I’ve needed this February worship theme of Poetic License in the context of our troubled world. In hard personal or political times we need creativity to help put us back together after the latest news has broken us apart. Art and beauty help us remember who we are as spiritual beings and enervate us for those marches, phone calls, education, offering sanctuary and solidarity–and all the other important spiritual work at hand. So, we complete the worship theme with this Sunday but the challenge is not to stop taking life with poetic license. The spiritual invitation is to keep on doing that forever.
So, as part of our spiritual practice for today, I invite us to reconsider this familiar poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” If you are like me, you may have had to include it in a poetry notebook when in elementary school or had to write a paper on it in high school. It has been set to music many times, and is one of the top ten most popular searches of American poems online. Something that probably is making Frost giggle up in heaven.
Here it is again:
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.
Apparently, Frost had at least two inspirations for this work. The first he describes in a letter to his friend Elizabeth, “Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made it out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.”
And then, remembering that experience many years later, he wrote the poem, at least in part as a gentle poke at his friend Edward Thomas, with whom he often hiked in England, and who must have been a perceiving type on the Myers Briggs because when they walked Frost said Thomas struggled to choose a road to take and when he did, wished he’d taken another. Such is the perceiver’s life–seeing all the roads, but being one traveler, struggling to choose.
Poets and spiritual practitioners seem to thrive on road imagery. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of poetry about diverging roads. In the book of Jeremiah, that writer looks at the prevailing culture of violence in his day, in the context of his own personal bouts of depression—and creates a vision of God speaking through the noise to remind the people to take the long view down the road–to rekindle their sense of self—their value and their beloved place in God’s heart. The whole long book is made up of many beautiful poems, but look at this singular elegant sentence—easily worthy of Frost: Jeremiah 6:16: Thus says God: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” A beautiful mantra for life today.
Likewise, in the Christian Scriptures, there are many roadway encounters—like Jesus talking to hopeless friends on the road to Emmaus, Saul getting blinded by the light of realization on the Damascus road. Also, in Sufism there is that moment when, at the crossroads, the mystic Rumi encounters the holy one, Shams, falls backward off his horse, in shock, a sort of Three Stooges moment—and upon rising, he says, laughing, “All I had believed was the unnamable Holy One, I encountered in the face of a human being!” Times when people have spiritual moments–like the one Frost described on the winter path, these weird pivotal, impossible, coincidental encounters that could have been nothing, that could have been everything.
But where are all these road images going, so to speak? What is this old popular poem about? The usual interpretation says that Frost’s intention is to point out the courageous superiority of his singular choice as having made all the difference. I have read some truly bad sermons saying that it is meant as a parallel to Jesus’ parable of the narrow way that leads to eternal life. And that both are saying, “Get it right, or else you’ll be sorry.” But in fact, Jesus as a rabbi often spoke in cryptic koans that were often misunderstood and as it became more and more popular, Frost cautioned its fans that this simple poem was tricky. Poetic license invites us to go deeper.
Divergence–it seems there is always another road–a parallel universe, the way it could have gone, the person you used to be with, the school you wanted to attend, the two job choices—one opportunity forsaken for another one, different. Ah, the choices we make–Maybe equal. Maybe superior, Maybe not. I have found that Life’s lovely and leaf strewn ways turn in on themselves—for, contrary to the obviously chosen ONE WAY—the roads I have been offered often were in appearance really about the same. No one could have foreseen the way the road would lead. Maybe your choices or mine or someone else’s were or weren’t wise and carefully chosen. Maybe they were coincidences–like meeting ourselves coming and going on the labyrinth. Your life, mine, it could have gone either way. Poets gaze at the roads diverging and see something beyond the GPS coordinates–beyond—to the mysterious places disappearing and reappearing at the horizon.
Poetic license does not necessarily preach or teach, but it re-imagines and invites. It does not give a definable answer to life’s big questions. Edward Thomas told Frost that no one would get “The Road Not Taken.” He wrote, “I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on.” But Frost liked the ambiguity of it and though he found it amusing that the poem was often most understood as a courageous credo, when in fact, it is wry and sweetly ironic, he loved that all who read it do so from the context of our own experiences. He did harbor the hope, though, that we’d have our creative souls expanded.
On the first Sunday of this worship theme, Wilson Bell and several other artists talked about the process of their creative work. Wilson talked about all these paintings behind me here on the wall, but what I remember most clearly is his explanation of this painting of the palm trees along the shore. On one level, it is a lovely painting of some palm trees, but with poetic license, he explained that it is also the first painting of a grieving dad after his son had died. And therefore, it also is a picture of life after death.
Does this poem invite us to rugged individualism? Maybe, maybe not. Does it proclaim that we all stand at the crossroads of life and must consciously choose a well-considered road? Maybe. Or maybe it says we often just go impulsively and look back to justify the choice years and years later. Maybe like the great Carlos Castaneda taught, “We must always keep in mind that a path is only a path. Each path is only one of a million paths. If you feel you must now follow it, you need not stay with it under any circumstances. There is no affront to yourself or others in dropping a path, but your decision to keep on a path or to leave it must be free of fear and ambition. And ask yourself, ‘Does this path have a heart?’”
The roads of our lives lead on and diverge and the invitation is to follow. Follow your roads… maybe you are on your way to Emmaus or Mecca or Trader Joe’s or grad school or the graveyard, and maybe you thought you’d go this way, the one right way and the other ways are not so right, and then may be it all diverged. Maybe God is not only in the rules and the regs, maybe God is the whirling dervish of the Sufis, the Kabbalah of Judaism, the mystery of the Christian sacraments, the silence of the Buddhist sangha, the music of Mozart and of hip hop’s driving truth, and maybe God is here and there and down the road not taken and up the road taken and on those many new planets discovered by scientists last week, and beyond our religion and in no religion at all. Maybe those of us earnest activists who feel so heavily burdened by the injustices of the day, maybe we need to do more, and maybe we need also to sit with the mystery and rest for a time and read a poem or take a photo or dance or draw, or play or pray or laugh or meditate and be one with some Payne’s Prairie and get strong again. Remind ourselves, even in this time that feels so dangerous and divisive, of the mystery of it all—what poetry and art teach us–that somehow, it remains true, that this broken suffering world also is being remade. At the divergent roads, it is both/and, bane and blessing–like always.
There is only one footprint wrote the great Muslim poet Ghalib—the one you and I are making in the eternal now of our one, wild, precious life. Are we choosing the most redemptive side of history to be oon? Using our power and privilege to make a positive difference? Contributing to the misery or helping to alleviate it? Are we joining Jesus and all the bodhisattvas in fulfilling the call to do good in the world? Yes, no, time will tell. It is a koan. It’s mystery.
To survive this world, I believe we must do it together and with creativity, God knows. I believe we must stay focused and for sanity, we must lighten up, both. Both are tools in our hands and in our hearts.
After it was apparent that his poem was popular for different reasons other than for the fun and thoughtful irony of the thing he’d intended, Frost scrawled in the margin of one of his notebooks,
“Write nothing ever so sincere
That unless it’s out of sheer
Mischief and a little queer
Won’t prove a bore to hear.”
That’s a definition of poetic license if I ever heard one and a really healthy spiritual practice. May we rediscover and and recreate our roads this week, a footprint at a time. Amen.