The Road Not Taken ~~ Robert Frost
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.
My life has been full of paths so many people didn’t expect me to take. Perhaps in their limited view of the world, my tastes and dreams were too eclectic for them to grasp. My head was always in the clouds dreaming up something I could be, places I could go, connections I could make. Alone but not lonely. I was an odd sort always pulling everything apart to analyze it until there was not one more fiber to dissect. It was not enough to know; I had to understand. It was not enough to see; I had to feel. It wasn’t enough to even hold it in my hands; I had to find some way to absorb it all in and become it, exude it from every pore.
They tolerated the music. I am quite sure the flute was an offering to appease the beast in me, but that made the drive more desperate. Endless hours I played, thumping and working the keys on the cold metal until I was near exhaustion. That summer, my obsessive practice sessions were forced out-of-doors. They did not think this through, because I am quite sure they assumed that when the rains came drenching the landscape, I would run inside and give their ears a rest. But I did not. That one building we used as a catch-all for toys and yard games worked just fine, and I could feel their eyes roll as I propped open the door and slid the heavy wooden windows open-wide to let in fresh air. But they obliged me still and tolerated me all the way through graduation, even as I thumped on the piano, punctuated the otherwise silent house with the shrilling and trilling of my piccolo. They obliged me, because I am sure it was a topic of interest having a daughter who was first flute / first piccolo – first chair and had received perfect scores in solo competitions. Even if they deliberately missed concerts, I didn’t care. I was free when I played, and I lived for it.
They tolerated the obsession with language that began with me reading books giving a unique voice to every character inside. Confounded with me, they could not understand how I was never silent yet was always quiet. If music was my blood, words were my windows into the worlds I could not yet go. More voices still spilling out, so when she said I could be an actress, I did what any annoying child would do. I joined the drama club. For a few years it managed to hold my attention, and while it did they obliged this, too. Until I became bored and disinterested, because I had no desire to waste time learning someone else’s lines, speaking someone else’s words, playing someone else that I would never want to be. Giving life to futility, this is what it was to me.
I walked away feeling no remorse. Endless scales climbing and descending measure after measure pounded in my brain, and then someone in school violated my privacy and listened to me singing, and I ended up in a chorale ensemble. I was at this moment at the point closest to absolute joy that I could hope to reach as a child, caught up in a wonderful tapestry of words woven together by music. If you were to look closely, you would see another love slowly working its way in, and even this, too, they tolerated.
I became a foreign language geek at a fairly young age. Unfortunately, I was surrounded by people who didn’t understand the path this would lead me down. As I walked around the house tethered to my flute and piccolo or a book that seemed to change every time they blinked, I momentarily slipped in random phrases in different languages I had looked up much on a whim. Library books changed from borrowed copies of War and Peace, East of Eden, and Pride and Prejudice to Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese grammars and verb dictionaries. I sang silly songs in Spanish, and instead of encouraging me past the brow-beating for good grades, they did little to encourage my growth. So I avariciously sought it out on my own.
In high school, I did plenty of studying, but I never studied for Spanish. I was a language sponge; I saw it once and there inside my head it would be trapped. My grades were near perfect, marred only by my impatience and growing discontent for putting in absolutely no effort and earning maximum reward, and I frequently missed a point or two here and there for erratic placement of diacritical marks.. albeit important ones. As the discontentment surged and boiled, the State Regents exams came around, and once the scores were announced people were unanimously incensed or shocked to hear that I had gotten a perfect score, and all I did the night before was play Mario Brothers on the Nintendo. Feverish with an inability to grasp that I was really nowhere near a native speaker of the language, the exchange students from Spain, Columbia, Mexico, and Venezuela questioned my teacher. Some of the students became openly impatient with me, and had they learned my teacher on more than one occasion saw it pointless to grade the test I handed in and subsequently gave me an A, I am sure there would have been open hostility. But none more so than haranguing at home for grades in the mid 90s and above.
In my junior year, I was introduced to my cure for boredom, and at first my family had no idea the path I was about to take. For what girl in the middle of nowhere gets it into her head that she must learn Japanese?
“What are you going to do with that here?”
“Exactly!” I retorted.
But they thought nothing of it when I began dating the Japanese exchange student. They thought nothing of it, even when she bought me that Japanese language set the first year when I went to Japan over the summer for three weeks. They thought nothing of it until they picked me up at the airport and I started talking at them in broken Japanese.
I had to delay going to college for a year, because my family did not have the ability to pay for college. I worked a menial job for about nine months, had enough, and after dropping a heavy tuition down payment at a college in West Virginia for a major of my liking, much to the chagrin of my parents who did not feel it appropriate for me to chase, I became tired of the monotony, quit my job, and took off to Japan for three months. My parents were mildly annoyed that I had not clued them in on the fact that I was going, so when I dropped in to visit and tell them I’d see them in three months, they reacted like I jabbed them in the butt with a cattle prod. Of course, much like many life changing decisions I have made, I pretty much woke up one morning, thought that it was a good day to quit my job and go to Japan, and obeyed the voices in my head. They knew best after all, and one week later I was on a plane to my beloved Tokyo.
