Wild Friendship

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The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Last week I taped this short Wendell Berry poem to my desk. I remembered the poem in time to send it to a friend for her birthday – words are our best gifts to each other nearly ten years into a friendship marked mainly by raising children and growing up ourselves. We talk daily, cutting the distance between her California exile and my mountain home with text messages and harried phone conversations. We have some standing rules: hanging-up in mid-sentence without explanation is acceptable, often necessary; whining about husbands is allowable, but both men are saints for putting up with us and should be defended; our children are beautiful, nearly perfect, and will grow up just fine despite our neuroses and constant need to analyze their lives. We have a well-honed pattern for hashing out ideas – we talk it over and over and over; throw words at the problem – circle round it and rehash; think it to death.Mari and Sj
 
I’ve read that Wendel Berry and Pulitzer prizing winning poet Gary Snyder traded more than 240 letters over 40 years. Chad Wriglesworth compiled decades of this correspondence in his book Distant Neighbors The poets write about the big issues they are famous for tackling in their work: environment and place, community, religion and economics. But they also write about family and home. They share details about their marriages and their children. They hash it out. Arguments about ethics and faith thread through the narrative. They even edit each other’s poetry. Berry says their friendship and their letters are an attempt to make “as much sense of the world as possible.” He talks about carrying Snyder around in his head as he writes and farms in Kentucky; Snyder became his “binocular vision.” Snyder says the letters were a kind of conversation about learning “how to live in a place” and defining an “ethical life.” It seems clear that the California Buddhist and the Kentucky “forest” Christian hashed it all out in their letters.
 
Our phone calls between Wyoming and California will never be literary fodder, but they could serve as a sort of scrapbook of parenting and thinking in a modern era. We share the mundane: school lunches and soccer mom commutes, but we also chew on politics and faith. I would love to have my dear friend closer – I have made shameless pitches for a Wyoming move, but I do wonder how our friendship would change if we were no longer forced to talk our way through each other’s lives. She has become my binocular vision, my secondary perspective in so many ways. I notice this most in the quiet spaces between our phone calls. I find myself thinking about how I might explain something so that she can see it. Our physical distance creates a sort of distinct thinking space.
 
I ordered two leather bracelets on my friend’s 40th birthday. Berry’s words are hammered into a small metal loop on the leather: a reminder of our attachment to reason, our attempts to find all the right words, and of how often we fall short. It will remind me to appreciate the space in our longtime friendship, to appreciate the quiet “wild peace” between the conversations. We are not Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder – I will never be a poetic genius– but their enduring friendship is inspiring and seems to make our phone calls a little more legit.
 
- Sarah

When Did We Become Hostile to Knowledge?

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In the last ten months, I have had two knees replaced, participated in months of rehab, and relearned how to go up and down stairs with alternating feet. If I had not had my knees replaced, I would soon have been limited to a wheelchair. I have great respect and admiration for my orthopedic surgeon, for the anesthesiologist who kept me unaware of the surgery, for the internist who helped me deal with drug allergies.

But a number of times in the course of this process, I have heard people say about my orthopedist, “Well, he’s just a carpenter.”  I have to admit that during the first surgery I heard the hammers and the saws that he was using, through a foggy distance that made me think the noise was happening next door, but to call an orthopedic surgeon “just a carpenter” discounts the years of training he has. Certainly carpentry is a craft, but if a board is misplaced, or a nail is bent in the process, it can be redone. Knee replacement involves understanding the muscles, the blood vessels, the nerves as well as the bone, but it also involves the person to whom the knee belongs. Orthopedic surgeons have to have knowledge of more than just bones. Orthopedic surgeons have five years of training beyond their four years of medical school. They have been taught by surgeons who have accumulated years of experience on top of that training. Surgeons continue studying the best ways to help people walk again. They keep learning.

I am not going to dwell further on orthopedics here, but I use this example because it seems to me to illustrate a disturbing trend in our society. We distrust knowledge. We not only distrust it, we denigrate it and often we, as a society, are downright hostile about those who are knowledgeable. The place where this is most obvious is in our politicians’ and our citizens’ attitudes toward climate change.  Most climate scientists concur that human activity is contributing significantly to changes in our climate, yet we continue to have people who deny that this is so. The people who deny the human connection to climate change generally have done no research, have done no reading on the subject, and base their opinion either on some politician’s distortion of science, or on some intuitive notion that fits into their narrow view of weather.

