I started my morning, as I often do, listening to The Writer’s Almanac by Garrrison Keillor. Though it plays on WGBH, one of our local NPR stations, I listen to it from the website because I can do that on my own schedule. Along with a poem, Keillor gives a quick rundown of some of the happenings on this particular day, Here’s one of the things he said:
“On this day in 1923, Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ was published in the New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favorite of his own poems, and he called it, ‘My best bid for remembrance.’
“Though it’s a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called ‘New Hampshire’ (1923). He finally finished it, and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He’d never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he’d finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.
But while he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page.”
He went on to recite the poem, which I print here because it’s one of my favorites.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
One of the reasons the poem sticks with me is it was the subject of my first big research paper in college, and my first real venture into analyzing a poem. I look back on that experience as the place where I became infected by poetry; I’ve never recovered.
My hours in the library reading commentaries on Frost’s work led me to people who saw in these words traces of solstice, suicide, and Santa Claus. I don’t remember what I ended up saying about the poem. I do remember working hard to learn it by heart (I still have most of it) and I know I keep coming back to it and finding different things: sometimes I’m struck by the beauty of the moonless night; sometimes, that the owner of the land is not the one appreciating it; sometimes,, the curiosity of the horse; sometimes the impending pressure of promises still unfulfilled.
I did not know Frost had written it so quickly until today.
In June of 1990, nearly seventy years after Frost wrote at his breakfast table, I was packing up to drive to Fort Worth after spending a couple of days writing with my friend Billy. We were working on songs for youth camp with my kids. We all knew this was going to be my last camp because Ginger and I were headed to Boston. While Billy was in the shower, I wrote these words in about the time it took Frost to paint his snowy picture:
If there was a place that felt like home, would you go there?
If there was a chance that you could know love, would you try?
It there was a dream that would come true, would you fall asleep?
If there was someone to dry your tears, would you cry?
Come and see, come and see
Take and eat, come and see
If there was a voice that would call your name, would you answer?
If there was a friend who would never leave, would you stay?
If there was a heart that would break for you, would you fall in love?
If there was someone who was listening, would you pray?
Come and see, come and see
Take and eat, come and see
I handed him the lyric when he got out of the shower and while I was cleaning up he wrote the melody. Eventually, it even made it on one of Billy’s records. Some of the stuff we wrote feels like history to me; this one has stayed alive.
Yesterday afternoon late, our friend Janet called asking if she, her daughter, their two dogs, and pet mouse could spend the night. They are moving to San Francisco this week. Everything was loaded into the Family Truckster and they needed to feel as if their journey had begun, rather than spending another night in the old house. Yes is always the answer to anyone who wants to crash here, so we had a slumber party last night with our little menagerie. As I’m writing, they have just shuffled off to Buffalo, the next stop on their journey west.
Over coffee this morning, Janet and I talked about new beginnings. For the first time in twenty years ministry is not her job. No one in San Francisco knows her; she is going with a clean slate: miles to go, but few promises to keep. She and Christine are on a road trip without reservations, knowing only the address they are driving toward. That’s enough to start a new life.
I watched them drive off and am left with memories and empty spaces. At least once every year in the ten years of Janet’s pastorate, I filled the pulpit as a guest preacher. When we were all together at the church in Winchester, Dan, her son, and I were the cooks for the annual Easter Pancake Breakfast. Fajitas and Ritas in Quincy will notice a drop in sales because Janet and Ginger won’t be making their regular visits.
Goodbye, my friend. Go, in peace.
I’ve always been puzzled, haunted, and somehow comforted by one of the lines in “Come and See.” On the cusp of one of the biggest goodbyes of my life, I wrote, “If there was a friend who would never leave, would you stay?” My life is. in some sense, a chain of goodbyes, an ongoing sequence of separation from those I most dearly love. Geography, however, is not the final word. I have left friends and they have left me, yet – thank God – we have still found ways to stay with each other in most cases. We have kept our promises even across the miles and it sucks not to be closer.
The promises we keep to one another as friends are not about obligation or duty. They are the essence of what holds us together against the centrifugal force of existence that scatters us every which way. Here in the dark, we can still find each other across the miles. Come and see.