Episode 2: The Traveler and the Road

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Photo by Irina Iriser

Welcome back, and thank you for tuning in to episode number 2. As I promised in the first episode, I’m going to start off by giving you a little insight into what this next one is about. But before I do that, I want to share an idea with you that I came up with as a way to get your feedback and involve more listeners in dialogue. .. At the beginning of each episode, look for me to ask you a question about a previous one, where there might have been a hidden clue, or a meaning that you may have overlooked. Let’s have fun with it, and see what you and others come up with. It’s very possible that you have a perspective that I hadn’t thought of before. This will give you a way to participate in how this podcast grows and develops, and I’d like that. Ok, here’s my first question:

In episode number 1, what is the significance of the Proposer giving precisely 15 minutes to the participants to talk among themselves and come up with a descriptive name for their group? You can reply on whichever app you are listening through, or you can submit your comment on mappingthemedium.com. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Now for a bit about this new episode… We are going take a look at two different written works, both published in the same decade but across the big pond from each other, and both expressing how humans might view the ‘footprints’ that we each leave on the ‘Medium’ in which we all travel.

It’s easy to understand why I titled this episode ‘The Traveler and the Road’.

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,

Knocking on the moonlit door;

And his horse in the silence champed the grasses

Of the forest’s ferny floor:

And a bird flew up out of the turret,

Above the Traveller’s head:

And he smote upon the door again a second time;

‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

But no one descended to the Traveller;

No head from the leaf-fringed sill

Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,

Where he stood perplexed and still.

But only a host of phantom listeners

That dwelt in the lone house then

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight

To that voice from the world of men:

Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,

That goes down to the empty hall,

Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken

By the lonely Traveller’s call.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,

Their stillness answering his cry,

While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,

’Neath the starred and leafy sky;

For he suddenly smote on the door, even

Louder, and lifted his head:—

‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,

That I kept my word,’ he said.

Never the least stir made the listeners,

Though every word he spake

Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house

From the one man left awake:

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,

And the sound of iron on stone,

And how the silence surged softly backward,

When the plunging hoofs were gone.

This haunting, early 20th century poem, written by British poet, short story writer, and novelist, Walter de la Mare, strikingly depicts man’s perplexity with his place in the universe and what the great unknown expectations of humanity may be, if any. How many of us actually travel this medium with purpose and intent, keeping our word, as the poem so brilliantly illustrates, .. That we will arrive, and knock, prepared to meet what lies behind that door? Some might question what choice they had in being here to begin with, blurring in their minds the lines between free will and intention, and choosing to not be burden with responsibility for their actions. But in their darkest hours of reflection, could it be that they do still knock? That they do still ask who is listening. …. Do the phantoms of an eternal consciousness still bend an ear to each traveler’s words, however impotent they may be in meaning or however tragically they’ve been reduced by our culture to no more than a mere echo? … And what of the horse? It may bring us there, but how much time do we devote to that effort of knocking before we ride away. Our level of sincerity and intention seems to be either a deficiency or an innate quality of how our footsteps travel the Medium, and how our choices impress against the journey’s momentum, even when the choice is not to make one at all, sometimes having violent consequences.  The horse is only a means of placement, just as the four corners were in this podcast’s previous episode. It’s how we respond as we meet each event on the road that either nurtures or scars the potential. …. Future potential lies before us in every moment of every day, but as only one traveler the story of an individual life will always be a ‘less traveled road’ because no one else has compiled the same genetic history, and the combination of that with events and experiences, always molding and eliciting unique responses by the individual to the medium. … So, what of ‘choices’? In today’s complicated world, trying to stay alert in an atmosphere of constant distractions, trying to discern truth, and trying to choose the least harmful directions for self, let alone society, can seem like such a daunting challenge.  But perhaps this is a self-inflicted paradox. .. Many try to ease this mental burden by pointing out the deficiencies in others in order to point that same finger away from the mirror of self, but this is circular reasoning. If everyone is doing that, nothing gets accomplished. Whereas, we might actually find a different perspective, one that generates real momentum, through an exercise in humility.