I think that some of this distrust comes from our need for simple answers. We would like an “expert” to tell us exactly what to expect. We do not like getting “I don’t know” as an answer for a question. We want to say “What do you mean, you don’t know?”.  What I’d like to suggest is that we learn to trust the people who say “I don’t know” more than we trust the people who say, “I know based on not much information.” My orthopedic surgeon sometimes answers a question with “I don’t know.” He made it explicitly clear that he sometimes makes mistakes. I expected him to do his best, to rely on his extensive training, but I also accept that he is human.

When I was growing up, when I asked my parents questions about something, their usual response was “look it up.” I would go to the encyclopedia we kept on the living room bookshelf. More than that, however, I remember how to spell encyclopedia (as do many of my generation) from listening to Jiminy Cricket sing the word on The Mickey Mouse Club, where he encouraged young watchers to look things up. We have become a culture where we want to be told the answers, when in reality, the answers keep changing because  knowledge keeps changing. Instead of denigrating those with knowledge, we need to celebrate them and celebrate their ability to continue to learn. We should take them as models.

Jane

Infectious Fear

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Photo by Keri DeDeo

In the dark of night, my husband calls to report he’s headed home.

I gather our two dogs and lock them away with me in the back room.

I text him, “Coast is clear,” and then I wait.

The back door squeaks open.

The floorboards in the hall creak.

The dogs whine and wag their tails at the TV room door, but their expectations go unmet.

The reason for this bizarre behavior? To keep my dog Nikko safe. Diagnosed with immune-mediated neutropenia, her immune system is compromised. Already, since her diagnosis two months ago, she has had three rounds of antibiotics for various infections: 1 from an unknown infection; 1 from a small cut on her foot, and 1 from kennel cough. She’s on another round of antibiotics for kennel cough—the first round didn’t do the trick.

We’re not sure where she contracted the kennel cough, but when we started thinking about the possibilities, my brain hurt. I also understand the fear behind Ebola.

I’m not concerned about catching Ebola. The chances of catching it in Wyoming are narrow. I do worry about family members in South Africa because they are closer to the epicenter of the outbreak, but still, they are far enough away to be relatively safe.

Besides, I have my own worries at home. Right now, we’re homebodies and I worry about the consequences of having an outside dog touch me. If a dog touches me or my clothes and has any infections or disease, then I could carry that to my dog. If I touch a person who has dogs, and those dogs are even carriers of any disease, then I could carry that to my dog. Even if I step on a patch of grass where a diseased dog has urinated, I could carry that to my dog on my shoes. If I shake someone’s hand of a dog-owner of a diseased dog, I could carry that to my dog.

If my dog touches noses with a diseased dog through the cracks in our fence, she could get ill. If her nose touches the grass where a diseased dog has urinated, she could get sick. If my other dog, Maiya, touches grass or dirt where a diseased dog has defecated or urinated, she could pass that on to Nikko.

Just like humans, dogs carry disease even if they are asymptomatic, and a compromised dog’s immune system can’t fight even the simplest infection.

It’s the same with humans. Going through chemotherapy, my immune system was compromised. The people around me had to be careful. They got flu shots, stayed away when they were sick, and my mother-in-law scattered hand-sanitizer pumps around the house. In the end, I survived, and so will Nikko.

But in the meantime, my husband and I shower and change clothes after being exposed to dogs and before petting our dogs. I disinfect surfaces, door knobs, shoes, our floors…anything I can think of that we could have touched.

To some people, this may be extreme measures. Yes, it’s inconvenient to undress in the garage and shower before petting her. Yes, it’s strange to ask visitors if they’ve had contact with dogs before shaking their hand or allowing them to come inside. And, yes, at times I feel trapped in my home for fear of bringing in disease, but then I see her sweet face and I remember the comfort and love she gave me while I went through chemo, and it just seems natural to do this for her.

Nikko

Nikko

~K

Overuse of the Verb To Be

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before the race
Good writers use a variety of specific and vivid verbs to avoid repetition …

 

Recently my colleague, Jane, suggested that we think of people as “doers rather than things.” She wrote that if we can make this change we allow people to move on, to be something other than a “static” idea. And this week I’m struggling to embrace her ideas – I struggle to see myself and my family as a “work in progress.”

