The Magic Garden by Devon Miller-Duggan

The Magic Garden

I had driven past Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden in Philly (Philadelphia to those of you not from the mid-Atlantic) that I really had myself convinced that I had been there. There are over 200 Zagar or Zagar’s-student mosaics around Philly. ALL around Philly. Between those and the remarkable number of murals all over the place, Philly can be quite the visual feast from the street level, provided the traffic doesn’t kill you.

I am a huge fan of Outsider Art as well a s a passionate fan of High/Canonical Art. I just plain love to look at things humans make with their hands. Zagar, who has an art degree, is a particularly wonderful example of what happens when someone with canonical training lets their not-so-inner obsessive out to play with “outsider” media. “Magic” is right.

Anyway, I was apparently deluded about having been to the Magic Garden because GOODGOLLYMISSMOLLY, I’d have remembered that very clearly. Viscerally.

I’ve done a fair amount of mosaic—all in the prissily named “Pique Assiette” mode of using random and busted china. I’m sure I was inspired by years of loving to run into Zagar pieces all over Philly, but what really got me going was having a new bathroom built when we renovated the house to make an apartment for my mother. Context: this renovation, which added a whole new floor to our split-level was massive and happened in the months after my father had died. Hint: Do not make major renovations when you’re in the first year of major loss—grief is not a good decision-context. I made some stupid choices, including the Jacuzzi-type tub the contractor warned us that people never use as much as they think they will. But the goofiest decision I made was when the contractor gave me the name of the tile company he used so I could go pick out tile for the tub, I blurted out “Oh, I’ll do that myself.” The contractor rolled his eyes, asked me if I’d ever done anything of the sort, and then gave in (probably quietly planning how his crew would clean up my mess). But I did it—a pretty large Gaudi-esque swirl of trees around the tub and the sink. They turned out very well. Mosaic is not particularly complicated work. It’s not oil painting or throwing clay. And it was, in its way, very therapeutic to search out all the bits and pieces in thrift stores and on eBay, then break them up and sort them (I have always loved to sort things) and put them back together in a new order of my choosing. I stayed up into the wee hours listening to local news from Caribbean islands and Scandanavian countries (what’s on at 3 a.m. on our local NPR station), crouched in the tub making broken teacups into trees.

I also did a somewhat more Zagar-ish (it includes more 3-D bits) dark green border around our garage. The neighbors in our very NORMAL neighborhood have been remarkably tolerant.

I’ve also seen a fair amount of outsider work, like the Beer Can Castle in Colorado. But nothing really prepared me for the gorgeously quirky intersection of sophisticated inventiveness and wildness in the Magic Garden. You have the sense of being inside a profoundly connected and intelligent intentionality (brain/spirit) at the same time as the sensuality and physicality of the place (parts jut out everywhere and “windows” insist that your body follow them through the twisty spaces (body/eroticism). There seems to have been no “thing” that could be grouted in to a wall/floor/ceiling that Zagar couldn’t find a place for, and all of those things play with each other and with light and make sensual and brainy and joyous sense out of a mind that (Zagar lives with bi-polar disorder) is not always able to make sense to itself; because the world of the intangible is often full of darkness and intransigence, the Garden turns its embrace to the physical world to find grace. St. Paul would have hated it, which is recommendation enough for me, since Paul frequently ticks me off royally.

More to the point, I “got” it with every cell in my body and every chamber in my heart. If ever a place was simultaneously ridiculous and sacred, if ever a place embraced the mess of having to live in the physical world while being creatures of spirit, this is it.

