To Be . . .

. . . or not to be. 

Should I stay or should I go? 

These two roads diverging in the woods . . . which one should I take? 

It often seems that life is just a series of choices and their consequences.  In retrospect, a choice can seem destined and profound, the initiating event of what came next.  Or perhaps it is married to regret and remorse.  Ideally, whether seen in the rearview mirror as positive bellwethers of future good or as negative gatekeepers to coming pain, our choices set the stage for everything else to come. 

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” about those roads diverging in the woods, is often used to demonstrate the beauty of not following the crowd.  The final lines of the poem say, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   But, these are perhaps the most misinterpreted lines in all of American poetry.  We think they’re saying “Ah, what a glorious rebel I have been, and it paid off.” 

But, you see, the two roads described aren’t that different from each other.  The poem says “the passing there had worn them really about the same” and that the roads “both that morning equally lay.” Frost’s final stanza starts “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence,” and that “with a sigh” is important. He’s actually writing about our tendency to romanticize the past, to look back at younger selves as courageous and daring rather than just . . . human, making human choices, and having no more idea than anybody else how it might all turn out. 

The rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness of our choices is often determined by the way we move through the results of our choice rather than the choice itself. 

But while we’re still on the front side of the choice, still standing at the fork in the road, is there any way to get a sense of direction? 

I was once faced with a big decision and unclear how to make it. My sister gave me some good advice.  She said, “Get off by yourself where you won’t be interrupted. Spend a few moments in meditation. Quiet your mind. When you feel completely settled within yourself, take your mind to the place where you have already decided on option A, and see how you feel.  Then clear your mind again and take it to the place where you have already decided on option B, and see how you feel.” 

So, I did it.  I followed her advice.  And you know what? I knew exactly what to do. My intuition, my inner guidance, my emotional self did not let me down. It sent me a clear message. 

Ultimately, though, whichever choice I made was mine. My choices are a primary way in which I co-create my life.  Should I stay or should I go? No one can tell me . . . but me. And by “me,” I mean the higher version of me that lives in the quiet places. 

I’ll be seeing you . . .

. . . in all the old familiar places, that this heart of mine embraces all day through. You know the song. It was written in 1938 by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, and it was recorded by just about everybody – Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, even as recently as 2020 by Norah Jones. It became wildly popular during World War II when it so perfectly captured the inner longings of those separated from ones they loved.  

When the pandemic began . . . I was in India.  Jaipur, India, to be precise, in the state of Rajasthan. It was my second time in India. On both trips, I had taken students for study abroad. We had ridden on rickshaws through Old Delhi, visited the place where Gandhi was assassinated, walked in and around the magnificent Taj Mahal, . . . but the part of India that reached into my heart was Jaipur. 

If you’ve ever watched the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, first and second, then you’ve seen Jaipur. Most of the filming for those movies was done there. 

When I think of Jaipur, yes, I think of the bazaar and the Hawa Mahal or Wind Palace and the Amber Fort, those places that tourists tend to go.  But those things only come to mind.  The parts of Jaipur that live in my heart are the drums of Rajasthani music, the ever-present incense, the mounds of marigolds at the flower market, the cold soft marble of the floor in my room at Ikaki Niwas, the smells of the dal and chapattis and samosas coming from the kitchen, that spring night when my friends and I ate outdoors under the stars just 24 hours past the full moon of Holi. 

And, of course, the people — both the ones I know and have grown to love, and the countless, nameless ones in the shops and on the street and driving tuk-tuks and pedaling rickshaws and selling mutton tikka on the sidewalk and waiting for the curtain to be pulled away and the god to be revealed at the temple, and putting sandalwood paste on my forehead in welcome, and bowing slightly with the prayer hands of a thousand Namastes. 

That is the Jaipur that this heart of mine embraces.

And just last night, without warning, for no reason, I was there.  I mean, I was in my house in the United States, but for a split second, I was distinctly and absolutely in Jaipur.  It stays with me still.  I could close my eyes right now and feel the marble and smell the incense and hear the drums. 

The English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, wrote about this phenomenon in several of his poems – the power of memory, the realness of memory, the way a reminiscence can hide in our spirit until it is called upon, either by our conscious mind or something that lives buried underneath it, and then it’s there.  Because once the experience has been ours, it is always ours. 

Wordsworth wrote a poem called “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” but it’s also known as “Daffodils.”  The first three stanzas describe a field filled with thousands of daffodils by a lake.  The last eight lines of the poem summarize the poet’s gratitude for this encounter.  They go like this: 

I gazed — and gazed — but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils. 

I hope to return to Jaipur one day.  To walk among the marigolds.  To see my friends again. To bow in reverence at the temple. But until I do, Jaipur, I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.

Beauty is Truth . . .

. . . Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Those are the final two lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The poem is considered one of the greatest odes ever written in the English language.  

Here’s the nutshell:  The poet, or the persona of the poem, encounters a piece of ancient Greek pottery which depicts two scenes: one of lovers about to kiss and one of a group of people apparently preparing to offer a sacrifice at the temple.  The entire poem is the poet expressing how this work of art will outlast living people. The lovers will always be young and in love, and the people in the other scene will never reveal the purpose of their journey or their sacrifice.  

Those last two well-known lines are the poet’s conjecture about what the urn would say to all who encounter it.  But those last two lines are also some of the lines most debated by scholars.  What do they mean exactly?  Beauty is truth? Truth beauty?

Recently, I had the honor of hearing Lisa Fischer perform. If you don’t know Lisa Fischer, you should look her up.  She has toured as a background singer for Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones and others.  She is featured in the 2013 film Twenty Feet from Stardom, and she is a Grammy-Award winning artist in her own right. 

But all that aside, let me engage in the futile attempt to describe an ineffable performance. Her vocals are simply impeccable. Almost other-worldly. She doesn’t perform songs; she moves into them and takes up residence, inhabiting the words of others as if they sprang from her own experience. She is a musician whose instrument is her body — not just her lungs and diaphragm and tongue and teeth, but her feet and hands and knees and neck. Her talent was not just the greatest I had ever witnessed, but it was greater than I might have imagined was humanly possible.

But there was something more than talent on stage.  I sat through the entire performance with my hands in a prayer position against my lips. The unfiltered display of naked authenticity was almost more than I could take. Somehow I knew that I was watching her very essence — uncovered, unhidden, unashamed, unafraid — and in beholding her highest and truest self free and unfettered, I knew in that instant that this way of being was available to us all.  

For 90 minutes, Lisa Fischer stood at the intersection of talent and authenticity, and it was holy ground. 

She didn’t talk about god or spirituality or faith or a journey.  I mean, other than the tanktop under her tunic that had the chakras running down the back.  She didn’t have to talk about spirituality. The moment itself was sacred, and she was fully in the moment.  And by her silent invitation, so were we. 

That is the power of art — to create an image, a sound, a moment that transcends the material world and shows us the truth of who we are.  Like a mirror that reflects our soul.  

For you see, beauty is truth, truth beauty . . .