Over a year ago I wrote about the Boston Marathon bombing; I wrote about the strength and purpose that I find in running long distances outside. In that same blog post I complained about an injury and admitted to grumpiness. I concluded that I could live without running and that I’d get over being grumpy, but that I loved being a runner. I recovered enough to spend thirty straight days in the back country that summer. I carried a heavy pack for over a hundred miles and I felt strong. After I came out of the mountains, I ran three long trail races and worked-out harder than I ever have. I was a runner.

Turns out I was also blissfully unaware. As I amped up my training time I also collected nagging injuries, nothing serious – just tight this and tender that. I ignored my aches and pains and kept running. I suppose I was the only one surprised by my eventual inability to train. Last June, I completed a half-marathon thanks to a generous injection of steroids and gritted teeth. I haven’t been able to run more than a few miles since then. Not running makes me feel like I want to gnaw my arm off.
It’s not that I can’t exercise. The problem is that I’d begun to think of myself as a runner. Now I just make excuses. I feel the obnoxious need to explain myself, to reassure innocent bystanders that I am, in fact, a runner.

The thing is I also claim to be a writer and a teacher and a mother. Until recently I didn’t see the potential danger of these characterizations. I was proud and certain of the descriptions. I wore them around like armor, flashing them to prove my competence. I’m not sure who I thought was paying attention.

Most of us feel a genuine need to know who people are – we naturally seek common ground, or at least understanding. So we ask people, “Who are you?” “What do you do?” And most of us curate our “I am” responses. We present our best selves and edit for context. So what happens when our go-to-answers are out of reach?

One of my best friends likes to remind me that experiences make people happier than the things they buy. She read this somewhere and she has become an ambassador of “experience happiness.” Instead of buying toys and gadgets, she’s builds elaborate experience gifts for her family and makes beautiful photographs of their adventures so that it’s easy to remember the fun. I think I’d rather collect fun than categories. I’d rather remember the experience of running a race, than lament the bygone notion that I am a runner.

In some ways mothers are always mothers, writers are always writers, but at least right now in the middle of pre-teen parenting chaos, two full-time jobs, and hunting season most static identities feel too big. The categories are hard to leave behind, but change is essential to being human. Accepting that my self-imposed characterizations aren’t helpful and that they do change, should be empowering. It is at the very least inevitable; we are all works in progress. So today I will do some teaching, some parenting, and maybe even some writing. And if I’m lucky, in time I will do some running. Or maybe I will buy a road bike. Or start swimming. In any case, my focus will evolve. Right now I cannot be a runner, but I can seek experience. And change. And progress. I can always be a seeker.

~ Sarah

The Song of the Ungirt Runners

We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
‘Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

 

Curiousity and Sabbaticals

We bring you a guest post by  Judy McDowell, a nurse-practitioner who teaches at Sheridan College, but who is currently on sabbatical.

 

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I am on sabbatical leave from my teaching position! I had been thinking about what “being on sabbatical” means both before I started my leave and now that I am on leave. I always thought of sabbaticals as something professors did after they had been teaching at a university for at least seven years and that they would do extensive research during that time. Although other faculty at Sheridan College have taken sabbaticals, it has never seemed quite the same and perhaps not a legitimate. So as I thought about that and wondered about why I had these feelings, I started thinking about teaching and why people teach in the first place.

I went to a family reunion last June and spent three days with family members whom I had not seen in a long time and their children whom I had never met before. We spent one evening talking about the things that we do and where we do them. I was struck by the number of people in the group who were teachers. Not only that but the number of our ancestors who were teachers. All of them teach but none of them/us teach the same things. Is there an underlying reason for becoming a teacher? What is it that makes people go into teaching? Is there a genetic reason? Is it how we were all raised or at least the similarities in our upbringing that makes it such a dominant career choice for those in my family? Is it an acceptable career choice especially for women? Is it a desire to share information with others? Is it curiosity about the world and how things work? I suspect it is a combination of all of these things, probably not so much genetics except perhaps as that relates to temperament.

While it is interesting to speculate on the reasons for such a trend in my family, how does this relate to sabbatical? While it is not so true now, 30 years ago teaching was one of the few career choices that was considered ok for women to pursue. So this may be a reason for the number of women who are in their 50s and older who are teachers. This was definitely true in my husband’s family. His mother and all of her sisters were teachers. This is not so much the case now and interestingly many of my male ancestors were teachers, so pursuing this avenue for work is not just influenced by gender. There are some very important similarities in the upbringing of my family members. We were all taught to be curious and to read. I can remember being told to look things up, “make it a learning experience”, from a very early age and so it has become a habit. It is a habit that my husband and I have passed to our children. So does modeling curiosity teach a sense of curiosity? And sharing information, is this learned by seeing sharing modeled and does that encourage us to share with others?