Chapter 1,000 in The Mama Saga by Devon Miller-Duggan

Chapter 1,000 in The Mama Saga

When I left the house to have an early morning mammogram, I checked in and she was lucid and fine. When her aide arrived half an hour later, The Mama was lucid and fine. She was fine when I came home. She was fine until sometime around noon when the aide sent my daughter up with the message that The Mama was having a stroke. My daughter clearly thought one of them was being dramatic (both are maybe prone to that, and since TM has both dementia and 50+ years of MS, we can’t always tell what’s going on). But the aide, who is wise and has seen a few things, was correct. So I stuck an uncoated aspirin under TM’s tongue and called an ambulance. Dithered a bit about whether to have her taken to the Level 1 Trauma ED, where I have had a number of pretty non-happy experiences that went on for hours and hours, or the Level 2 to which I usually take her because it’s fast, nicer, and reliable. Went for Level 1, partially because that’s the hospital that has a floor dedicated to the Hospice outfit that we’ve had good experience with. It turns out that being a critical case in a Level 1 is an immeasurably different experience than being a mere kidney stone or busted something or other. Other than to say that from beginning to discharge, every human we had contact with was operating at peak humanity and peak competence, I’ll spare you the details. What was interesting was The Mama. First, in case you ever wondered, no matter how entangled/close/intimate you might be with your loved one, when they super-focus on you pleadingly in the ED and repeat “NO, NO, NO…” over and over, you will probably not know what they are saying “no” to. “Don’t let me die,” “don’t let them take me away from you for a CT scan,” “I am damn well NOT having a stroke,” and “let me go; no intervention” are all among the possibilities, and aphasia pretty likely will make it impossible, absent a Vulcan mind-meld, for you to tell what you are being asked to do or not do. This is the point where I offer a public service suggestion: you cannot possibly imagine how important it will be to have a legal directive and a POA with you, because the ED is definitely not the place to figure out that stuff, let alone have to make guesses or judgement calls. Because no matter how good you are in an emergency, you will be dumb enough to ask a neurologist you will later find out is an MD/PhD whether he has any experience with MS, and that is no predictor for good decision-making.

Back to The Mama. It was a monster arterial clot. Since, unlike invasive interventions, are on the table, I okayed TPA but no transfusions should it cause a bleed. It worked like whoever invented it dreamt it would. She was better 15 minutes after they administered it. Which meant we were back to her normal cycle of mild aphasia followed by periods of clear speech, followed by milder aphasia-Lather, Rinse, Repeat. There were three interesting bits: the first was when she spent 20 labored minutes trying to get out a sentence that finally formed into “I don’t want anything to be wrong with me that will affect anyone else!” Since this is about 8 hours after she’s been admitted and I am several flavors of gonzo-tired/wired, my unspoken immediate response to that was “too late for that one, Mama!’ But I did what you do and kissed her on the forehead and said “I know. It’s okay.” The second happened shortly after that. She’s gotten super-sensitive to discomfort as the dementia has progressed. She has a particular animus for BP cuffs and pretty much always looks at me like I am feeding her to a dragon when a nurse pumps the cuff. Having spent much of the day fretting at it, she suddenly figured out that she could slip it off, so she did. And then spend a good 2 minutes giggling maniacally. That was both hilarious and disconcerting. I was glad my daughter was there to see it. Otherwise the whole family would have accused me of hyperbole later… And the third interesting/revealing/weird moment was during one of the every-20-minutes neuro-exams—the verbal part. It went sort of like this:

Nurse: What’s your name?

TM (giggling and twinkling her eyes): Devon.

Nurse: Do you know where we are?

TM (still twinkling): Devon

Nurse: What’s your birthday?

TM (twinkling and bobbing her head happily): Devon

Nurse (with infinite patience): Do you know why you’re here?

TM (serious now): Devon

Nurse (giving up, looking at me quizzically): Well, that was interesting.

My Daughter (looking sympathetically at me, talking to the Nurse): You have no idea.

Me: blank, blurry “save me” stare at the ceiling, then nod to nurse, who then seamlessly moves on to the physical part of the exam and pretends she didn’t just witness that. I figure that the nurses in the Neuro-ICU probably see lots of weird interactions.

