A few months ago I drove to New Hampshire, impetuously, to buy a drum I didn’t need and couldn’t really afford. I spent several hours on the sun porch of an old farmhouse at the end of a dirt road. The drum man understood my need to touch and play so many—from small to enormous, from buffalo to reindeer to horse and more. After settling me amidst the dozens he’d brought out, he left me alone. It’s said that a drum chooses you, not you the drum, so I wanted to make sure I gave enough drums the chance to choose me. I think the choosing is really a bit of both, like a relationship. Like any truly intuitive choice. I bought my drum and two beaters.
The experience left me giddy. I hadn’t eaten all day, and I was tired. I’d driven several hours then chanted, sang, and drummed for more hours while I watched the river flow over gray rocks and around leafless trees. As I drove away from the farm, I found myself turning North, away from home. The late afternoon’s dreariness, the damp gray air, and the glimmer of recognition that it would probably be wiser for me to head South toward home brought me low. Maine was calling again, insistently, but I didn’t have my tent or snow boots, and there was no money left for an inn. But I kept driving.
Then I saw the birch trees. They were bent low from the winter’s snow, though most of it had melted weeks before, and as I whizzed past dozens of them I found myself reciting Robert Frost’s, “Birches,” a poem that has grown with me since I learned it as a child.
When I see birches bend from left to right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do…
I’ve a great fondness for birches and have climbed scores over the years. My childhood home had a triple weeping one in the front yard. I’d shimmy up one of its trunks and grasp a branch, usually hooking my knees over it to hang upside down. Then I’d bounce, or scoot outward along its length until it dipped down and I’d release, flipping myself into the air and landing—usually—on my feet. I’d broken a branch one day, enraging my father, and had to be careful. I spent a good deal of my childhood in all kinds of trees. I loved tucking into those snug spots where a thick branch meets the trunk. I’d settle in to read a book, or use my knife to whittle a stick I’d pocketed before climbing. Later I’d climb up to the highest branch I thought would hold me and stretch out along it, arms and legs dangling. I’d sing, practice my whistling, or make up rhymes—especially limericks that might make my poet-great auntie giggle. Or I’d be a panther, resting but watchful from my safe place.
Birches, though, aren’t trees for resting in. Birches have a kind of primal energy about them that calls for motion. They’re usually the first to appear after the ground has been disturbed in the woods, and they symbolize new beginnings. Known mystically as the “Way Shower,” the birch’s bark catches the moonlight in darkness and makes for excellent fire kindling even if it’s wet. The birch is also called a “sky ladder.” It’s used by shamans in some cultures as a way to travel to the upper world to receive spiritual guidance to aid their healing practices in this world.
I pulled off the road to take some pictures and think. Frost’s lines continued to run through my mind.
…So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile…
That’s what I wanted. To get away. In the tangled jungle of my brain, driving to Acadia and climbing Cadillac Mountain to look at the panorama of sky and Atlantic Ocean seemed a perfect parallel to, “I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,/And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk/Toward heaven…”
I heard myself reciting:
…I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better…
The speaker in the poem sounds so certain. I wasn’t. I had been ill and in constant pain for six years, and I’d had to leave my long career as an educator behind. I’d lost connection with most of my friends because I couldn’t be social the way I had before I got sick. I’d had to put my crazy but beloved dog down in the fall, and I still had a gaping hole in my heart from losing her. And my nearly twenty-five year marriage had morphed into a good but unusual relationship that had me deeply confused. I was “weary of considerations.” My life felt less “like a pathless wood” than one with too many unmarked paths and too many twigs’ lashings. I wanted to get away from everything, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back. And I didn’t even know what not coming back would look like.
I could have plonked myself down right there among the trees beside the road and drummed myself up the shamanic sky-ladder to seek advice on my choices from my upper world guides, but I didn’t. It was cold and getting dark, and I was just too tired. I texted a trusty person instead: “Tell me to go home,” I wrote, and he did. I sat in the driver’s seat thinking about Robert Frost and hoping my own sought after advice would sink in and turn me Southward.
