Lovely, Dark and Deep
Fear has its place, and it and fearlessness are sometimes bosom companions.
Fear has been a useful thing at times, especially in my youth. Fear made me pause long enough to weigh my options when I was an angry child of 7 who thought about running away from parents whose strictness I mistook for cruelty. In adolescence, it kept me from trying drugs long enough to notice that I didnâ€™t like the changes in my friends who indulged. There were times in my life, looking back, when I probably would have benefited from being a bit more fearful â€“ but sometimes Iâ€™ve needed to get burned in order to learn to respect the fire.
At the same time, fearlessness has also served me well. It helped me face childhood bullies. It gave me the determination I needed to push past the racists, sexists and naysayers who would have denied me my Princeton degree in the early years of co-education and integration. It gave me the strength to walk away from the corporate fast track to pursue my dream of teaching, writing, and having time for my two children.
When my ankylosing spondylitis became pronounced, fearlessness and rage vaunted me past the bureaucrat who told me to go on the dole to get affordable housing for my family. It got me through the hip surgeries made riskier by the complications inherent in trying to snake an anesthesia tube down a windpipe encased in a frozen, twisted spine. It gave me the strength to graduate early from rehab.
And ten summers ago, fearlessness gave me the strength to limp away from a life that was not working, and to embrace the woman-centered parts of myself from which I had been hiding. Still, fear was never far away, and in my new life I was often too cautious. I lifted off, but never quite flew.
But here, on the verge of morning, at the end of a brief sojourn in the mountains of Vermont, I realize that fear is no longer my close companion. Soon I will return to my life of limits and accommodations, but for now, I am free to take stock, and chart a new course.
I came to the mountains to collaborate with Ursula, my research partner â€“ imagine a writer inventing with a computer scientist! We are two women in midlife taking one big shot at the moon. She has been playing with a new algorithm; I have an application for it. I dream of new ways of telling stories; she tells me how my dream translates into AI. Through the thicket of hemlock, beech and maple, down the craggy slope from her front porch where a trout stream sings day and night over rock, dawn is coming fast, and I welcome it.
Somewhere, I hope, the high school teachers who pushed me toward science have made peace with Mr. Edelson, the gnomish English teacher who summoned me to his office just before his abrupt retirement in the middle of my ninth grade year. He fixed me with his eagle eyes and declared in a voice that commanding officers reserve for gifted but wayward recruits: â€œYou have a flair for writing. It would be a shame to waste it." It has been 35 years since that moment; the fear of disappointing him stayed with me for most of that time.
Dr. Green, the head of the science department at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, was heartbroken when I told her I no longer wanted to be on the AP science track â€“ it was the early 70s and the doors that had been closed to her despite her Physics Ph.D. were finally swinging open for my generation. But it was the poetry of science that I enjoyed, not the process, and that joy was supplanted by the urgency of the times. In 1973, it was easier for me to see how my writing talents would serve the cause of human freedom than my infatuation with space travel and the spiritual dimension of quantum mechanics. Mr. Edelson won out â€“ I became a writer, but science remained a venerable muse.
Here, in Vermont, Ursula and I work through the science in poetry, the poetry in journalism, and the ethics of software, the better to pare code and stanza in the service of what is pure and true. The potential we see is electrifying; her husband keeps reminding us where the ground is. Her daughter, nearly six, reminds us of the limits of her tolerance. My 14-year-old son, who has indulged me by coming along, has contented himself with fishing and blueberry picking, despite the tough-guy poses he adopts in most of my cameraphone pictures. He is genial with the six-year-old, and when I ask his impression of the scheme we have hatched, his answer reflects the sharp reasoning and instinct of the successful entrepreneur he plans to be. Then heâ€™s back to his front-of-mind concerns: sports, girls, MySpace. I honor the moment: The chances for this kind of memory-making are fading.
Yesterday, our two families ventured to Robert Frostâ€™s Stone House, and stood in the dining room where the bard crafted his most famous poems. The whole room is devoted to â€œStopping by the Woods on a Snowy Eveningâ€¿ â€“ the story of its composition, correspondence with his editor about the placement of commas, his thoughts on meter and rhyme, and finally, what he and the critics had to say about the meaning of the piece. The others indulged me and Ursula while we shared memories of our fathers, both of us having come to Frost by way of paternal encouragement.
Frost is an ancestral figure for me: fragments of his poems sometimes advise me in moments of reflection. Remembering how â€œway leads on to way" bred caution in me about making wrong choices that could not be undone. â€œMending Wall" reminded me of both the need for boundaries, and the dangers of prejudices â€“ the need to know â€œwhat I was walling in or walling out/And who might take offence." And how often have I goaded myself to keep working by remembering that, â€œI have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/ Miles to go before I sleep?"
Frost disputed readers who associated that last couplet with death, but acknowledged that each poem is a metaphor, and each metaphor has its own â€œulteriority." I head back from the woods, so â€œlovely, dark and deep" with all of Frostâ€™s meanings alive in me. I too have miles to go before I sleep, and I intend to walk more boldly than ever, making big tracks for as long as I can.