So here we are back home and back to what vaguely passes for normal. The world inside my house certainly runs in extremes. On the one hand, I started sobbing while carrying a basket of laundry upstairs this morning. Not a big deal—I suspect this will happen off and on for a few days. But my 19-month-old grand-daughter, who lives here and was behind the gate in her parents’ living room about 20 feet away (her parents were talking about job hunting and didn’t hear me—I wasn’t very loud) heard me and came over to the gate, leaned her head against it and started chanting “Oma, Oma, Oma!” until I took a nice deep breath and told her I was okay. Then she went back to stepping on all her noisiest toys while her parents were talking. Like a toddler should.

Devon Miller-Duggan Turns 64 and Reflects on That and More

This Week

I turned 64. I like that I have now reached the age when I don’t have to ask my husband “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me when I’m 64?” mostly because I have a year in which I’m a line in a Beatles song. I’m not sure why that amuses me so much, but it does, and I’m not inclined to expend much energy figuring it out. Maybe one of these days, we’ll rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight. If it’s not too dear…

I saw a list on line the other day of Beatles songs John Lennon didn’t like. A handful of my favorites are on the list. Either I have given up on being edgy/with-it, or it’s possible that Lennon and I don’t have to agree. I have friends who know and like my poems who are fondest of poems I think are mediocre, and I know for certain that I have given up fretting about this. Anything I can manage to give up fretting about is a good thing.

And my husband did feed me, in fact. I bought the steaks and peas and potatoes and Boursin (for the potatoes), but he cooked. And, besides, I was doing the weekly grocery shopping for my mother, so I had time to noodle around in the store thinking about whether I wanted steak or king crab. He likes to cook more than I do these days, and he got everything done perfectly.

I don’t particularly like it when my birthday coincides with Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about both, and having them happen together just seems like too much to process in one day. So I did the morning routine for my mother (tough to schedule an aide on the holiday), went to church, probably let myself get talked into helping with an internet book club set up between young South African women and young American women, shopped for my mother (who was aware neither of my birthday, nor of Mother’s Day, which was okay with me) took a nap, did some submissions stuff, played Words with Friends, and spent the rest of the day either crocheting or eating and watching TV with my husband. The highlight of the day was probably when I told my 18-month-old-grand-daughter I loved her and she came over and kissed me (a first—she’s plenty affectionate, but this sort of specificity is new, and she chirps/sings as she walks, which is pretty wonderful to live with).

It’s been a complicated semester. I had a kidney stone early on and have never quite felt like I’ve gotten my feet under me. I’m teaching a new course—typically, I came up with a nifty idea about doing imitations of a bunch of poets, but only semi thought it through—this is one of the parts where being an experiential learner doesn’t always work out for the best. The course will be better next time I teach it, but seems to have not been a disaster, as nearly as I can tell, this time ‘round. My other two classes had big, tough issues I’ve never dealt with before, neither of which should go in a blog–one a headbanger, one a heartbreaker. And I lost 30-40 hours at the beginning of the semester to a new Faculty Evaluation System put in place at Pretty Good U that is a total POS (it has, for instance, gone down in the middle of contract renewal system, of course). And I’m pretty ticked that I am going to start having an actual attendance policy in classes (I’ve done quite nicely for years with one that consisted of “You expect me to be here, don’t you? I expect the same.”), but absences have gotten way out of hand. I blame the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, my mother’s slide downward has picked up speed—she’s almost out of language, and has begun to be seriously short of breath. And I have been trying to get her whole home-health-aide situation re-settled since the week between Xmas and New Year’s, when we found out that the coordinating insurer had pulled out of the market, and the new one won’t deal with Home Instead. In the northern of Delaware’s 3 counties. Just the one. Meanwhile, I am trying to coordinate between 4 companies/agencies. Much of this would be resolved by paying home-health-aides living wages, but they’re all for-profit companies, so…

The yard’s a mess, though it’s full of flowers. It’s been a weird, long, cold spring, so some things hung on forever. I’ve never had daffodils still blooming when irises came up. It was pretty. The stripey pale pink azalea has been in bloom for ages. But it got stinky hot just in time to fry the lilacs the day after they bloomed. I haven’t walked the back yard for several weeks. I’m betting there’s some poison ivy out there somewhere. And I think I’ve decided to forgo the fancy wood play-set-with-house-and-climbing-wall that seems to be the suburban standard in favor of an old-fashioned swing set. But the poison ivy will have to be dealt with first.