Here’s what I thought about. Birches, and roads, beg us to act, and acting requires choices. As a tree-climber and woods-explorer, I knew this long before my grandmother introduced Robert Frost’s work to me. Gammie loved poetry, but her reading tended mostly to Frost and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The green clothbound volume of Browning had its home at the end of the Harvard Classics collection in my grandparents’ apartment, but the red leather Frost lived on the round table beside the gold-striped “guest’s” chair. Sometimes Gammie would pick it up and settle on the white sofa across from the rollaway bed where I slept and lounged when I visited (I wasn’t allowed on most of the furniture). She’d read aloud to me, stopping occasionally to sip her coffee.
At age 6 or 7, I didn’t understand much, but knew I was hearing poetry quite unlike the limericks Gammie’s sister Wee-Wee would write for me, or the prayers my teachers distributed for us to memorize…those “poems” inked purple on mimeographed sheets still damp and smelling of the print. Robert Frost’s poems didn’t rhyme mostly, and a lot of them were really long and confusing, but after Gammie had put the book down and left the room, I’d search for the bits that rang my heart. “We make ourselves a place apart,/Behind light words that tease and flout…” and “I shall set forth somewhere/I shall make the reckless choice…” and “It’s a nice way to live,/Just taking what nature is willing to give..” And, oh, so many more that still ring—in far more complexly layered tones—all these decades later.
Mostly back then I liked Robert Frost because he drew Gammie to visit with me without teaching me how to be a lady— lessons and activities that comprised the vast majority of our interaction. I also liked that his poems were like flints that sparked her to tell stories. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” kindled the time she and her brother Bernard snuck out for a verboten ride in the family sleigh one winter’s evening. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” burned with her grief over her Papa’s early death, and “The Road Not Taken” lit up her courtship with my Grampa.
The only other time that my grandmother—a first-generation Irish Catholic Yankee and an exceedingly private woman—told me a story about herself was toward the end of her life. One night on what would be her last visit to my house, I came home from a date to find her and my mother sitting at the kitchen table in their bathrobes drinking bourbon (my mother’s drink—the “old-fashioneds” from which I was wont to steal the leftover cherries when I was wee) and smoking cigarettes by candlelight. Gammie, as far as I knew, neither drank nor smoked, and she and her daughter rarely cozied up like this for conversations. I’d intended to pop in to say a quick goodnight but was so mesmerized by this bizarre scene I entered the room and sat.
They asked about my date and launched into a team variation of their scripts about boys and girls meant to instruct me in the proper conduction of my romances. Gammie didn’t have her teeth in, and as I watched her sip her old-fashioned and draw on her cigarette, she seemed a stranger to me. When their indoctrination paused, I commented, “Gammie! I didn’t know you drank and smoked cigarettes!” Her piercing blue eyes held mine for a moment, then she threw back her head and laughed. When she looked at me again, she seemed different. “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” she said. A bit sadly I thought. Then she told me her last story.
“I was a little older than you. We lived in Derry then. There wasn’t much to do for fun. I was working in a bank, and my sisters hadn’t started college yet. My brothers were all busy with their jobs and their lady friends, so it was up to us to make our own fun, but our options were limited. We had little money, and it was Prohibition, you know, so there wasn’t a lot going on at night if you didn’t know where to look. But we knew where to go from our brothers! Wee Wee and Bessie and I hid our dresses away from my mother. We’d go out for a walk or to the movies, and change behind the grocer’s. I guess you’d call them flapper dresses. They showed our knees, and Mother would have been scandalized. One night, I went out on my own. I’d met a young man, Bertram. I wanted to see him again on my own without my sisters. I wanted to marry him. So I went to the Dewdrop Inn where they had music and dancing and gin in the basement. Bertram and I danced—he was a wonderful dancer. I was so happy.”
Gammie stopped talking for a bit, pulling thoughtfully on her cigarette and took another sip of her drink. She sighed. “I was happy until the door crashed open and I saw my brother Walter. He was the oldest of us, you know. Very straight-laced and responsible. Very tall.” She made a stern face and sat up straight in the chair, creating a hilariously incongruous imitation of Walter given her age, her bathrobe, and her absent dentures. She resettled and continued, “Walter turned out that way, I guess, after Papa died and left Mother with the nine of us to raise on her own. He found me and came striding over, right into the middle of the dance floor, and pulled me away from Bertram. He took off his overcoat and flung it around my shoulders. He nodded at Bertram then pulled me toward the door hissing into my ear, ‘It’s time you do drop out of the Dewdrop Inn.’” She laughed then and said he’d always had a way with words. “I didn’t see Betram again. I was so angry with Walter. But then later I met your grandfather. And we made a wonderful life together.” She sipped her bourbon then held it up toward me, the other gnarled hand holding her cigarette aloft, somehow betraying a rakishness that belied her years and my knowing of her. “Your grandfather was a fine man,” she said, “but he wasn’t one who was much for fun.”
