The Musing Idealist

musings inspired by literature, poetry, nature, and occasionally everything else.

The Road Not Taken: Recapturing the Uncertainty

pexels-photo-213172.jpegMost believe this a quaint little poem about taking the high road, about walking the difficult path, about making the right choice. Most, then, do not read this poem carefully (or at all). It has become a staple in graduation speeches and moralizing lectures. Very few understand Frost, even in his own time. He is tricky, deceptively complicated, and that’s what makes him brilliant. Let’s look a little closer, one stanza at a time.

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;

Line two tells us he wishes he could travel both roads. One does not stand out to him as better; he wishes he could walk one then double back to walk the other. As he is “one traveler,” though, he does not have the time for that. He tries to peer down one but cannot see where it leads so the destinations of the paths can’t help him decide. His indecisiveness continues:

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,

The roads have no major differences. One has, “perhaps,” the better claim but this word shows him far from certain. It has more grass asking to be walked on but the last two lines tells us both have been traveled “really about the same.” That’s a major point against the typical reading. They have both been traveled. One is not more difficult or less desirous to the common walker. So what made him choose the path he chose? nothing of significance; it had some grass.

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.

In lines three through five we see he wishes he could come back to travel the second path. Why would he want that if he were certain he was taking the best path? Nevertheless, knowing how one path leads to another he doubts if he’ll be able to come back. How many more choices will he have to make down this road? Will the next juncture have three paths to choose from? The next five? He knows it is not possible to travel all roads. Here is the tragedy:

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.

This sigh is often seen as a sigh of contentment: the speaker is looking back on his life satisfied and happy about the road he chose because “that has made all the difference.” If we read the tone of the previous stanzas correctly, this couldn’t be more wrong. This sigh is one of uncertainty, of curiosity, perhaps of regret? What would have happened had he chosen the other path? Where would he have ended up? What different paths would have been open to him? How would his life have been different? Perhaps he is content but he can’t help but wonder… and sigh.

Here comes the confusing part. If he said the roads were “as just as fair,” that one had “perhaps* the better claim,” and “both that morning equally* lay,” why does he end by saying he took the one less traveled by? I think the key to this is in the tense of the first line: “I shall* be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence…” The rest of the poem is in past tense so the speaker is somewhere between this choice and “ages and ages hence.” Has he just chosen the path? This is followed by the em dash, the long pause. He’s uncertain. Perhaps the only way he can live with his uncertainty is by convincing himself he made the right choice? by hoping he made the right choice? Look back at the title; his focus is on the path he didn’t take, not the path he did.

So what is “the difference”? Is he confident in his decision? Is he convinced he made the right choice? Is there a right choice? Oh, Frost. You’ve twisted us into an existential crisis yet again.

For more existential crises inspired by Frost, read “For Once Then Something,” “The Demiurge’s Laugh,” “A Passing Glimpse,” and “The Tuft of Flowers.”

*italics mine, of course

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Memories


I do not remember much about my childhood. For whatever reason my memories of those first two decades are few, vivid, and connected with strong emotions.
I have a memory of a cross-country, family road-trip, of riding in the backseat of my parents’ red/pink/purple F-350 with a small stack of R.A. Salvatore’s fantasy novels on the seat beside me. Of smelling the pages, studying the cover, and opening to the first page, eager to fall into another world as the trees and fenceposts streaked by the windows behind and in front of me. I also remember the terribly annoying song my father sang over and over and over again. That is something I will never forget. I hope I will also not forget the rush of excitement from each glint of the fireflies as we chased them with mason jars in the twilight of Nanny and Grandaddy’s country yard in Missouri. The anticipation that rose as I stared into the blackness where my firefly was, waiting for the explosion of color so I could continue the chase.

I have a memory of my cousin burning a pair of basketball shorts with a makeshift flamethrower in the junkyard that was my grandparents property. I was captivated by the blue-green flame as the elastic wasteband sizzled and melted into the dirt. We heard the screen door slam shut; Grandma was coming. He quickly stomped on the shorts to put out the flame. You may know where this is headed since it has to be connected with a strong emotion. The liquified elastic stuck to the sole of his shoe and with near-intention used the lifting of his foot to propel itself onto and eventually into the side of his leg. Go ahead and use your imagination from this point but I will tell you there was screaming, fear, and a good deal of shame.