Our cello prof tends to favor 20th/21st c. music, so I don’t often go hear him (I’m fond of some, especially of the elegiac sort, but often feel like I’m wearing uncomfortable underwear when listening to much of it), but he did a 2-night recital of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites several weeks back. It was imperfect and glorious and made me so goofily happy that I email fan-girl-ed him. We’re going to try to have coffee. There’s much too little cross-departmental conversation around here, just because depts. are so big and we’re all so separate, so that’s kind of nice.

Last day of class tomorrow. Mostly, my students will be reciting the poems they’ve chosen to memorize. That’s nice, too. And it’s looking like I’ll survive to teach another semester. The summer’s big projects include reading all the books of poetry I haven’t gotten to all year and re-organizing the bookshelves. Could definitely be worse, which, these days, is saying a lot.

Succession of Entrances and Mechanics by Devon Miller-Duggan

Elegantly presented at (Click to read the entire poem).

Succession of Entrances and Mechanics by Devon Miller-Duggan

Each of these doors opened in succession:
the moon, the three stones on which we set the pot for soup,
the opium pipe, the remarkable hill,
the lime kiln, the suitcase, a piece of Sulphur candy.
Why are ladies like arrows?
What tree is nearest the sea?

Answer (doors, conundrums), love and I will promise:
three fishes, three fruits, three mushrooms,
and ginger for your tongue and mine.
Senseless, tell me what you will have me do.

Las Vegas and Me by Devon Miller-Duggan

Las Vegas & Me

I think of myself as a relative badass. For a 63-year-old white bourgeois church-going grandmother with artificial knees, and a bunch of conditions that need medicating, anyway.

This week damn-near did me in. This kind of thing tends to. For a (relative) badass, I’ll admit freely that I have pretty thin skin. I’m okay with that. We (Americans/humans) like to act sometimes as though we’re supposed to not be battered by what goes on—the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing. It’s useful to remember that that poster (now endlessly played-with meme) was never actually used in Britain during WWII. I don’t know why, but I’d like to think that someone in the propaganda office noticed that it was bloody callous.

Here’s what I did. It’s not the more general sort of Really Wise and Useful list Miriam published earlier in the week. It’s mine:

I teach two Intro to Poetry Writing classes and one Advanced this semester. I spent half of each class reading them poems about 9/11, gun violence (I found out that the website of the Academy of American poets, which lets you search by theme has a listing for “gun violence), and grief. Then I had them write for the rest of the period, using the line from Donne “Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” as the starter/prompt. I wrote with them. I don’t know whether those 4 pages will ever get shared—I haven’t been able to look at them yet. I didn’t ask my students to share what they wrote.
One student put her hand up and said she thought I should be reading poems about change instead of poems about grief. I will admit that I said I didn’t think there would be meaningful change until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, and that I thought we might want to give the dead and the grieving at least 24 hours of grief before we moved on. God only knows what she’ll write on my evaluation at the end of the semester (she’s already, 1/3 into the semester made it clear that I irritate her). Several emailed to thank me. Other professors canceled classes (the minority) or carried on without acknowledging what had happened (the overwhelming majority, which is fine—other courses don’t have the flexibility that mine have). One student came to class not knowing what had happened, so I ended up telling her. She offered me a hug after class (yeah, I know I’m not supposed to hug them, or them me, but human…). I took it. I hugged her back.

I made 8 purple crocheted infant hats for a project to cut back on shaken baby syndrome in Oklahoma and packed them up to send, along with the 4 I already had.

I wrote a poem. Not about Las Vegas, but about the violent world.

I worried about the First Responders in Las Vegas, who are, inevitably, also wounded.