I think that all of these things play a role in the backgrounds of those who are teachers. But in order to be good teachers I think that the desire to share information and a strong sense of curiosity are key. There must be a drive to learn more about the world and how things work, connect, and impact life.

So back to sabbatical. It was hard for me to apply for the time because I felt that perhaps I didn’t have anything to do that was worthy of time away from teaching. I also felt guilty about the increased load my colleagues would need to shoulder so that I could have the time off. It didn’t seem like sabbatical was something that those of us teaching at the community college level really needed.

This is faulty thinking. Teaching is about curiosity and sharing of information. In order to be good teachers, we need to be curious and pursue those paths that interest us. What better way to inspire those we teach than to model that spirit of inquiry. Learning about those things that make us curious takes time, time to seek and learn and time to assimilate and think about how what we are learning will affect our lives and how we teach. Taking a sabbatical gives us that time. So sabbatical leave is not something only university professors are entitled to take. Sabbatical leave is critical for all educators in order for them to stay inspired and in order for them to inspire others.

 

Judy McDowell

 

Speaking at Goddard College: Mumia Abu-Jamal

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Recently little Goddard College in Vermont where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program has been in the news because the 25 graduating members of the undergraduate BA and BFA programs asked Mumia Abu- Jamal to speak at their graduation ceremony. Mumia Abu- Jamal is in prison for life because he was convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman. Mumia is a graduate of this program, which he was allowed to complete because it is a low-residency program, and he did not have to come to campus. My purpose here is not to talk about whether or not he is innocent or guilty but rather to talk about the language that the media used when reporting on our undergraduates’ choice. Inevitably the headlines read something like “Cop-killer asked to speak at graduation” or “Goddard College asks cop-killer to speak at graduation.”   This defines Mumia Abu Jamal as one thing, when in fact, he, like all of us, is many things, a writer, a radio host, a journalist, a thoughtful critic of our educational and prison systems.

I remember a conversation I had with an acquaintance a number of years ago. This man was a psychologist who had studied violence in a number of different cultures. He told me about a member of the Cree tribe who asked him, “Why do you English always say that someone is something? We understand the people are always becoming something and that behaviors change. We do not say that someone is a thief, we say he is stealing because we understand that the stealing behavior will change and he will be doing something else.”

It strikes me that the language around Mumia Abu-Jamal insists that he is stuck at the moment in his life when he was convicted; he is, in the eyes of the media at least, always a “cop killer.” But that moment was more than 30 years ago, and clearly Mumia has been doing other things. This language of “cop killer” also freezes that users of the language in that moment as well. One reporter on Fox News kept repeating the phrase as she talked with the wife of the slain officer and with the public information officer from Goddard. She was clearly stuck in the moment and had no interest in moving on. (Not to mention the sensationalism around the phrase “cop killer’ and its alliterative nature, which makes it stick in our minds.)   When we become stuck on the nouns, we do not allow for growth or for change on the part of the person designated by the noun or the person applying the noun.

When we think of people as “doers” rather than “things,” when we think about people as “singing” or “writing” or “thinking” or “killing” or “ stealing”, we allow them room to move on from that activity. We are not defining them statically. They are not locked in one moment of time, but nor are we.

I do not mean to diminish the crime, nor do I wish to engage in a discussion about whether or not he is guilty of the crime, nor do I wish to get involved in a discussion of the conditions of prisons, or the prison industrial complex, but I do want to highlight how our language discounts growth and change. Mumia has spent more than 30 years in prison, reading, writing, learning. He might well have something to say to undergraduates about that experience. It should not be a scandal of national proportions that a group of students might want to hear what he has to say. It speaks well for these students that they can see beyond the “cop killer” label, and can see that people are works in progress, not insects stuck in amber, labeled forever for one part of our lives.

J

 

What to Read…and Watch

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wpid-wp-1412120806165.jpegRecommended Reading: Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

Recommended Watching: Outlander TV series on Starz

Several times in the past month I have been asked about the books I’m reading. Typically, I’m a fickle reader—having several books going at the same time to meet my mood. However, this year…yes, this entire year…I have been engrossed in the Outlander world.