The story ended then, and the three of us reminisced about Grampa who had died years earlier. At some point that evening, I made the connection with why Gammie would tell the story of her courtship with my grandfather when she read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Bertram had been the other road. I realized, too, that her love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have come, at least partly, from musing about that road she hadn’t taken, The Bertram Road. Elizabeth Barrett courted Robert Browning in secret, married him against her family’s wishes, and was disinherited. Yet she lived in an idealized love, expressed in what is perhaps her best-known sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?” which was, of course, Gammie’s favorite. I’d always assumed she read those lines so emotionally because they expressed her love for my grandfather. Now I understood more deeply. My octogenarian Gammie still loved Bertram too.
Gammie wasn’t intellectual like her siblings, and she never attended college as they did; however she responded to poetry with her heart—the only way, in my opinion. Whether she was fully conscious of the darker elements of Frost’s poems, I don’t know. I do know that her response to “The Road Not Taken,” embodies the poem’s paradox described so well by David Orr in the Paris Review (September 11, 2015). Most readers understand the poem as a validation of the choices they’ve made in their lives that have made “all the difference,” the selection of the road “less traveled by.” Gammie certainly valued the poem for this. Sometimes she’d tell of her courtship and marriage to my grandfather with joyful reminiscence, but more often she’d share it as a cautionary example to me to ensure that I, like she had, would someday choose a spouse who would be as honest, stalwart, and smart as my grandfather was. (I did.)
The poem, however—like my grandmother’s choices, like all of our lives’ choices—, is far more complex than a self-satisfied morality tale. While its speaker claims the road they chose made all the difference in their life, the fact is that the other road, was “just as fair,” that both roads were “really about the same,” and “both that morning equally lay.” In fact, the poem’s title “The Road Not Taken” begs us to reflect on the route our lives may have taken had we chosen differently. At the end, the speaker tells us:
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.
Orr notes these final lines are a “commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our lives,” the delusion that our lives are the result of our own choices.
Certainly, Gammie embodied this self-deception when she extolled the wonders of her long and happy marriage. The poem’s speaker says they’ll be telling about the choice “with a sigh,” and in this respect, Gammie’s own sigh was one of contentment and self-congratulation. Yet I believe she also liked having the poem’s prompt to remember that other road, The Bertram Road, the one that held within it the silent sigh of regret for what she left behind.
Orr writes, “It is a poem about the necessity of choosing that somehow, like its author, never makes a choice itself—that instead repeatedly returns us to the same enigmatic, leaf-shadowed crossroads.” The poem doesn’t make a choice. It doesn’t have to. The glory of much good literature is its invitation to enter a magical reality where life shimmers with simultaneity, where we can inhabit a both-and experience. In our lives, though, we do have to choose. Constantly. From the most quotidian decisions—what to eat, whether to take that short-cut to work, when to tell the news—to the big decisions. Often those little ones are big, but we’re not fully aware how big until much later when we look back upon our choosing in the context of the circumstances. When Gammie left the Dewdrop Inn with Walter, I wonder if she knew what Frost’s speaker did:
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
She never saw Bertram again, but she did come back, if only in memory and story, and Browning’s Sonnet 43, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways./…I love thee with the breath,/Smiles, tears, of all my life…”
As I sat in my car with the hazard lights flashing, watching the birches in the dimming light of the evening, remembering Gammie, and contemplating Robert Frost and his poetry, I wondered how I’d be thinking of this evening sometime “ages and ages hence.” I pulled a U-turn and headed South, toward home, with my new drum and my old memories and a tenuous faith in what my future might hold.
I made a choice that night. Did it make all the difference? I don’t have a clue, and I’m not really sighing in any way as I write this, so perhaps not enough “ages and ages” have passed. I do know I’m planning an Acadia trip soon. I’ll go well-prepared, and I’ll return from that heaven to this wild new life on earth I’m shaping for myself. It will be good both going and coming back. “Birches” ends with these lines:
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.