All Who Wander

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

That’s one heck of a mysterious thing to say. Robert Frost, that wily Northeasterner, had a knack for not caring to explain his poetry to people. The story about Frost’s own meaning of the poem is summed up in a quote often attributed to him. Apparently he said, “The Road Not Taken” is a “very tricky poem. Very tricky.”[1] Thanks Bob.

Without a clear intention of the author apparent in this poem, junior high literature classes far and wide, take it upon themselves to seek out what these final lines mean. A common understanding of these lines is that this path less traveled by is the one that brave, adventurous people take, and that by taking it, as Robert Frost implies he did, you too can ascend to the heights of fame and adulation that he did. Oh, to be a poet. And of course, this is in keeping with the ideals of individuality, or dare we say, entrepreneurship, that are so valued now in our culture.

Now, you don’t have to study Robert Frost, or any other craggy New Englander, for very long, to know that this might not be the message he was going for. Either knowing this about Frost, or maybe sensing a different meaning of their own, a few of our junior high classmates might see the difference Frost mentions as simply…well…a difference. And it might not be a difference the speaker is happy with, in the end. After all, the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken.” Not “That Awesome, Life-Affirming Road I Decided To Take.”

And my hunch is that a few of us here might be thinking, “Ugh, it’s neither of those! It’s…” insert our own personal theory here.

But in order to join these classroom debates, the road we would have to take is one that I venture to say very few of us would dream of taking: for it would mean taking a road back to junior high. I don’t know about you, but in junior high, I was not spending a lot of my free time debating the meaning of poetry. I wasn’t spending much of my class time doing that either, much to many of my teachers’ consternation. No, in my free time, alone in my room, I spent a lot of time listening poetry, not debating it. Walking by my door, you might have even heard me singing along with Ella Fitzgerald.

 

There’s a saying old,

That says love is blind.

Still we’re often told,

Seek and ye shall find.

So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind.

 

FitzGerald sings Fitzgerald—I might have been on to something there.

Of course these are the opening lyrics to the verse from “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin. I listened to that song a lot. If you are like most people, there have been times in your life when you have sat, alone, in your room and listened to music. And if you are like a lot of people, sometimes you have listened to the same song, alone, in your room, on repeat. And there might be ways to talk about the genius of the words of that song, or the artistry of the melody, or another other piece of the work, but it is really the whole experience of the song that speaks to you. It feels like someone wrote down exactly what we feel and played it back to us.

And many of us have sought the comfort of our rooms or other places, to watch our favorite movie…again…and again. We might read the same book cover to cover. And in every case we can bet that more is at work than liking a turn of phrase in a book, or enjoying a scene in a movie, or finding meaning in a lyric in a song. Something bigger, something deeper takes hold when we find something we like that much, when we seem magnetically pulled toward something, almost compelled to keep at it until we’ve worn out the groove on the record, tattered that page in our book, or worn that way we’re walking until it’s a clear, unfettered path.

That is exactly what Michael Chabon, the author of a number of beloved books, experienced when he brought his recently bar mitvah-ed son Abe, along with him to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris last year.

Chabon writes that Abe “was almost always, and by far, the youngest person in the audience, and would likely have stood out for that reason alone, even if he had not dressed himself with such evident consideration and casual art. But it was his clothes and the way he wore them that elicited reporters’ attention, and a few had taken enough of an interest to ask him some questions, on the record. The questions tended to run along the same lines: What had he thought of this or that particular collection? What got him interested in clothes? Did he hope to be a fashion designer one day? Why had he come to Fashion Week?”[2]

See, the premise of Chabon’s article in GQ was that he was asked to cover Men’s Fashion Week and he brought his son Abe along, who seemed to Chabon really to know a lot about fashion. And it’s clear from Chabon’s introduction of his son that Abe really did know a lot about fashion, sure. But he really loved fashion.

See for some people, the casual enjoyment of a song, or even the love of a movie, or in Abe’s case, attention to fashion starts to take on more than some repeated listening or some long trips to the store to get just the right clothes. The time, the attention that a pastime or diversion starts to ask of them can take on a life of its own. And soon, people start to notice. Chabon, Abe’s father, puzzled at how his son had become such a marvel of style. But more than how, he wondered why.

And like any good parent of an adolescent, he wondered and feared what cost this fixation would ask of his son’s little life.

Chabon asks, “Did he like the attention—even if it was negative? Was he trying, by means of the clothes, to differentiate himself from the other boys, or were the clothes merely the readiest expression, to him, of his having been born different? Was he trying to set himself apart, or could he simply not help it?”[3]

For people who care about others, whether a friend or a child, when we notice those people are starting to act in a way that our wider population might not understand, there is concern. This kind of wandering goes against the kind of herd mentality that sociologists say is a powerful force driving choice in our minds. And this force really seems to take hold in our junior high ages. Now, here we could discuss the influential work of Freud or even the contemporary insights on this phenomenon form the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, all to demonstrate the prevalence of this phenomenon, this herd mentality and its power.