Outlander, a series of novels written by Diana Gabaldon, defies classification. I wouldn’t classify the novels as “romance,” per se, but there are some erotic scenes. I also wouldn’t label them historical fiction because there’s also time travel. Readers, writers, and publishers have attempted to classify these novels for years and have failed, so I won’t rehash that here, but whether you like fantasy, romance, historical fiction, or sci-fi, you will like these books.

The series first attracted my attention simply because of the Gabaldon name. Diana Gabaldon hails from my home town: Flagstaff, Arizona. My family knew of her family: first, because of her father, Tony Gabaldon, as a state senator; second, because my eldest brother attended the same grade school; third, my sister Patricia attended a class or two with her at Northern Arizona University. Gabaldon doesn’t know this…I doubt she had much interaction with my family…but what matters is that this slight family connection introduced me to her books. I started with a beat-up copy of Outlander when I was home from college in 1995 and quickly fell in love with the characters. They jumped to life on the page, and I enjoyed the action, the strong female protagonist, the landscape, the historical accuracy, as well as Gabaldon’s style.

In fact, I love the books so much that each time a new one is announced (about every three years or so), I reread the entire series. (I also read the John Grey series.) I’m usually finished just in time for the new book to arrive. It works out perfectly. The 8th book, Written in my Own Heart’s Blood, came out in June of this year, and I began rereading the series in January. I finished the 7th book just in time for the pre-purchased 8th one to show up on my Kindle. I expected that I would finish the 8th book and then move on with my life away from Outlander, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’m more engrossed than ever because of the TV series.

When I saw that Outlander was being turned into a TV Series, I was a bit worried. I had a clear image of the characters, the landscape, and the events in the books. I didn’t want that demolished. One of the pleasures of reading is to imagine new worlds and people. I don’t always want these places or people to come to life on a screen. In most cases, movies created from books I’ve loved cannot compare with what I have created in my own imagination, and I am horribly disappointed. I didn’t want this to happen with Outlander, but I couldn’t stay away from the series. I had to see it for myself…see if these characters could come to life for me in a different way.

With trepidation, I watched the pilot. Just like with the books, I fell instantly in love. The characters weren’t exactly how I imagined physically, but their personalities were just right: Claire is sassy, strong, feminine, and self-conscious; Jaime is humorous, strong, masculine, and gentle. The TV series doesn’t exactly follow the books, and it works. The spirit of the books is respected, such as Claire’s strong character, but some changes had to be made for the television audience (such as the timing of some events). The show is also different enough to add excitement to keep the hardcore fans guessing. It is also different from other current popular shows.

I love seeing the characters come to life, and I love that Starz is sticking to the spirit of the books while making some sensible changes. The network is rewarded with a large following, and fans are rewarded with an early renewal for a second season.

For me, the result is complete immersion in the Outlander world. I have watched every episode at least twice, and I am rereading the first book. I enjoy following along and analyzing the differences between the books and the TV series. It’s also a way to stay connected with the characters while waiting for the next episode. The mid-season finale was this past Saturday, and I have a long time to wait for the next installment (April 2015!). Until then, I’m reading the Outlander novella The Space Between and watching some of the TV episodes over again. If I’m ever tired of the repeats, maybe I’ll be able to move on to different books by different authors. Until then, to answer your question “what are you reading,” I’m reading Diana Gabaldon.

For a complete list of her books, visit her website: http://www.dianagabaldon.com/.

What are you reading?

~ K

The Intolerable List

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sheridan fallIt’s hunting season in Wyoming. The days are bright and warm, the evenings chilly, sometimes even frosty. Animals are beginning to move down the mountain, away from the cold air and early snow, into the eager sites of camouflaged men and women. I tolerate hunting season. My husband has always hunted, my father hunted, my sons are learning to hunt. We fill our freezer with pronghorn, elk, and deer meat every fall and we eat lean, grass fed dinners all year long. Hunting is part of our culture, something I accept and would likely defend. But I don’t participate and I’ve made the rookie mistake of anthropomorphizing countless furry targets.

My boys are all out after big game this weekend, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about how I will make another week’s attempt at flawless parenting. I’ve sorted through backpacks, smoothed out crumpled homework assignments, and washed 13 loads of laundry. I’ve planned the week’s meals and copied the week’s football games on to the family calendar. The routine is comforting. I have successfully created the illusion of control. I’ve got this.

