The Road Not Taken

Almost everyone who has attended a high school graduation has, at some point heard Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken.” It begins, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both…” Three strophes later, Frost states that what has made the difference is that the traveler took the road less traveled, not the one that showed the wear of constant use. Frost’s poem implies that we can go one way or another,  either-or, the road more traveled or the road less, and I’m mindful of that poem as I return from visiting our son and his girlfriend in Korea.  From our trip, I realize that traveling and dis ease have much in common that perhaps belies the forced choice the poem suggests.

Travel teaches things that are not as obvious anywhere else, and frankly it is one of my favorite things to do. When Ev and I travel, it is a tightrope act. Especially, we love to plunge into a culture of which we know little, and to grow as much from our ignorance, mistakes, and just plain cultural klutziness as possible. Usually, we follow Frost’s advice, forswearing the typical protections of most travelers. We drive where others bus, we stay in places where westerners cannot be found for miles, we head down alleys instead of main streets, we deliberately get sweaty, dirty, and just up to our elbows in the locale. We delight in breathing in these new spaces as we experience a gut-level, highwire that leaves us with that jubilant feeling in the stomach—part fear, part breathless, part stress, part sheer joy. And coming home to the consistent, known and stable (and the kitties) is just that much sweeter after the high emotion of travel.

Dis ease is a lot like travel, only we don’t actively seek it out. It is a paradoxical experience of consistent grounding and tightrope walking with your heart in your throat, and possible calamity just around the corner. The new normal of ALS grounds me, my friends and my family into a gut-level experience that is part grief, part grease lump in the stomach, part denial, part full realization. Like travel, it puts me on a roller coaster with a thrill of discovery, new sights, sounds and smells, but without the payoff of returning to the old normal of home in the scope of a plane ride. But dis ease and travel are surprisingly similar, and they came together for me in our trip to Korea.

Jet lag has always affected me harder than Ev, and the 14 hour time difference between Korea and the States was particularly difficult. When I am jet lagged, I often will dream vividly, and my first night in Seoul was no different. It gave me what I have come to call an ALS dream. ALS dreams are usually about some part of dis ease that I am struggling with in my waking hours, for example–the next papercut and its inevitable denial–and they range from the surreal to the highly realistic. My first night in Korea, I dreamed that the pressurized cabin of a trans-pacific flight had cured me of my dis ease! So sweet, so hopeful. No more ALS. All I had to do was get on a plane and leave the ALS dis ease behind me. And there was more in this “cure” than met the eye, for suddenly, the greasy congealed lump in my gut that I guess I have gotten used to in the grounded highwire of ALS, was gone as well.

I now realize that it is in my gut where dis ease really abides. Part grief, part physical byproduct, always present, my dream not only cured me of the ALS, but of the stuff I have been carrying as well. I could let go of the hole in my gut that represents my fears of the next step and the next and the next. I awoke, happy and thoroughly rested, with my ALS new normal gone. What an incredible feeling!  And of course, all I had to do was swing my legs out of bed to realize that dreams are only dreams. I stood myself up only to find that my foot dragged, my arms and gut and back twitched, and that was that. Cruel, eh? But I received a respite, if only for a moment, and it was energizing. And this is where I have new knowledge–that the highwire road less traveled and the old normal are not mutually exclusive, nor can they be.

In a way, our lives have become heavily dependent upon reducing the tightrope act, because with dis ease, our hearts are always in our throats. I knew this in my head as we prepared for Korea, but the dream showed me a road I need to travel, one that is both a higher tightrope and a less risky avenue. I need that respite from the gut stuff, because it is as debilitating as dis ease. I need to try to plan to stay ahead of what is happening, what is coming. But I also need to be allowed to be “old normal” where I can, walking the highwire of growth, newness, and humor that comes with diving into the experience. Ironically, ALS has become the grounding (in so many different meanings of the word) that defines the new normal. Old normal comes to me in the joy of friends, the glances of my lover, the pressures of my work, the adult growth of my kids, the learning of my teaching. New normal and old normal are not separate–they inform each other, just like a delicious dream of the curative properties of pressurized cabins offers respite. I’m grounded on the highwire, and what was once thrill, is now the respite.

