The road taken

A dream the other night had me rounding a bend onto a city waterfront. I was alone, walking, backpack on my shoulder, no sense of any particular destination along that waterfront.

Isn’t that the way it is in dreams—the tease they bring to the waking mind, figure out this one, no neatly spelled out narrative to make sense of, their messages delivered like postcards from the unconscious mind?

Here’s what I see in this dream: a road, a journey, water. That I’m by myself speaks to a place deep in me, possibly archetypal and mythic, that some journeys are meant to be taken alone. There is no destination I’m aware of in the dream, only a sense that I’m here, in a state of relative peace, and I’ve come this far.

There is rarely ever a smooth path on a journey. We hit psychic snags, bumpy roads. We make choices, we let choices be made for us. We hit crossroads, we think about the roads not taken with or without regret.  Not for nothing is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” such a popular poem for the suggestion that personal and spiritual satisfaction comes from taking the road less traveled. In fact, a close reading of the poem shows the narrator deliberating, never really choosing which way to go, except to imagine from some future point in time what it would mean to take the metaphoric road less traveled.

I take the dreams I remember to heart. Modern neuroscience may tell us how we dream but the jury is still out on what dreams reveal. Are they rich in symbolism à la the theories of Freud and Jung? Or are they simply a side effect of random neural impulses? Either way, my dream has me thinking a lot about how we make peace with the mix of choice and circumstance that determines where our personal journeys lead us. It takes a lot of internal work to keep from being weighted by the past or restrained by future anxieties. If you’re lucky, something eases along the way, says to you this moment is all there is: sink into it, let it inform your choices. Let go of regrets.  Don’t be deluded by expectation.  This is the road you’ve taken.

If you’re a fiction writer, you get to fully imagine alternatives as Lionel Shriver does so cleverly and convincingly in The Post-Birthday World.

If you’re a poet, you write poems with beautiful, resonant, moving lines that say as much about making art as they do about introspection and self-discovery. “A wild patience has taken me this far,” writes Adrienne Rich in poem entitled “Integrity,” in a collection that takes its title from that line.

And if you’re someone who gives credence to her dreams, you remind yourself that their secrets are really no mystery if you pay attention to them.  Sometimes they echo with profound experiences, childhood memories, past loves. Other times they’re riddled with uncertainty and insecurity. As my inner life evolves, hopefully with the kind of acceptance and wisdom that come with age, how can I help but see dreams as barometers of change along my very own long and winding road?

My Sentimental Journey Playist

Women who run with the wolves

March and April have brought a confused aspect to spring. The groundhog never really gets it right, but I love the lore of it all. A March blizzard threw things completely out of whack. Before the blizzard there was this in my front yard.

Birds were visible, then seemed to go into hiding when the snow came. After the snow cleared, the natural order of things seemed to return—even if ‘natural’ may be a stretch: 45 degrees one day, 70 degrees another. Easter Sunday was a high of 80 degrees though the real what’s-wrong-with-this-picture was told by the trees, pretty much bare.

Noticeably missing was the subtle green chartreuse that encroaches a little more each day. It may be my favorite thing about early spring, the incremental change I get to witness.

There’s certainly some cruelty to April, being the month my mother died. But it’s Robert Frost who resonates even more deeply:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Early spring is nothing if not a reminder of how fleeting things are.

With renewal comes the reminder of all that’s lost to us.

Joy is a bubble, sadness carries weight. No escaping it. Bubbles are light. They float. Touch them too hard and they disappear.

A life well lived is one in which we pay attention—to the daily mysteries of changing seasons, to the people we care about, to whatever the world presents us with. I could easily enumerate the things in my life that give me joy but, on any given day, something heavier—a daughter feeling sick, a relative or friend in need or distress, my own personal challenges—gets in the way. Then there’s the world.

Is the cup half-full, half-empty, or always a little of both?

Don’t we often get the message we need when we most need it—assuming we’re not too closed off to receive it?

“While much psychology emphasizes the familial causes of angst in humans, the cultural component carries as much weight, for culture is the family of families,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run with the Wolves. A 25th anniversary edition, due out this year, tells me how long the book has been on my shelves. My curiosity about what myths and fairy tales bring to our consciousness, both in terms of story and archetype, may have been what first drew me to the book years ago. What prompted me to pull it from my shelf just the other day is more elusive.

Or is it? I’m an older woman than I was when I first read snippets of the book, but maybe it’s something about the times in which we live that has me craving the call of the wild. What better way to combat the predator wolves at the door than reclaiming the wolf spirit within? It’s metaphor, yes, but the point is to trust the intuitive side of our nature, give it more expression. “Like the wolf,” she writes, “intuition has claws that pry things open and pin things down, it has eyes that can see through the shields of persona, it has ears that hear beyond the range of mundane human hearing.”