Then I remember that I’d rather have my kiddos home playing kickball or riding their bikes than out shooting wild animals. I’m a bit stuck (And I hit this parenting wall often). Strangely, I think it’s about tolerance – when do I let my kids deal with yet another part of the world on their own? When do I turn them lose to decide what they believe, to decide how they will negotiate the sticky differences in people and culture? When do I tell them that not everybody thinks they should get to gun down their own steaks?

I’ve often told myself that I’m raising tolerant children. They’ve got a politically liberal mom and traditionally minded, conservative father. We’ve traveled and talked openly about the world, about human rights, and culture and our family’s (wildly differing) faiths. We complain about politics and take them to the polls with us. But when it comes right down to it, there are many things I just cannot tolerate and I feel desperate to make sure they won’t either.

I am intolerant of conversations that are anti-science or anti-intellectual; I refuse to acknowledge that marriage equality and LGBT rights are anything but top human rights priorities; I no longer have the patience to debate the legality of abortion or the reality of global climate change; do not argue with me about the necessity of vaccinations or fluoride in our water. The moon landing is real. Antidepressants work. Not all Muslims are evil.

My intolerable list is embarrassing, not because the list is full of trivial matters that shouldn’t occupy brain space, but simply because the list exists at all. The very concept that there are ideas that I cannot stand to be around indicates that I suck at tolerance.

Or does it? Maybe it’s just about choosing my battles. Most people do not change their minds about religion or fluoride. Maybe I should just keep quiet (Yeah, right. I can hear my Cody’s snicker now). Or maybe it’s about education –about the need to expose my children to more differences; maybe I need to seek understanding instead of seeking to be understood.pronghorn

Frank and Luca came home from their pronghorn hunt with a dead animal and new camouflaged snow boots. I took one look at the Realtree™ boots, rolled my eyes, and tossed them in the mudroom in hopes that the boys would lose track of them in the pile of winter gear. Cody went back in and organized all of the boots, lining up my plain black boots next to the new camo. “Lighten up,” he said. I glared and said something rude.

The bottom line is I want to be a person who has the toughest conversations. I value all of my friendships – even with those who vehemently disagree with me. I do not want to live in a world where we all agree (talk about boring). Some of the most satisfying conversations begin with opposition and end with nodding. I don’t want my boys to miss out on those brilliant moments. So maybe my intolerable list isn’t completely useless. At least I am aware of my biggest biases; the first step is admission.

Stopping by Woods

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Not long ago, I had a conversation with a well-educated friend who doesn’t know a lot about poetry, and I mentioned “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” This friend said, “Well, that poem’s about death, isn’t it?”

I paused, “It might be, but it might not be.” And then I realized that a simple lunch time conversation was not going to be enough time to explain what I meant, so here’s the long answer to that comment.

Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” might be about death, but it is much more about a simple moment in the woods where the sensory experience involves sight and sound. The poem has a certain uneasiness about it, but that uneasiness is calmed and then reinstated throughout the poem. Here’s the first stanza.

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.

The narrator of the poem has stopped to watch snow falling in woods belonging to someone else. “He will not see me” indicates that the owner of the woods might not be pleased to have someone else observing “his” woods, but more than that the tetrameter line with its four beats per line leaves the reader a little uneasy, unlike the very satisfying pentameter of the sonnet Furthermore, this first stanza establishes the unusual and disconcerting rhyme scheme in which the first, second and fourth lines rhyme but the third does not.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near,

Between the woods and frozen lake,

On the darkest evening of the year

In the second stanza, that odd rhyme scheme and the unsettling rhythm are still present, but by now, the reader had become a little accustomed to them However, in this stanza, Frost established that it is late December (darkest evening of the year). He also establishes that the watcher is not alone. He is with his horse, who, according to the speaker, probably has an opinion about stopping. The “without a farm house near” and “ between the woods and frozen lake” tell us that this woods is isolated. The only beings are the narrator and his horse.

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.

Here the poem really addresses the senses. We have the bells in the first line. If readers have any imagination at all, they can hear the bells in the otherwise silent landscape, silent the way only falling snow can be. Then Frost gives us the most beautiful lines in the poem, “the only other sound’s the sweep/ of easy wind and downy flake.’ The “s”sounds and long “e” sounds create the sound of that wind on our ears. If we are careful readers, we are transported to that place (or some place where we have experienced that silence) and feel both on our faces and in our minds, that “sweep / of easy wind and downy flake.” Then we come to the last stanza

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.