I bought The Rough Guide to Austria and a new packable coat because the husband and I are meeting my thesis director there in January.

I spent time with my grandchildren. I bought some Christmas presents for them, and made plans for a couple of things I’ll make for their stockings.

I gave more $ to Episcopal Relief & Development. They have a very high rating on Charity Navigator and are on the ground in disaster areas pretty fast. Also, I’m an Episcopalian and I like the fact that we don’t use disaster relief as a chance to evangelize.

I declined to give any $ to the Red Cross when I picked up a prescription for my mother at Walgreens. The pharmacy assistant and I agreed that the Red Cross is not very efficient or effective.

I made a cross out of computer components. I make crosses out of all sorts of weird stuff—mostly discarded jewelry—and they’re sold at a variety of venues where the profits go to support things I believe in—the Arts or helping other humans.

I made sure that my students knew that this was not the worst mass shooting in American history. It was just the worst mass shooting of white people. This does not lessen the horror, or the ferocity of my beliefs about the 2nd Amendment, but truth and context are the very least we owe the students who pass through our classes.

I finished Ta Nehisi Coates’s brilliant article in the last issue Atlantic.

I cried through Lin Manuel Miranda’s new song about Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Prayer.” Then I watched it again.

I took really good chocolate to my department meeting and handed it out to my colleagues, then I crocheted a purple baby hat during the meeting, as is my wont. I worried for a moment about becoming the dept. granny and not being taken seriously, then decided that I’m too old to give a fat fart and that I will take chocolate to all department meetings from now on, because life in public universities is a little weird these days, even if Delaware isn’t anywhere near as mucked up as Wisconsin. And my chair is a peach whose strategic genius is being pushed to the limits these days.

I guess I prayed a lot, if you count yelling at God as praying.

I spent much of Saturday submitting poems to journals. I also let my 4-year-old grand-daughter help me change the batteries in a musical toy for the baby. Somehow, this was one of the best spots of the week.

For various reasons, I have a mildly irritating week coming up. I am solidly grumpy about this, especially since it will require that I behave well and represent my department and my brain well with a visiting big-gun. Who knows, he may turn out to be a lovely human, but at the moment, I’m just fretting about not making an ass of myself. #introvertproblems

I had several nightmares, but not about Las Vegas.

I got through the week. I’m still crying. I’ll get through next week, too. Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? I won’t keep calm. I will carry on. I will love the world in spite of its brokennesses.

Devon Miller-Duggan Takes A Fond Look At Her Readers

I’ve been thinking about who/where I imagine my readers to be. Maybe it’s a problem that I can’t come up with a clear picture. Maybe it’s not. I have zero opinion (a rarity) on where or how folks read my stuff. I suspect that some people who liked my first book might be a bit shaken by my second, which is very differently voiced, I think, and in that sense I find myself occasionally wanting to apologize to the folks who bought the second book thinking it’d be like the first one, which is a little silly. So far, I have managed not to do that. Mostly I just hope I have readers, and they’re welcome to read the poems however and wherever they choose. I remember reading an interview with John Grisham years ago in which he was asked how he felt about the various film adaptations of his books and whether he had a hard time seeing someone else’s take on his work. He said he liked the checks and otherwise figured they were out of his hands and not his problem beyond that. Minus the big, fat, lovely checks, I think that’s sort of how I feel. Once the poems are out there, I would very much like them to be read, but beyond that, they’re in other folks’ hands and hearts and heads and not really mine in some sense. Of course, I also assume that all my readers are smart as all get out, thoughtful, playful, and gorgeous, but that goes without saying, right? This whole question is interesting to think about in terms of Robert Frost, who famously fought against certain readings of some of his poems and carefully cultivated a public persona that was geared toward creating a very broad and affectionate reading public (this being back in the day when there were more than 2 poets in the country who could actually make something like a living as poets), but while he did not like the darker readings of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I wonder how he’d feel about the consistent mis-reading, mis-teaching, and mis-understanding of “The Road Not Taken” as a simplistic, Kipling-at-his-worst, “buck-up sermon. Maybe he’d have been fine with it as long as it got the poem enshrined in the cultural consciousness and brought in royalties, maybe he’d be repulsed, maybe a bit of both. I doubt I’ll ever have that sort of problem. It’d be nice in some ways. But mostly, I’m just very fond of my readers, whoever they are, wherever they are.

