I have always loved Robert Frost.
His poetry has spoken to me since I was a small child. Perhaps it is because my biological father loved him so much. Tom could quote and recite poetry like no other. Rides in the car with him were always entertaining and educational. I listened to Greek mythology, American and English literature, poetry of all genres, and songs… oh the songs, singing and harmonizing. It is Robert Frost, however, who touches my heart best.
My high school yearbook quote is the last line of Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.
But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.
Frost wrote it in 1922, 100 years ago. We studied it in freshman English class. My teacher Bob Cowan suggested it was a suicide ideation and the protagonist chose to live. This upset me at the time because I did not see it that way. I saw it as a busy person taking a break on their way home from work. Pondering a scene passed by every day. Taking a moment to really look at the details of what were normally merely glanced at. Forty-five years after that freshman English class I can see it now. Not the suicide aspect specifically, but the profound desire to just stop.
That’s the beauty of poetry. It is designed for personal interpretation. The alliteration engages the reader (or listener). The chosen words reflect the author’s view on what is written and we, the consumer, are free to see and hear what resonates with us. As hard as my life has been, I still see this poem as a brief respite in a busy life. I do not see the desire for death so much as the gratitude for the break the snowy woods provide.
Another favorite Frost Poem of mine is The Road not Taken.
Like Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening this poem is about a solitary person in the woods deciding which way to walk. In the literal sense it is a lovely story of an enjoyable hike in the woods. A time to reflect on the beauty of nature and ponder the implications of what path we choose to walk. The last line here, much like the last line in Stopping by Woods, encapsulates the poem’s message.
I shall be telling this with a sigh,
somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I-
I took the road less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
The part I like most about this poem is that early on, when looking at how one path was less traveled, the writer reveals that in actuality they are about the same. That both that morning equally lay. So, did the traveler actually choose the less traveled path or is that how they choose to remember it?
Memory is shaped by emotion far more than factual recall.
Eyewitness testimony can vary significantly between two people watching the same thing. We as observers bring into our perception of what we see everything that we have experienced. How we recall and share memories is no different. We will remember very clearly the parts of something that resonated with us. What touched us. In recalling Molly memories, I am often stilled by the details of a shared memory that I have forgotten, not because my memory is weak, but because something else in that memory is stronger for me. This is why asking several people the same question about something can be so fascinating.
I speak about another Frost poem, Two Tramps in Mud Time, in Episode 50.
The line here that struck me speaks to doing what you love and how good life can be when your work and all the tasks in your life can be done with enjoyment and love. In this poem two lumberjacks come across the writer chopping wood. They feel that the right thing to do is to pay them to cut it. They are professionals, will do a better job, and need the money. The writer disagrees and declines the offer. He says,
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation with my vocation
as my two eyes make one in sight.
I reflected a lot on this concept, that your work should be what you love. That getting up and going to work should feel like a well-paid playdate. I have always felt this way about teaching. Never once in my 21 years in the Concord School District did I dread going to work. I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved summer vacation as well, but once school started, I was all in! I feel this way about coaching CrossFit classes. The interaction with others who share, or want to share, a passion for health and wellness fills me. Watching people meet and exceed goals and expectations is a gift.
The second part of the last stanza of Two Tramps in Mud Time is as follows.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done,
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
Written in an era where most people worked long tiring days at both their jobs and their homes, inferring gratitude, service and love into the daily task of living seemed ahead of its time for me. I remember asking Tom (my father) about this. Why wouldn’t he let the tramps cut the wood. Then he could do something he loved. Coming to see that he not only loved his paid work, but that he also loved caring for his farm was an “aha” moment for me. “Barbara”, Tom said, “He chops the wood with love. He feels good after he has done it. He feels fulfilled.” For me, mowing the lawn, folding laundry, raking leaves, shoveling snow all provide a physical break from an intellectual reality. Do I love these tasks? I do. Do I love teaching, writing, speaking, coaching? I do.
The next Frost Poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay, completes my top four.
It is another emotional missive with lots of room for interpretation. I came upon it when I read The Outsiders in ninth grade. (Apparently that was a big English year for me!)
One of the characters “Pony Boy” is injured. He loved this particular poem in the book and used it as an internal motivator to keep going when things got tough. To “stay gold”. His friend is at his bedside as he takes his last breath and tells him “Stay gold Ponyboy”. It has changed meanings for me as I have traveled through life. Molly read this book shortly before her death and was also intrigued by the poem. The greater meaning was not lost on her. After she died, I realized that Molly was a part of my life that couldn’t stay gold. That her existence for me would be in memory only.
The poem, one of his shortest is as follows:
Nature’s first green is gold,
It’s hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
but only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost 1922
My favorite part of spring is what I call my “light green ride”. The budding leaves are the very gold that Frost talks about in this poem. As you drive along a road with a vista type view it looks like someone took a paintbrush and painted the lightest green possible across the forest. At first glance you often think you missed it. You have to look again. As the leaves grow, they darken and become the full embodiment of summer and the branches disappear. That light green, to me, represents all of the possibilities that come with the rebirth of nature. It has always been a time of hope for me. While April and May will never hold the same kind of anticipatory joy they did before Molly died, it is the “light green” that keeps me going.
So, while it is true that nothing gold can stay, in my physical life without Molly I am learning to sit still in it, and experience it fully while it is here, so that when it leaves, I can, like Pony Boy, stay gold.
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