Easy Wind. And Downy Flake
"The only other sound's the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake." Maybe you don't recognize the quote. But you probably know this part: "But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep."
Yep, Robert Frost. He's the author of this disarmingly easy-to-learn poem about a snowy ride home at night in winter.
Well, maybe you had one of those last night, driving just this-side-of-legal back from a New Year's Eve party. Or maybe you were leaving work, having watched the ball drop from the laptop at the nurses' station or as you juggled drinks trays for revelers or Uberred others to their destinations. Or maybe, like me, you were already at home.
The new year--to the extent that there is a meaningful demarcation between what has come before and what lies ahead--is a potent moment to ponder Frost's simplicity:
"But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep."
Your English teacher (yes, I was once one myself) will have told you that it was significant that Frost repeats that line. But I don't know why. Not everything is reducible to something that has a specific meaning.
Maybe, for Frost, it just bore repeating: "And miles to go before I sleep."
I think that the start of each new year is our own version of repeating that line.
I've had friends who've thrown out whole calendars because the previous year had treated them so badly (though it wasn't the year's fault, of course).
I've identified entire years as bad. "2015 was the worst year of my life," I have said. Because it was. (Or was it? Surely there were moments of pleasure.) So how do we determine misery--by its duration or its severity?
And how do we parse joy? I think we mostly do in hindsight. "I didn't know how happy I was until it was over" seems to be the source of all nostalgia. Though I am relieved to be able to say that there have been times--when I have been in the midst of them--that I have known I was happy, and knew enough to treasure that happiness in the moment and not only as a memory.
For me, "But I have promises to keep" has been a kind of marching order for much of my adult life. I now feel it ever more strongly as a single person with grown children whose self-identity is probably too much defined by my work. The time for dreaming seems long past. The losses I have seen lead me to believe that what good I can do, I should do. Shoulder to the wheel and all that. It always could be worse. Look around--it is worse for so many others.
Still, "miles to go before I sleep" is a kind of siren song to me. I know that the traditional reading of the poems is that the speaker in the poem is weary of life, readying for death--or at least a kind of oblivion that excuses him from carrying out those onerous promises.
I hear those lines differently. I hear them as a sort of clarion call, a reintroduction to nascent hope and hopeful longing. I know that I have not been jaded by life--but I have been worn by it. Too often I feel petty envy. Truly, I do. In fact, I feel grand envy. I feel sorry for myself--and with no good reason. And that makes me feel quite ashamed.
But "miles to go before I sleep" bolsters me. It says to me "you are forgiven for being a selfish and envious twit." It says to me "you may as well renew your subscription for dreaming." It says to me, "It's a new year--2020, get it?" And it says to me that on those miles ahead, I may even find others, curious others, with whom I can share the miles to go before we sleep.