Posted by: djmiddle | February 25, 2018

Dragons, Regrets and The Road Not Taken

River Dragon

I have now lived in my house for 30 years.  Over that time I have redecorated every room in the house.  As you see, apparently speed was not a priority!  Some of the improvements I did on my own, others I contracted out.  I am very aware of the chasm of demarcation that separates my capabilities from my limitations.  The house is now very comfortable and reflects me.  Each room provides insight into some aspect of who I am and things that bring me happiness.  I enjoy redecorating although I would be terrible undertaking interior design as a profession.  It is one thing to translate the vision in my head based on my tastes into reality.  It would be a far different endeavor to try to bring the vision in someone else’s head to a reality for them captured in color and texture…particularly when it would be patently obvious to me that their vision was deficient in taste!

While there is a nautical theme that runs through the décor of my entire house it is probably most prevalent in my guest room.  This room is filled with photographs, mementos and models of a life enjoyed unconstrained by the limitations of land.  The room makes me happy.  One of the focal points in the room is a 2 foot by 4 foot poster photograph that my parents gave me several years ago.  The photo was taken via satellite and covers a section of the St. Lawrence River where we would spend our summer vacations.  It predominantly evokes wonderful memories but there is another emotion that has crept in as I look at it now.  That emotion is regret.  Let me explain.

The section of the river captured in the photo covers a 35 mile stretch from Cape Vincent to Alexandria Bay. This is arguably one of the most scenic stretches of river that exists.  It is populated with island after island all connected by an unbreakable labyrinth of channels each with a promise that beckons around the next bend; quaint cottages nestled amongst the trees that seem to be able to trace their lineage using the same chronology as the river itself; stately homes, some on rocky cliffs others set back across an expanse of green, striking a perfect balance of opulence and rustic charm and yes, there was even a castle replete with a story of lost love.  There was river traffic of every size, shape and vintage ranging from the largest cargo ships traversing the seaway from the Great Lakes to points around the globe to elegant vintage craft constructed from wood as God originally intended.  The river never provided the same experience nor the same scenery twice. And yet, looking at the satellite photo I can’t help but have some regret.  You see the descriptions that I provided were from cruises we took countless times, wonderful times, but all of these lovely images were experienced beginning at our cottage to a destination about 12 miles Northeast.  This was always our “go-to” voyage.  Make no mistake, more beautiful scenery would be hard to find and granted it was never the same twice but when I think of it in retrospect, if it is possible to create a rut in water we were in a rut.  I have heard that the only difference between a rut and a grave is their dimensions.  This may be overstating things a bit, but we definitely fell in to a rut when it came to our itinerary.

As I indicated, our practice was always to proceed northeast from our cottage.  It doesn’t take a world class geography expert or cartographer to realize that every river has a point of origin and a point of termination.  The point of termination for the St Lawrence River is at the Gulf of St Lawrence at the Atlantic Ocean.  The point of origin for both the river and my regret is at Lake Ontario.  The Gulf of St Lawrence was well beyond our reasonable expectations for a cruise but the distance from our cottage to Cape Vincent at Lake Ontario was about 20 miles…not even twice as far as the cruises we embarked upon hundreds of times and easily achievable in a leisurely afternoon cruise.  This geographic reality lesson was never part of my consciousness growing up and that is the only thing that somewhat tempers my regret.  It never occurred to us to head in the other direction.  We assumed the scenery would not be as awe inspiring and that very well may have been true.  Based on charts the river was much more open and the channels much wider in that direction.  In reality I think we just became overly comfortable with the familiar and hence missed the chance to leave an old rut for a new route.

Even if the scenery on this alternate route did not provide the same level of breathtaking beauty as our normal routine, there were other aspects that should not have been summarily overlooked and certainly were worth exploring.  As I think about it now there is something very alluring about venturing beyond the origin of the river into open waters where no land is in sight.  Would the scenery be as beautiful?  Perhaps not, but still an adventure that I regret never experiencing.  Our assumptions, untested and unproven, dictated our actions and for that I hold some regret.