The first year I was there, I really only had time to recover from the monster jet lag, adjust to the new time zone, and have a good solid week of canvasing Japan before it was time to leave, but I knew I loved it there. The second time around, the second I got off the plane, I reveled in three months of non-stop sushi, day trips to Fuji-san, Ramen shops, bookstores, Kabuki shows, making rice paper, hanabi (fireworks!), barbecues with friends on the lake, trips to the coast, and plenty of quality time with his mother (she insisted I call her Okaasan the second I got off the plane the first time) and his sisters, and his father. His mom taught me how to cook fried rice for breakfast, and I taught her how to cook Mexican food. I immersed myself in the language by refusing to watch English TV or read English editions of the news. I carried an electronic translator for when I was out in the City and couldn’t figure out how to say something. I relied on no one, and I became Japanese.
It’s a hard concept to explain to someone unless they have themselves experienced something on this level. Remember, before I did say that it wasn’t enough for me to hold it in my hands, I had to absorb it and become it and allow it to become me. And it’s even harder for me to fathom how Japan, who had infected me and infiltrated every inch of my heart, had failed to reach others on the same level. The first time I had to attempt to reconcile this, I was in a bookstore in an area where there weren’t many who spoke English. I ran into an American who was obviously having trouble, and from my conversation with her, I learned she had been there for five years, but never bothered to really learn the language. This was pure blasphemy to me. Here I was, an unapologetic language geek confronted with my antithesis. What was I to do about her being so blasé, relying on a friend to translate? I was horrified. Appalled. That day, whatever part of me remaining that may have missed life back in the States completely disappeared.
The remaining weeks flew by far too fast. By then, I had stopped using English all together, and I became paranoid at the mere thought of having to go back there. I began to toy with the idea of simply just not getting on the plane, but they said I couldn’t waste the down payment I made on tuition. There was not much to argue. It isn’t easy for everyone to come up with $5000 to put down on school. I relented, but only after much arguing back and forth about how much that education really meant over my happiness. That entire day, I fought myself to not somehow figure out a way last-minute that I could stay in Japan, and I wouldn’t have to get on the plane. Anything to not have to face abandoning my love (Japan) for the sake of some time in college that I was no longer sure I wanted.
As we got off the shuttle and made my way to check in, my heart sank. I begin to panic inside, but I held back from openly displaying my being off-balance. The woman at the counter was taken aback when I interrupted her and asked her to speak Japanese instead of English, because it had become easier for me. All the airline employees who were close enough to hear this earth shattering request stopped waiting on their customers to watch me have a conversation with the woman behind the counter. The only ones who protested were Americans who I had obviously inconvenienced. As I walked away, I became aware that I this was the last time I would be a spectacle. The American girl speaking Japanese.
He was only allowed to go so far with me before they told him he had to wait by the windows. I stood in a line full of people who looked like me but were, in fact, nothing like me at all. They wanted to leave. This was their exodus, their escape back to their home, and I felt like I was being flown back in chains. The closer I came to the attendant dutifully perched at the door taking boarding passes to LAX, the more panicked I became. My mind raced at unimaginable speeds.
“There has to be a way out of this? Why am I getting on this plane? Because I want to? Because I have to? Because I am expected to? This is stupid! What am I doing? My life is over if I get on the plane…” And amidst the yelling in my head, I reached my hand out to the attendant and just as she went to grasp the tickets with her dainty little fingertips, I involuntarily yanked it back. I stood there watching the throngs of people excited to be leaving, chattering about how good it will be to get home, and I froze. People behind me muttered, and I even let a few of them pass. The woman at the gate stood there, looking confused.
In English she asked me, “Don’t you want to go home?”
My eyes got wide, and mouth fell open. “I’m already here.”
She tilted her head to the side confused, and repeated the question, this time asking me if I “needed to catch this flight.”
Inside I was screaming at myself, trying to get me to stay, and still I got on that plane. My mother and brother came to pick me up at the airport when we finally landed in Rochester, NY. They were happy to see me, but they were strangers to me now. By sheer force, I faked a smile, and I tried to say an intelligible sentence in English, but my tongue betrayed me. Turns out, my family can’t speak Japanese. I grunted and got in the back seat, put on my Japanese music, leaned my head against the window, and went to sleep.
To this day, I still second-guess what pushed me to get on the plane. I don’t have an answer, but I have always silently, privately tried to play out what path that would have led me down. Would I have been happy there? Would I have missed the States at all? Where would I have lived? Where would I have worked? And a million other seemingly meaningless questions that could have been another life. I can only know where this path would take me, because this is the one that I chose. The other is only conjecture. It is painted with uncertainty and framed with could-have-beens that never seem to end.
While I lament the immense culture shock I endured when I returned, the loneliness that plunged me into one of the worst depressive episodes I had endured up to that point, I cannot say for sure that I regret the decision that I made to follow through and get on that plane. For all the things that may have been, for a life that may have materialized across the years and miles, had I taken that path, had I chosen to stay, I would have missed out on some things and people who I would really regret not coming to know. I never would have had that apartment next to the diner, nor would I have met Kerwyn. I never would have been entangled with Kevin, but what would have been pitiable is that I never would have learned how strong I really am as a result of surviving him. It’s possible I wouldn’t have been baptized, and I never would have met the congregation I have come to adore. For all the maybes I gave up along the way, even if there are potholes and bumps in the road, it’s mine all the same, and for the time being, even in my discontentment with where I am, I still love who I have been able to become through my suffering in the belly of the beast.
Even though I was unexpectedly detoured off the path, I have finally learned that I can always find my way back.