I have another memory of riding in the back of the red/pink/purple F-350 on another trip. My parents had purchased a camper shell and filled the bed of the truck with a mattress, pillows, and blankets. I was carefully turning the pages of a precious comic book that was worth quite a lot to me. If you know me at all you are aware of what my wife calls my “cloud car,” that is my virtue (or vice) of being able to focus so much that the world around me fades into a blur and muffle. I was deep in the epic adventures of some masked hero. Grandpa, wanting to spend time with his grandson, tried to get my attention by slinging his water bottle at me and onto the nearly holy book that lay across my lap. I was furious, something that does not happen often. I looked up into the smirk onto his face, snapped at him, and gave him the cold shoulder for the rest of our time together (which was the remainder of the day). I don’t remember anything about the comic book, not even who the hero was. I do remember the crestfallen look that grew on Grandpa’s face as the mischievously playful smile faded. I still regret that moment every time I think of him and how I won’t ever be able to apologize for it.

Many of my memories are connected to regret. I remember calling a friend to cancel our disc-golf match. I hadn’t seen him in awhile and, if I remember correctly, didn’t feel up to expending the energy it takes me to socialize (a wellspring of regret for me). He drowned in a river the next weekend. I also vividly remember where I was when I received that news.

I seem to remember the fantasy realms in the books I read as a child and teenager as well as I remember my own life. This reality regularly perturbs me. I often wonder why I don’t remember and ponder why what little I do remember is grounded in emotion. It’s the small things that slip away the quickest, just as the smallest clumps of dirt fall through my fingers first. My mind is an outstretched hand with fingers locked apart as I watch the memories slip through, powerless to stop them. I tell myself, “Maybe that’s how everyone is? ” until I hear others vividly recounting their early lives. I have one memory from all of kindergarten. Why do you get troves?! My memory is of the time a scolding taught me that my eyes do not appear to be looking forward just because my head is facing forward. Apparently your eyes move to the corner when you’re looking out of the corner of them. So much for my master plan of tricking the teacher all year. Shame. I guess I have two memories. I vaguely remember the feeling of warmth and love upon opening my lunchbox on the first day and finding a note from my mom. The only thing I remember about it is the rainbow. My wife occasionally puts notes in my lunch. I’m not sure she realizes the emotional connection these make each time. Hers don’t have rainbows though.

I want to remember the raccoon-smirk on Ivy’s face as she grabs a stack of magna-tiles and waddles around the room on new, wobbly legs chanting “Kayee!” I don’t ever want to forget how Rowan says panda bear (it’s pronounced “payuh bayo”). Will I forget all of this just as I did the first two decades of my life? Will I only remember tiny snapshots and general feelings? There certainly is a cumulative aspect to life which is infinitely important to everything but forgetting all of the special moments, even all of the mundane, the day-to-day stresses and joys, is heart-wrenching.

Characterization of a Nation


“[They] are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution… they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine… they alone are enabled to call a thing hoped for a thing got, by the speed with which they act upon their resolutions. Thus they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting…”

Who does this sound like? Think about it. They are addicted to innovation, swift in conceiving of and executing ideas, adventurous and daring but perhaps lacking judgment. Their hope for something is followed immediately by achieving or obtaining it. And they’re so obsessed with getting and getting that they don’t have time to enjoy what they have gotten.

Well, this is Thucydides’ description of the Ancient Athenians written 2400 years ago. What’s old is new. What’s new is old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Numbering Our Days

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Carpe annō per viam carpendō diēs!

Think of what you were doing six years ago. Were you beginning college? Were you working in a different job? Were you living in a different place? Were you doing exactly what you are doing now? Recreate a vivid image of yourself at that point. What were your goals? How did you spend your time? Who did you spend this time with?

It doesn’t seem that long ago, does it? Now, do some simple arithmetic. Assuming you’ll live a nice, long life of ninety years, how many six years do you have left? If you’re sixty, you’ll be luck to have five six years left. Your life is 2/3 of the way over. If you are thirty, you may have ten of those six years ahead of you. Your life is 1/3 of the way over. Thinking of it this way is a revelation to bring me to my metaphorical knees, gasping for breath. Yet there is such a disconnect between this reality and the way we live our lives everyday. If we were to sit down and budget the time we have left in our lives, how much would we alot to instagram? to youtube surfing? to reading with our children? to learning to play the oboe? Would we stay at our current job? Would we pursue meaning in some other way?

If we spent our money like most of us spend our time, a financial planner would call us reckless and likely predict bankruptcy in our near future. The norm is to squander away everything. Here is my charge, then: Think about how you want to live your life. What short term goals do you have? long term goals? Assume you’ll live to 90. Now, budget that time! Always live in a way to achieve all of this. This is a twist on carpe diem. That mantra is typically paired with, “Live like today is your last day!” That is awful advice. It encourages reckless hedonism even more. If I’m going to die in twenty-four hours I’m definitely not going to learn more French vocabulary, practice drills on the piano, or drink that veggie smoothie.