Women’s March by Devon Miller-Duggan

Time seems to be moving fast, and not in a good way. The women’s march, and its attendant euphoria, is less than two weeks ago, but the news has moved on. I’ve been flush with activism and events, and this morning I’m staying home. I want to respect the march not just as a flash in the pan but as something historic I was honored to share with me friend Devon. Here is her report below.

“For over 20 years I prayed to God for justice, but I received no answer until I prayed with my feet.” — Frederick Douglass

I was too young for Woodstock, too young to demonstrate after Dr. King and RFK were killed, and too young to go to DC by myself to protest Viet Nam (parents were not “political” in that way). I did demonstrate locally, and I wore a black armband EVERYWHERE from the day we went into Cambodia until we more or less officially left. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance in 9th grade when it dawned on me that I was pledging my body and soul to a piece of cloth. I stopped singing the National Anthem about the same time and only sang it again for a while after my god-son was killed in Afghanistan 5 years ago, but I can’t keep singing it any longer, and I’m pretty sure Will would understand.

I did march against nuclear weapons in NYC in the ‘80s. There were half a million of us then. I know what half a million feels like. There were more of us than that in DC. Many, many more. All, in one sense or another (atheist and religious and every shade in between) praying with our feet.

It hasn’t taken very long for our new President to enact vengeful executive orders. Nor has it taken long for fights to start among the various constituencies of the no-Trump wing. The march was too white, and the only reason there were no arrests is that there weren’t enough black people marching to set the cops on edge. There were too many vulgar signs. There were too many causes. I will pass over in silence the generally uninformed and nasty responses from those who didn’t approve of the march in the first place. I’m too busy watching chunks of my family break each others’ hearts over this election.

My crew wasn’t close enough in for me to say whether the DC police showed up in riot gear. I do know that they had the equine cops out, but only used them to clear the way for ambulances. And that the DC cops took down the barriers they’d erected when it became clear that there were many more than the 500,000 they’d planned for, and the Metro did a much better job at the end of the day than at the beginning, when they were overrun. Did all this courtesy happen because we weren’t a BLM march? Almost certainly. Is that okay? Absolutely not.

I confess that the extent to which my radicalism/progressivism has been dominantly that of a privileged white feminist—one of those “Seven Sisters Dykes” Steve Bannon thought he was insulting when he used the phrase. I went to Mt. Holyoke, I’m white, Protestant, and my father was a dentist. I’m also straight. The only real understanding I have of what it means to be a minority—someone judged automatically/autonomically on the basis of my surface–comes from being fat. If that’s 1% of what it’s like to be any of the things I am not, it sucks, breath by breath.

Here’s what I know about The Women’s March: it was not about white, straight women. Some of us surely haven’t awakened fully to the issues of intersectionality, and it’s true that I was thinking pretty hard about my white grandchildren when I decided to march. But the signs were overwhelmingly, about an un-boundaried, aware feminism. So, while my daughter took pictures, I wrote down what was on signs. I’ve seen pictures of wonderful, witty, fierce, pointed signs at the DC march and others, but these were my favorites from among those I actually saw in DC, starting with my own:

What if we’re right? (Lots of folks took pix of it, but I haven’t seen it show up anywhere, still, it’s the question I most want to hear Trump voters answer.)

Black Lives Matter (carried by white men and women)


This is NOT normal.

F**K ALL the –isms that brought us here (surrounded by smaller stickers covering everything from climate change to… well everything DJT hates and plans to crush)

Basic Bitches for Basic Rights.