Margaret Atwood is much in the news these days, what with the Hulu mini-series of The Handmaid’s Tale airing at a time when the Oval Office stinks with oppression/repression/misogyny. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” says Atwood in a recent New Yorker profile.  She also points out that “in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had the pushback, and now we are going to have the push again.”

#WomensMarch, #ShePersisted, #PussyHat—we’ve only just begun, even if we never thought we’d be marching and fighting to protect and preserve what we’d already gained.

Sometimes when I sit down to meditate, I have the misfortune to see the face of an ugly man with orange hair. Takes some time before he slips out of my consciousness, but his mere presence calls to mind the predator archetype who lives in our psyche, as Estés tells it. Bluebeard, in the story she tells and takes apart, may be the epitome of the predator who, in fairy tales (and life), chooses his women for their easy acquiescence. He may not be handsome but he’s powerful and rich. One by one his brides fall into the trap of a curiosity that kills them. Until one comes along who has the presence of mind to outsmart him.

The titles of books interpreting fairy tales—The Uses of Enchantment (Bruno Bettelheim), Off with Their Heads! (Maria Tatar), From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (Marina Warner)—speak worlds about their staying power and adaptability to changing times. Even Disney, with its formulaic charm and musical scores to tap our spirits, figured out that, for every fairy tale about a girl/woman saved by a prince there are countless others telling the story of how she saved herself, and others.

The road not taken

Last week I got lost on my way to synagogue.

If there’s a metaphor here, getting lost also speaks literally to my uncertainty (not to mention the spike in anxiety) when driving someplace unfamiliar. Call me a Wandering Jew (better yet, Goldilocks), but the past few years have found me trying out different options in search of the kind of comfort Jewish New Year services can bring. Changes at the Conservative synagogue I’d been affiliated with sparked a need for moving on. The Reform holiday services (even on the resplendent grounds of Caramoor) didn’t quite cut it. The Chabad variation (at the low-key local Holiday Inn) drew me back a few times. The rabbi is wonderful/warm/welcoming, with his stories and sense of humor. But the separation of men and women, with the implication of sexist exclusion, that goes with the Orthodox tradition doesn’t sit right.

So this year I would finally let my shul shopping take me in a new direction, not around the proverbial corner but close enough.

There was more than one Hallelujah; there was reflection, both communal and personal, and meditation. Almost everyone at the service had a chance to hold the Torah.

The service had the feel of coming home, and I told that to the rabbi, a woman.

I’m a spiritual seeker, yes, and a writer, which has me forever questioning the places our life choices take us. All writers, from the highly successful to those forever struggling for some notice, share common ground: we write because we can’t imagine life any other way; we complete draft after draft, send our work out, contend with rejection. Sometimes we feel a bit at sea, lost in a story that’s not quite finding its flow. More often than not, the effort to get published has us feeling tossed about in a stormy ocean. The metaphor really is no different for anyone working hard at any craft or job, hoping to catch a wave. Doesn’t have to be a big one, as long as it brings a little promise, some relief from treading water.

Comes a moment—call it hitting a wall, watery or otherwise—when we inevitably ask ourselves, is there anything we could have done differently, a proverbial road we missed or dismissed? We question whether to throw in the towel, find something else to occupy our spirits. We take stock of our successes, both on the career and personal fronts.

We pick up on cues, do our best not to misread signs. All of which makes it all the more interesting that I happen to be reading David Orr’s new, enlightening book, The Road Not Taken, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of an iconic poem. As Orr tells it, the popularity of Robert Frost’s poem “appears to exceed that of every other major twentieth-century poem.” In large part, its popularity seems premised on readers taking away a metaphoric message that a close reading of the poem appears to negate.   The very title of the poem is often mistaken as “The Road Less Traveled.”

Impressions count for a lot and, let’s face it, don’t we take our messages as we see/need them? What I take away from first readings of a poem, like those first times listening to a new song, is what speaks to me. Closer reading/listening brings to light something not noticed at first glance, and with it, deeper meaning. David Orr’s insights re: the poet himself and the poem definitely have me rethinking what “The Road Not Taken” is ‘about.’ Taking apart the poem, line by line with Orr, I can readily see the speaker standing at a crossroad, projecting choice rather than actually making a decision. And that’s profound enough.
Paradise NZ

Then I think of the roads I’ve taken, the one that have led me to still other roads, the ones I wish I’d taken instead.

And I can’t help wondering if getting a little lost along the way brings an added dimension to choosing between two diverging paths.