductive. He looks down one path as far as is possible, to where it “[bends] in the undergrowth,” and then “[takes] the other.” Why? Lines seven and eight offer a tepid rationale that he immediately contradicts. Both paths are “as just as fair” as the other. Likewise, while he initially believes his path “[has] perhaps the better claim,” upon closer inspection he sees they are “worn … really about the same / And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, there is no substantive difference between the two paths: They are similarly attractive, worn, and leaf-covered, neither one intrinsically better than the other. Rather, he confers value upon the chosen path by choosing it. Lines 13–15 explain why: Whereas he proposes to “keep” (return to) the first path on some imagined future day, he recognizes its improbability because “way leads on to way.” Time, like his journey, moves in only one direction: Each minute, like each step, offers additional alternatives that propel him inevitably forward.
Which is exactly what happened to me after meeting with my counselor. I wrote my way from school reporter to editor, first in junior high and then in high school. I earned my FCC license and in ninth grade began announcing a weekly classical music broadcast for a central PA radio station. I landed a coveted job with my local newspaper in eleventh grade and began writing ad copy and a weekly carrier news column. I entered Penn State University as a journalism major and began writing for the Collegian. There, I met the man who would become my husband, and I learned I loved the job of journalism but hated its lifestyle. I became an English major and, in grad school, changed my mind yet again, becoming not a college professor but a high school English teacher.
In the same room of the same district building for nearly 31 years. “Way leads on to way,” indeed.
Meanwhile, my writing languished. Half-written stories, unfinished novels… life and the demands of working motherhood stood in the way of what I meant to choose all those years ago.
Or maybe, I allowed them to get in the way? Maybe not choosing is as consequential as choosing?
Or maybe, it’s a bit more complex than that?
In the poem’s final five lines, the traveler imagines retelling this story “ages and ages hence” but never identifies why he sighs; repeats his false assertion that his path is “less traveled” and thus undercuts his veracity; then acknowledges his chosen path made a “difference” in his life but never defines the nature of that impact.
At least, not in the poem. Take a look at the title again.
Frost calls it “The Road NOT Taken.”
Why that title, when the poem focuses on the road taken?
Because the traveler is impacted not only by the actions he chooses to take, but also by the actions he chooses not to take. A life is comprised of both, its meaning determined and understood in part through the stories we tell in the moment and “ages and ages hence.” That’s why we know neither why the traveler sighs, nor whether he is content or regretful: he doesn’t know yet, either. He can’t.
Just like the meaning of the story I’m telling you here. In seventh grade, I could see into my future only as far as it “[bent] in the undergrowth.” Now, however, hindsight offers differing perspectives.
In June, I retired from teaching.
Now weekday mornings, I write.
Where will this new road take me?
No clue, though I’m excited for the journey.
I’ll send you postcards 😉