No, seize the day as your only means toward accomplishing all that you want to accomplish in your life! Without each one of these steps you will never reach the top of the mountain. You will never be the father or mother you want to be, finish writing that novel you’ve always had on the back-burner, or learn to make woodcuts (like Albrecht Durer’s “St. Antony” at the top of the post; look at the detail he managed in wood!). Numbering our days is seizing the day for the long-term, not squandering our moments because we can’t see beyond the iPhone in front of our faces. The new mantra is Carpe annō per viam carpendō diēs: Seize the years by seizing the days!

“Forgetfulness”

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The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue

or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

-Billy Collins

When I first encountered this poem it struck me, perhaps harder than it does most. As a teacher, I require my students to learn a great deal. I’ve always firmly believed that education was more than memorization and regurgitation, more than formulas and charts and terms and dates. This poem, however, pushed that belief even further. We’ve all had this experience. Gradually things slip away, some more quickly and completely than others: conversations we’ve had, vacations we’ve taken, people we’ve known. Students I taught last year now remember only a fraction of what we discussed and they’ll remember even less of it next year. Even the books we read are largely forgotten. What, then, is the role of a teacher in light of this forgetfulness? What should we be teaching our children and students?

This reminds me of Socrates’ question to Meno, “Can virtue be taught?” If it can’t and Collins is right in his assessment of our minds’ relationship to information, what is left? Or is he being a bit too pessimistic?

This reminds me of another quotation that is generally attributed to Emerson: “I don’t remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten. Even so, they’ve made me.”

Let’s Read: Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”

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Read Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” Come on. It’s only seven pages. I’ll even post a pdf of it here for you (thanks to Harvard): the-chysanthemums

(The Idealist taps his fingers on the desk for two minutes then makes a latte and waits for another ten)

What did you think? I love Steinbeck’s voice, don’t you? Here’s the question I had after reading this story: Why does Elisa cry in the end? I’ll give you my thoughts but I’m no expert. You should take a few minutes to try your own hand at it.

(The Idealist busies himself by doodling what he intended to be chrysanthemums; his five-year-old could do better)

Let’s give it a go. So, to begin, Elisa has a less-than-ideal relationship with her husband. He seems nice enough and wants to show her he cares. He doesn’t know how to show her, though, and she doesn’t feel the love. He doesn’t understand why she grows chrysanthemums. He doesn’t understand “planting hands.” She also seems unfulfilled by the chrysanthemums but they’re all she has to express this part of herself: “The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (1). She is discontent with her current life.

Cue the pot-mender. She is opposed to him and tries to get rid of him. She doesn’t even care that he may have nothing to eat that night until a very crucial moment in the text. Do you know which one? “His eyes left her face and fell to searching the ground. They roamed about until they came to the chrysanthemum bed where she had been working. ‘What’s them plants, ma’am?'” (4). That is one good salesman. He knows exactly how to break through her barrier. She immediately opens up about the plants and slowly opens more and more. This is clear even in the story’s symbols: her gloves and the fence are always protecting her and her chrysanthemums. Even her husband is held back by them. But now, “the man came through the picket fence,” and, “The gloves were forgotten” (4). He has her and doesn’t have to do anything else. She convinces herself, even to the point of seeing “planting hands” in him and finally reaching her hand toward his leg (5), showing a desire for him. In her mind she has already found a connection with this mender of pots far deeper than that which exists between her and her husband. But she stops. She drops her hand to the ground and feels ashamed (5).

I believe this describes self-restraint, that she made a conscious choice to stay with her husband and not to set off with this pot-mender (though he did not truly reciprocate her connection and likely wouldn’t have had her). This is the source of the strength she mentions. Even so, she had a vision of what she could have had, could have, and chooses otherwise. She has lingering regret mixed with resolve and a desire for contentedness in her situation. She was not surprised that the pot-mender tossed the flowers and kept the pot. She knew. In the end, she assertively asks if she and her husband can “have wine at dinner… It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty” (7).

Is she trying to convince herself in these last lines? Is it true? What is the significance of her crying “like an old woman” (7)?

Sense of Wonder

A Blade of Grass

You ask for a poem.
I offer you a blade of grass.
You say it is not good enough.
You ask for a poem.

I say this blade of grass will do.
It has dressed itself in frost,
It is more immediate
Than any image of my making.

You say it is not a poem,
It is a blade of grass and grass
Is not quite good enough.
I offer you a blade of grass.

You are indignant.
You say it is too easy to offer grass.
It is absurd.
Anyone can offer a blade of grass.

You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,

And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept.

– Brian Patten

 

When were you last awestruck by the intricacies of a leaf? mind-blown by the speed of the moon across the sky? stupefied by your tongue wildly flicking around your mouth as you talk? This last one may temporarily impart your ability to speak fluently. We see the wonder in the eyes of children as “cute.” I’d rather see the world through their eyes. 