Hello, I’m white and privileged. (on an enlarged name-tag design)


(over a picture of General Leia) Women belong in the Resistance.

(enormous anatomically correct 3-d uterus)

I CAN BE PRESIDENT (held by a small black girl)

..all the yard signs lining East Capital with quotations from the non-bland-ed MLK—hundreds of them. East Capital was the street on which we walked from the busses parked at RFK stadium in to the march. Residents and church ladies cheered and thanked us all along the 2 miles.

Muslims support Justice & Equality for All.

Feminist with a To-Do List.

…the group of blind marchers following a sighted guide carrying sleigh bells.

I hate crowds & I resent having to be here for this in 2017.

Trump is a Slytherin.

A Girl has no President (superimposed on a picture of Arya).

I met God. She’s Black.

I’m with her (many variations on this one, all with arrows pointing in every direction).


The Road Not Taken (It’s Not What You Think It Is) by Devon Miller-Duggan

Words mean. I’m not a big fan of Deconstruction—I know poets who are, but it’s always seemed antithetical to me for poets to deny the meaning and power (no matter how complex those meanings and powers are) of words.

Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is not a Kiplingesque ode to the value of choosing the harder path, no matter how many 4th grade teachers teach it that way. It’s not what the words of the poem say. If you want THAT poem, for crying out loud, teach “If” (in which only male humans are presumed to need what used to be called character, and which is far from being Kipling’s best work) or “Invictus.” Frost’s poem is, far and away, the best known American poem (for a more thorough discussion of the poem and its place in culture, as well as it’s consistent misinterpretation, go here: ). For a brief take, let’s just focus on the WORDS here and what they say:

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…

So the roads are pretty much the same. This means that the speaker CANNOT have taken a harder road, because there was no harder road to take. The speaker goes on to say that this is a story he’ll be telling “ages and ages hence,” you know, way in the future. So the poem, as many before me have noted, is a juicily complex exploration of the ways we make peace with our lives. Typical Frost. Also much richer and more humane than the frankly cheap misreading that is so popular.
This matters more now than ever, I think. I am already sick of the term “post-factual.” It’s one of those journalistic fads that offer a sort of linguistic comfort to the people who are trying to explain to themselves and us any sort of radical, important, baffling cultural moment of the sort we are in. Fox News is conducting a poll into whether its viewers want an actual investigation of Russia’s cyber-interventions recent US elections, both presidential and congressional. I voted, just for the sake of standing up for facts, but the vote tally was running against real investigation. This is not anything as mild as “post-factual,” it’s ferociously willful denial of truth. Also, no matter how often journalists and editorial-writers use it, the FACT is that the FACTS aren’t going anywhere, and calling the world “post-factual” somehow implies that they can be/have been buried. We communicate facts with words, though not exclusively. Therefore words and their meanings, no matter how contextual and contingent, matter. And repetition does not, in truth, create fact no matter how often it creates belief. Denial does not change facts. Facts can be buried, but like feelings (interesting, that—it kind of suggests that feelings have a parallel reality in some sense), they tend to rise back up eventually. And the rising tends to be unattractive, icky, gut-wrenching, shattering. At the worst, it is too late for course-correction or healing.
Everyone is busy talking about how crappy 2016 has been. No kidding. But it’s a way of ignoring what 2017 could look like. Losing Prince, Bowie, Redbone, and the election could pale in comparison to the results of having a narcissistic, fact-allergic, language-mangling, Putin-flunky in the most powerful office in the world.
Obviously, teaching the younger generation to read Frost’s poem as something other than a mushy addendum to The Boy Scout Handbook will not change or fix any larger situations immediately, but the same sloppiness about language that misreads what may be THE American poem (at least statistically) is cousin to the sloppiness of mind that lets intelligent people not only vote for a monstrosity, but continue to ignore the lies he spews and threats he poses. Where the heck has “paying attention” gone. We’re not post-factual, we’re post-attention. If we’re not bloody careful, we could end up being post-human, and the least of our worries will be making up a story about two roads in an autumn forest and how taking one changed our lives for the (we swear) better. Bull. Frost’s poem’s words tell about an aching attempt to make sense of the choices the speaker’s living with. It isn’t going to work for him. And trying to make words mean what they don’t isn’t going to work for us either.
Just to go for the most obvious cases: “Shell-shock” somehow implied that the shattered men coming back from the Western Front were damaged from having to listen to too many bombs go off. “Slaughter-shock” might have been more honest. We replaced it with “Battle Fatigue,” as though soldiers only needed long naps and coffee to be good to go again. We finally gave it an accurate, if initially confusing, name when we had a war so effed-up and unpopular that it nearly rent the nation—Viet Nam. Now we call what happens to humans who’ve experienced horrors “Trauma” and understand that it fundamentally changes the way their brains work, permanently. I have many days when I think that the Trump election, aside from the enormous factor of misogyny, is the direct product of the trauma of 9/11—that a culture can experience PTSD, and behave very badly in response to the feelings and facts it has attempted to bury. If so, we’d better find a therapist soon, and a good one, because therapists, like poets, are in the business of getting at truth/facts, and rebuilding patterns and lives based on those facts rather than on lies.
So we’ve kind of become, collectively, the speaker in “The Road Not Taken.” We’re trying, with varying degrees of desperation, to justify/explain to ourselves/understand our lives and our choices. And it isn’t going well. The roads are all the same. It only matters what we do once we’re on them. And we’d best make sure we can live (in every sense of the verb) with that. There is nothing inherently noble in choosing a road “just because.” If believing in facts and in the importance of words are going to constitute acts of resistance for the next 4 years, then this is me joining the resistance. This is the road. I am taking it. What difference it does or does not make in the world is not what drives the choice. What difference it makes to my being able to explain my own life in years to come, that is crucial.