This next written work is probably familiar to you, but there’s a very strong possibility that you completely misunderstand it. …..

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.

This poem titled ‘The Road Not Taken’, written by Robert Frost and published only 4 years later than our first poem, ‘The Listeners’, interestingly points to a real difference in the way Western culture was escalating in America in comparison to the slower, resistance to it in Europe. What I am referring to is a seed of thought that developed in the 14th century and sprouted the ontological individualism that I referred to in episode one.

As specific topic opportunities arise, we will explore more of those details in the future. And like a sleuth, we can uncover interesting human activities that clearly exhibit it. And they are, not surprisingly, everywhere!

For instance, in the first stanza of ‘The Road Not Taken’, we find a traveler examining a choice. He wishes he could explore the future of those choices before actually choosing one and going down that path. In the second stanza, it’s made clear that there really is no discernable difference in the paths. And in stanza number three, he just picks a path for no specific reason, and plans to remember the other to travel for another day. But ‘knowing how way leads onto way’ (stop for a moment here and think about our biological mapping that I referred to in episode one), he doubted he should ever come back. .. And then in the last stanza, we are presented with the ‘pride’ that he professed later in life when he attributes his success to having been special in that he chose a road supposedly less traveled, and that it made all the difference, when there was definitely no discernable difference in those roads at the time. … As I mentioned before, any road traveled by an individual is a ‘less traveled road’. …but Robert Frost actually wrote this in a spirit of sarcasm and jest, that his friend carried his ontological individualism like a medal. And this poem has been incorrectly used as a source of pride in graduation speeches, car commercials, and other such displays for many many years. Our culture is so submersed in ontological individualism, and the addiction to how it pats our individual selves on the back at every turn, that we are pathologically and pathetically blind to the problem, even when it’s right there in front of us, in such places as a poem that everyone knows.

It’s time we stop this addiction and neediness and get back to acts of a more humble and focused nature. ….. Here is one resource that I have found to be helpful when contemplating these things.

Mikhail Bakhtin was a profound philosopher, literary critic, and semiotician in early 20th century Russia. His work was suppressed by the Russian government until he was rediscovered by scholars in the 1960s. One of his first manuscripts, written between 1919 and 1922, titled ‘Toward a Philosophy of the Act’, was actually rescued in 1972 from an old storeroom full of rats and seeping water. This work was the “heart of the heart” of Bakhtin, in which he raises issues of cultural relativity, responsibility, self and other, the moral significance of outsidedness, participatory thinking, and the implications of the individual having “no alibi in existence”. … No one else can do or be what we each need to be as life is laid before us, and as we travel and map our journey, we are constantly presented with choices that Bakhtin called a ‘once occurrent ought’. .. How can we be better aware of this ‘ought’, as the traveler clearly was in our first poem. We are so busy patting our own individual selves on the back, and encouraging a façade of accomplishments that are less and less real as we play out our narcissistic fantasies in a screen infested, techy world. …

I’ve come to the conclusion that in ‘The Road Not Taken’, Robert Frost wants us to think about how we approach a ‘choice path’. Do we think of it as Bakhtin’s “obligatory ought”, knowing that each step along the way impacts the medium as a whole, or do we just follow along distractedly and then profess claim or blame in hindsight down the road?  The point seems to be that our individual journey (way leads on to way) can only ever be taken by one traveler. But if hundreds, thousands, or millions each understood that because of our individual relations to the whole, how strongly small choices can influence other events, how no one else is standing at that particular place in existence and can do what can only be done by the one traveler, and then actually realize those ‘obligatory oughts’, .. That’s exactly how we will leave those side by side footprints of intention, and then purposefully make all of the difference.

Until next time, be well, be safe, be hopeful, dialogue with others of different perspectives, and always be on the lookout for those side by side footprints.

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