But why don’t we turn instead to a slightly more authoritative source on the subject: my mom. See, when I was in junior high, malls were a big thing. Just going to the mall was actually a pastime. And despite my parents’ thinly veiled exasperation over this phenomenon, they would dutifully ferry me and my friends to and from the mall. And in doing this, my mom noticed something about this environment. Tromping around the mall, were groups of young ladies, all of whom seemed to be bound at the hip to one another. Now, it was the 80s in Texas, so they had high bangs, very high bangs, permed or crimped hair, (anyone remember crimping, oof), and they were dressed more or less the same. They wandered in and out of the trendy stores, all with different names, but essentially the same clothes in them, drinking Orange Julius’s…all in a pack.

My mother’s name for them was “The Purse Patrol.” I should note that this was always used as a collective noun. The Purse Patrol was not one particular set of young ladies. If you were a set of young ladies undertaking these activities in the mall, you were The Purse Patrol. And all the while their classmate Abe is scouring for deals on designers unknown to everybody else, fretting over the next outfit he should put together, standing out among his peers, and standing up, more than likely, to the people who pick on those who wander from the herd. Until the morning when they sit down, all of them together, The Purse Patrol, Abe, and everyone else, for English class, to look at Robert Frost’s words together.

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

And we know that happens, right? The voices of a world joined in the unison chorus of sameness, worshiping at the altar of the liberal prosperity gospel of “follow your bliss” or the next 7 simple ways to total happiness will look at that weeded, wild road, so hard to see down, and proudly proclaim that is the road for them to choose. The road that is just for them to choose. It is a road of self-realization, self-fulfillment, self-reliance. Self, self, self.

But there will be another voice in that class, one that might not ever speak up, one that might be too terrified of what awaits someone who doesn’t fit in, or too afraid of what comes to a person who likes music no one else understands, or afraid of what is visited upon a young boy compelled to know everything about fashion and dress accordingly. But that voice knows in their deepest heart, that the road less traveled by isn’t a choice for them. It is a destiny, a fate of wandering that road, without a Patrol by their side.

When Abe was preparing to leave Men’s Fashion Week, he fought with his dad for no particular reason. Then he cried. He couldn’t explain, he couldn’t express to his dad why he was so, so sad to be leaving Fashion Week. And finally it came out clear:

“They get it,” he said. “They know everything about all the designers, and the house, and that’s what they care about. They love to talk about clothes. They love clothes.”

And it was then that his award-winning, New York Times best-selling author father saw his son who’d just become a man in a whole new light.

He writes, “You are born into a family and those are your people, and they know you and they love you and if you are lucky they even, on occasion, manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough. But it is never enough. Abe had not been dressing up, styling himself, for all these years because he was trying to prove how different he was from everyone else. He did it in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody else—somewhere, someday—who was the same. He was not flying his freak flag; he was sending up a flare, hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion.”[4]

“You were with your people. You found them,” he said.

Abe nodded.

“That’s good,” he said. “You’re early.”

Finding your people, being with your people—we hate to admit it, but The Purse Patrol was on to something. Not the conformity, not the sameness, but having a group of people who we can count on is at the center of virtually every piece of wisdom worth anything on the subject of happiness and fulfillment.

And we seek, we wander, we wait, and we wonder if we will ever find the place where we are supposed to be. How many times have roads diverged ahead of us? How many times have we wondered where we might go? Well, I will tell you friends, most of us are not in junior high anymore. In the coming months, in the coming years, we will all be facing a choice, likely a daily choice, of which way to travel, of where we should turn our attention and focus our energy and response.

Will we follow the increasingly worn path paved with daily reports about what we find juvenile, insulting, obnoxious, and threatening, rhetoric that breeds the kind of terror visited upon a Mosque in Minnesota this week in a firebombing? We are still getting messages and calls about our own Black Lives Matter banner on our own building.

Or will we choose to look anew at that road that calls us to care for one another? Will we step forward on the path toward actions we can take that support, comfort, and defend those who are calling out for allies, hoping to find their people? Because what Unitarian Universalism offers each one of us here, and what it offers each person in the world, whether it be Abe, or any other member of his class, who secretly, in their heart, knows there is another way, is that chance to walk another road.

It may have come early for you, or it may have come late, but sitting here now, many of us have found our people. Will the Abe inside of each of us recognize the Abe wandering out in the world, searching blindly for love, seeking that they may find, wondering whether there is someone to watch over them?

And will the song we have to sing the world, repeat and repeat and repeat with joy out into the world, so that all who wander near enough will hear it?

 

I say it will.

I know it will.

It must.

For it surely will make all the difference.

And may it ever be so. Amen.

 

[1] This might be an apocryphal quotation. The original source wasn’t located, but many secondary sources cite a 1961 interview with the poet.

[2] Michael Chabon, “My Son, the Prince of Fashion,” GQ, September 27, 2016.

[3] Chabon.

[4] Chabon.