Letter To My Younger Self by Devon Miller-Duggan

Letter to My Younger Self,

You are, in fact, almost as smart as everyone keeps telling you. But it means a lot less than they tell you it does. And your teachers and parents talking about it constantly is as invasive as you feel it to be, especially when they turn it into a weapon with which they expect you to beat yourself into conforming to some idea they have of what you should be doing with your “smart.” And it will turn out that you had trouble reading and trouble dealing with both too much and too little stimulation and with memorizing things because that’s how your brain is wired, not because you are lazy or defiant or defective.

You are not responsible for your parents’ happiness. You cannot fix their marriage, and you did not break it in the first place. Furthermore, your mother is not the “Good Guy” and your father is not the “Bad Guy.” His bad behavior is just a lot more obvious. It’s okay to love them both anyway, and you will get to a point where doing that doesn’t hurt. It’s also okay if they have to die before you get there; it won’t mean you’ve failed.

You were not fat at 14, and even when you become the size you were told you were, you will have a life full of love and adventure and wealths you can’t even begin to define now.

You are not going to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Stop caring about being “Norton Anthology Great.” It’s the wrong standard. You will keep writing. That is much more important than some definition of greatness you’re holding on to. Being a working artist is going to turn out to be enough. Well, not really enough, but close enough for gratitude.

Let that nice young man teach you Tai Chi. He likes your body and wishes it well.

You’re going to regret not letting those two boys you didn’t know teach you to surf, but it was probably a good call anyway.

Just because you’re “spoiled” doesn’t mean you have to have a sense of being “special.” “Special” turns out to be pretty meaningless. See paragraph #1.

Take the anti-depressants the first time they’re offered to you, not the 12th. It will save a lot of anguish for everyone. They don’t mean you’re weak. You don’t deserve and didn’t earn the pain. Your genetics suck and your environment was infelicitous—which is to say, you were screwed from the get-go. Get over it. Your pain does not make you special, either, though your ability to keep moving against it is pretty spiffy and it’s okay to be a little self-congratulatory about it; gratitude will still do you more good.

Thanks for sticking around.