 

In this stanza, the repeated “ee” sounds echo on our ears. He breaks the rhyme scheme he set up earlier in the poem, so that all four lines rhyme, rather than having that disconcerting odd rhyme in the third line. This provides a kind of resolution. But is death that resolution? I don’t know. What I see is a man who has stopped to savor, with some trepidation, the loveliness of the snow in the woods on his way to somewhere. We don’t know if he is on his way home; we don’t know if he is on some other errand, but he has had a sensuous experience in the woods. The poet has provided that sensuous experience for us. He has left us with a repetition “and miles to go before I sleep” which, of course, leads us to the idea that these are not literal miles, or are perhaps both literal and figurative miles. However, I am not so sure that we can assume that he means that those figurative miles are about death. We all have, unless, we are really close to death, figurative miles to go before we sleep.

What I am left with after reading this poem hundreds of times is the moment, that moment when the narrator is alone in a world of falling snow, and the wind sweeps easily (reassuringly) across his face, it’s a moment of peace. The uneasy meter and the unexpected rhyme scheme lead us to think that the narrator’s world is not necessarily peaceful, but that this moment, this chance stopping provides a small moment in which the wind is easy and the flakes are soft and downy, like feathers.

Is this poem about death? I don’t know. I won’t jump to that conclusion. Rather, I will savor the sensuousness of that moment in the woods and the snow.

J

Write On

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wpid-20140911_141009.jpgAs most of you know, I am on sabbatical writing a creative non-fiction narrative (a.k.a. memoir). From the start, I have struggled. I’ve read countless articles on writing a memoir, getting past procrastination, getting past writer’s block, and many more.

Much of the advice is the same: schedule your writing time, write in an environment conducive to writing, and no matter what, just write…even if you don’t feel like it.

Although the advice might be similar, everyone is different, and just like weight loss, you have to find what works for you. So far, these points work for me:

  1. Get out of the house.
    • It seems that I do better out of the house first. If I have somewhere to go, getting out of bed is easier. So, I go to a restaurant or coffee shop, get my caffeine, and start writing. The energy of the strangers surrounding me helps feed my creativity. After an hour or so, I’m ready to go home and write more in silence.
  2. Be comfortable.
    • Some articles advise writers to get up and dress as if you’re ready for work. This hasn’t really worked for me. I need to be comfortable. Maybe because I’m doing personal writing, and perhaps once I’m in the editing stages, I’ll need to change this behavior, but for now, I seem to do better in my comfortable clothes like my sweats.
  3. Write in short bursts.
    • What writer hasn’t heard of freewriting? Well, it works! (Not just for writing, as Fly Lady will attest to.) I start with 15 minutes…that’s it. I don’t pressure myself into thinking I have to write for 8 hours straight. That’s too overwhelming. I start with 15 minutes, and pretty soon, I’m engrossed in what I’m doing, and several hours have passed. At times, those 15 minutes seem to drag. When that happens, I’ll take a break and then come back to it a little later. Even when I come back, I tell myself that I’ll write for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes gets me started and keeps me from feeling overwhelmed.
  4. Turn off the critic.
    • This is the hardest part for me. Stephen King calls it “writing with the door closed.” It’s hard to do. I ran into some friends of mine at Starbucks the other day, and all I could talk about was how much crap I was producing. “Yes, I’m writing every day, but it’s crap. It’s all crap,” I said. Ugh! That might be true, but I’m nowhere near ready to make that judgment. If I keep thinking it’s all crap, then I won’t finish. I just have to keep writing and worry about the quality later. By far, this lesson is the hardest to learn, and obviously, I have a ways to go.
  5. Finally, find your own rhythm.
    • Similar to the backpacking lessons, I have learned that I don’t have to follow in anyone’s footsteps. I can use their advice, but ultimately, it’s up to me how much I write, when I write, where I write, and what I write. As long as I’m writing, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the morning, the afternoon, or late at night. It just has to get done. Joseph Finder says it best, “Just write the damn book already.”

So, these are the lessons that I have learned and am still working on adapting in my life. No matter what you have to write: a research paper, a letter to your mother, a book… I hope these lessons help you get started.

~ K

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