While the stories may be largely apocryphal I have heard that nautical charts in days gone by would often contain warnings to mariners.  These warnings were intended to keep sailors from venturing into areas unknown or destinations cloaked in mystery where other vessels had ventured but never returned.  The warning was said to have taken the dual form of a visual depiction of a dragon and the ominous inscription of “Beyond Here There Be Dragons” to call attention to one and all, both the literate and illiterate, that venturing beyond this point was ill advised to say the least.  The river charts that we used had no such images of dragons, but the impact was the same.  A dragon positioned just Southwest of Clayton, NY for all practical purposes may as well have been standing guard, blocking the channel and hastening all who approached to reconsider their itinerary or proceed at their own peril.

As I have considered regrets I have come to the conclusion that they fall in two categories.  There are regrets for actions taken or words said and regrets for actions not taken or words not said.  In essence regrets of commission and regrets of omission.  The regrets for actions taken in all likelihood resulted in a negative outcome. We can see what happened and evaluate the outcome our actions directly precipitated.  I think someone would have to be verging on sociopath to regret an action that had a positive outcome.  Regrets for actions not taken, however, are a little bit different.  In this instance we have no tangible criteria on which to base our evaluation.  The action was never taken and therefore there was no outcome to be judged.  In my opinion this regret of omission comes from our belief that had we taken the action a positive outcome would have been the result.  Is this guaranteed? Certainly not but nobody is going to regret not doing something with the belief that they missed an opportunity to inflict pain on another person.  My regret is based on this optimistic view of a positive outcome.  The experience of crossing the divide between river and lake in and of itself would have been a positive outcome.  The regret comes from a lack of awareness at the time of opportunities that, while available, were left unfulfilled.

As I thought about my regrets and our all too oft myopic vision of the world around us it reminded me of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”.  This is the tale told in verse of two friends out for a walk when they come upon two competing paths and a choice must be made.  This poem probably has the seemingly contradictory distinction of being both the best known and most misunderstood poem in American literature.

We like to envision an idealized version of the scene depicted by Frost’s words.  One path clearly heavily trodden and the other path barely perceptible as it disappears in the underbrush.  Embarking on a journey down this second path would surely require taking machete in hand after offering fond and final farewells to those closest to us.  The allure of the unknown calls to us with imagined promises of sweeping vistas of unsurpassed beauty transporting us across horizons yet unknown.  Alas, that is far from the claims that Frost makes in his stanzas.  This poem has been taken up as an anthem for rugged individualism, a manifesto in verse for those defiantly taking the path less chosen and marching to the beat of a drum audible only to themselves.  An actual reading of the poem leads to a much less defiant approach to life.  The description provided by Frost indicates that there was virtually no difference between the two paths…”then took the other, as just as fair”…”worn them really about the same”… “both that morning equally lay”.  Hardly the image of adventure we would prefer to conjure up in our minds.  Frost asserts that taking the road less travelled, even though the distinction was almost imperceptible, made all the difference.  Interestingly, this difference is never expanded upon as being positive or negative but as with our regrets of omission, we like to imagine the difference enhancing the life experience of the traveler.

From what I understand Frost actually wrote this poem as a joke for his friend Edward Thomas who was chronically indecisive about the path to be chosen when walking and often lamented after the fact that the other path may have been preferable.  Frost was actually quite perturbed that readers failed to get the joke and instead took it quite seriously.

The misinterpretation of Frost’s poem does not concern me as there are still lessons to be learned from a correct reading.  It is not my goal in life to necessarily forge my own path and march to the beat of my own drum as a goal in and of itself.  What the poem does for me is to call to our attention the reality that multiple paths exist on our journeys and there are multiple drums that can provide the accompaniment for life each with their own unique beat whose cadence can help us define the rhythm of our lives.   Mythical dragons should be slain so as not to prevent us from seizing on the experiences and the opportunities there for the taking if we will only choose to recognize them.  Regrets of commission should always be avoided and regrets of omission can always be avoided if we remain open and aware of the roads and rivers that beckon us to choose.


Responses

  1. This is a wonderful essay, Don. There are so many good thoughts contained in it. You are right that we can avoid regrets resulting from commission and omission on our part and we must make every effort to limit the number of regrets that weigh us down. I must say though that after reading your essay I now have a new regret in my life. What a grand journey it would have been to cruise to Cape Vincent at Lake Ontario. We were indeed stuck in a nautical rut, but it was a grand rut to be stuck in, wasn’t it?


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