Travel is as much a part of me as any body part. I’ve always loved it precisely because you end up living on the edge, in spite of how well prepared you are. Paradoxically, for Ev and me, our friends and family, colleagues and others, ALS brings us to the fork in the road where before, we would have chosen the road less traveled, but now we choose the roads we have traveled less. We have to care about the grief we carry, and we have to carry the grief for each other so that we are not so thoroughly buried by our new grounding, that we cannot get up off the ground.  ALS insists on a less energetic interlocution with the world. With this trip to Korea, we recognized a new way to travel–less breathless, more protected, more traditional.  We became cognizant of the energy it requires to accomplish the next learning, knowing full well that we cannot predict everything to come, even with great foresight and planning.

Frost identified the condition correctly:  “Two roads diverged in a wood.”  But dis ease means that you don’t get the privilege of traveling one or the other. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one…”  that I found myself upon.  It is the way of dis ease, but more importantly, it is the way of life.  Take that Robert Frost!

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11 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken

  1. Hi Bruce, another perfect 10. I am marveling at the thought that you were willing and able to go Korea recently. What a gift that must have been for all of you. The words that come to my mind are courage and tenacity. I would be willing to bet that all those back alleys and side roads you took in your normal life will come back and help you along your journey of Dis Ease in ways you never imagined.

    Thank you for sharing your journey on which ever road you are on today.
    L

  2. I so envy you the lover’s glance. Is that horrible of me? Those were the rawest words in my reading of your message.
    As for the entirety of your message, Bruce, I feel you are holding an egg of truth for each of us to peer into, to connect with, to learn from, to fear, and to know as our own human condition. We are so vulnerable and fragile. What a miracle that God gives us strength for the day. What an amazing thing that it only takes one change in life as usual to open our hearts and make us ever-mindful of the Ground of Our Being. I am so grateful that are paths cross with others and for a time we travel together.
    Love to you and Ev. Peace.

  3. You say for all of us things that we know – at that gut level- about our vulnerability. The intensity with which you experience it and the way you zero in on expressing the emotion of those experiences sometimes overwhelms me. May you have more moments of release & peace – and many more of travel, including Jazz Fest, maybe??

    We love you!

  4. What wonderous thoughts. As I travel alot, & increasingly more, for work, I spend some time in reflection as I feel lonely – for Lindsey, my family & friends. But as this road is travelled, I am blessed with my co-workers in my other offices, new aquatences of contractors & clients, & new relationships with the local churches that I become involved with, even if for a short time. This is not exactly what you are saying here, but the main point remains with your thoughs and feelings of travel & the road we take.

  5. Thirty years ago, two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I chose to walk a path with you, Bruce. I recall a warm autumn day in southern Indiana when we joined our lives. It truly was a yellow wood. (And scarlett! And orange!) For some friends and family members, the speed in which I diverged from my expected life route was abrupt and rather shocking. But as Frost says at the end of his poem, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference. ” And that HAS made all the difference. Bruce, I have never looked back and even now that the road is filled with potholes and unexpected dangers around every bend, I still can’t think of any road and any companion I’d rather travel with.

  6. I am quite certain, Bruce, that your readers are learning, as I am, to hold more carefully and thoughtfully each of the days with which we are blessed. Your perceptions and musings come straight from your heart, it is obvious. What a rare soul you are. Love and blessings to you and Ev.

    Barb

  7. Well said, Bruce. Travel is a lot like declining in health. Both of them teach you that you are not in ultimate control. My kids will not let me go up ladders, my Mary Ellen will not let me leave the cockpit of the sail boat, my body will not let me work with abandon (well for one day and then pay the next several). In travel you are at the mercy and care of strangers who happen to have picked up English as another language, you have to trust the food and water, and enjoy and deal with what you encounter. The pay-off for both is that it feels much better not having to make sure the world in turning on a 24 hour basis. Thanks, Bruce, love you!

  8. How ironic Bruce…it is you that is giving others strength and solace through your message in a “Road Less Traveled.” You continue to be an inspiration to those around you—both near and far…
    With love to you and Ev,
    Paul

  9. You surprised me today, Bruce, by coming to the second service – but I heard you singing out there! Sorry I had to run off to a rehearsal so I didn’t get to give you and Ev a hug! Sounds like you had a meaningful trip and were able to get down ‘the road less traveled’. We look forward to some time together soon. Meanwhile, we are blessed with your inspiring thoughts in this blog.

  10. So even dis-ease is both a blessing and a curse. I have found it to be true in the grieving process I have gone (and in some ways still am going) through. I’m glad you had the dream though. I wouldn’t say “it was only a dream” because there is a big part of you that is free from dis-ease, and it is your spirit. Thank you for letting us travel on this road with you and Ev even just a little bit.

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