Does growing older necessitate a loss in wonder? How do we hold onto it? How can we again be mesmerized by a blade of grass? I guess the first step is, next time you see a blade of grass, pick it and spend a moment exploring its intricacies. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you feel like a child again.

Athenian Democracy: The Need for Education

E0702 KLENZE 9463The two major powers in ancient Greece can teach us many lessons about ourselves and our government. Athens shows us the values and dangers of democracy. It shows us something about human tendency and, if we look closely, gives us insight into why our government is structured the way it is.

Ancient Athens is considered the creator of democracy. In Athens the individual was valued. All men could vote (let’s table the issue of women’s and servants’ suffrage for now). They would each cast their votes with a stone in a pile or jar. These would be counted and the majority would win the issue. This individuality, this freedom, gave rise to much intellectual progress in Athens: the birth of theater and recorded, secular history, of formalized science and philosophy. The freedom and independence Athenians enjoyed was unparalleled.

This level of power in the hands of the citizens only works, though, if the citizens remain educated. The citizens are the legislators. The citizens are the rulers. The citizens must decide what is best for themselves and for Athens. They must decide what is right and what is good. If they remain invested, virtuous, and wise, the city will prosper. If they don’t, they risk succumbing to sloth, to ignorance, to persuasion, to manipulation. Ancient Athens is the origin of the term “sophist” which we see in words like “sophistry,” “sophistication,” and “sophomore.” Sophists sound good, they seem to have wisdom, they seem to know what is best and so instill confidence in people. They were trained in rhetoric which many abused to twist the minds of the simple for personal and political gain. This is why Athens has an interesting history with tyrants: “This guy seems like he’d do a great job and it’d be so much simpler to let him make all of the decisions. Imagine how much more time we’d have without the endless debates and voting.” They should not have been surprised to watch their liberty slip away.

But democracy itself in Athens also had its own issues. You only need to look at the Ionian Revolt to see that. Aristagoras came from Ionia, the Greek city-states in modern day Turkey, and asked the Spartan king for support in fighting the Persians. The Spartan king deliberated for a long while and eventually decided it was a unwise for the Spartans to join. Aristagoras then went to Athens and spoke publicly to the people. His speech was full of power, of passion, of Greek pride. Their emotions were stirred, their passions were set ablaze and they decided with no deliberation to aid him. There was nothing to check them. There was no process of deliberation, no checks and balances. They were able to act immediately, in the heat of the moment and under the spell of Aristagoras’ charisma. This decision nearly brought complete destruction to all of the Greeks at the hands of the Persians (familiar with the story of the “300” Spartans?).

So pure democracy in Athens tended away from reason and education and toward passion. This is more than an Athenian problem, though. It is a human problem. Athenian democracy was fertile soil for this to happen but the same human problem persists even in our society. How can we solve this? Is it possible to maintain high-quality education in what it is to be human, to be a citizen, and what it is to be these together and in so doing insure our democracy doesn’t crumble? The founding fathers of America attempted to solve this by making America a democratic republic, a blend of democracy (rule of the people) and aristocracy (rule of the best). The people elect the aristocrats. Did their solution work? Perhaps we are still in the trial phase.

Local vs. Federal Government

Gone are the days when the average man knew his local congressmen and actually listened to and appealed to them. When the average woman cared very little for the governmental positions in Washington D.C. as they had little effect on her. Many don’t realize that our emphasis on the central government has not always been the way it is. The local government was what mattered to a person because that is what affected them. We have shifted focus. This change is strange but revealing. It reveals our shift from local power to centralized power, our Progressive shift from bigger state governments and a smaller federal government to the opposite.

Still, though, our local senators and representatives are our representatives in Congress, the law-making branch of our government. The only real power we have to influence federal laws is by putting people in Congress who will represent our local values. It follows, then, that we would know our congressmen well. Do we? Do you know your district representative? What about your two senators? Your governor?

As our education declines nationally, so does our understanding of everything, including the relationship between state and federal governments. As we lose that understanding, we lose sight of how crucial the balance of power is. Our votes are no longer informed by wisdom and understanding but by opinion and passion. We are no longer able to engage in actual argument with resolute minds and open hearts.

We are a democratic republic. We are also performing an educational experiment: can universal education work? Democracy and true education – education of the mind in the liberal arts, education about what it is to be human and what it is to be human together – must go together. When preparation to be part of the economy becomes the focus of education, when it is focused on preparing us for the workplace with “functional” knowledge and skills, we have lost the balance in ourselves and we will lose our liberty as a people.