“But I have promises to keep . . .”

The meaning of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the woods on a Snowy Evening” has long been debated because of what comes after the above: “and miles to go before I sleep.” Many scholars have contended that Frost was talking about suicide because of the use of the word “sleep,” with sleep long being associated with the image of death, especially by the romantic poets. But I have never read this particular poem with dark images in mind:

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.

I have always loved this poem because I can relate to the imagery: a traveler stops in the woods for a moment to take in the beauty of the snow falling, the frozen lake, the gentle wind. I have been out on a snowy evening much like this when there was very little sound, just the crunch of my shoes in the snow. It was when I lived in Blacksburg years ago before it had grown, so there were still places where there was absolutely nothing around except trees. The snow had been falling all day, but by evening, it was falling lightly. It was beautiful. There were drifts; trees were covered. We walked up a hill and looked out and just watched the snow falling. It was hypnotizing. If there had been a horse and cart, he might have shaken his harness in impatience to move on because it was so easy to forget everything for a few minutes. It wasn’t terribly cold, and the wind wasn’t blowing, just a slight breeze now and again. I felt no need to move on, to be anywhere in particular. I just wanted to stand there and listen to the silence forever. Moments like these are stored in deep memory so as never to be forgotten.

As to the last two lines of the poem: an interlude in the woods with nature of this sort, pure, peaceful, uninterrupted, would be intoxicating and hard to leave. But if you must return to the realities of life, those who await you, those who depend upon you, those to whom you have made promises, then it is a shake of the head, and the realization that there are miles to go still before the warm bed and then sleep. And that is what I have always believed the last two lines to mean. The speaker could have stayed by the woods for hours, drinking in the beauty of the night, but at last, he had to put aside what he wanted, and return to reality and his duties, as mundane or as taxing as they might be.

Walking down that hill and returning to reality that night in Blacksburg was the last thing that I wanted to do. But there were people waiting for us, and we had promised to be somewhere, and even though sometimes promises become burdens that we just wish that we could ignore, we have made them, and so we must keep them. We spend years teaching our children this lesson, about honor, and how important their word is, how they must do what they have said they will do and follow through because it is the honorable thing. But oh, how much easier it would be sometimes to walk into those woods “lovely, dark and deep” and not look back.

I haven’t seen snow like that winter in many years, and I miss it. I miss the silence and stillness of snow. I miss looking out the window at night and seeing the blueness of the moon on the snow. I miss a lot of things, but that is one thing in particular that my heart has an ache for. Not the craziness of people driving in snow, or the wretchedness of bitter cold. Just the silence and the beauty of snow banked against trees and fences. Birdbaths frozen like small ponds. The snow in the cemetery, turning the stillness of the gravestones into beautiful statues: “downy flake” and “lovely.”

Lowering Your Expectations

I was once having lunch with a co-worker, and I started complaining about the service. She looked at me, and said that I seriously needed to lower my expectations. After all, she commented, what did I expect for fast food? I thought about what she said and realized that she was right. I did need to lower my expectations as far as the quality and service were concerned regarding fast food. It was fast food; the people working in fast food were being paid minimum wage or slightly above. It was not haute cuisine. There were no linen napkins. The tables were made out of plastic, as were the cups. I needed to get real.

I was reminded of my exceedingly high expectations regarding many things in life just this morning by my husband when I went online to check the status of our refund from the IRS, and the site informed me that we could expect our refund around April 1, which was not soon enough for me. His comment was exactly the same as Colleen’s, that I needed to lower my expectations. This made me pause. Was I going through life with such high expectations just because I thought that things should work as the ads claimed they would? As the declarations stated that they would? Was I living in some kind of fantasy world in which life was a glossy advertisement?

Now, if you have ever seen the recent state of my house, you would find this last statement absolutely hilarious because we have been in a state of “redoing” the house for about four years now, which means that nothing is where it should be, and the last thing my house looks like is a page out of a magazine, but I can fantasize, can’t I? Some women fantasize about gorgeous men. I fantasize about a clean, clutter-free house in which I have hardwood floors and kitchen cabinets that actually work. Oooooh. Aaaaah. I can smell the lemon wax. I feel faint. But I digress.

Back to expectations. I think it has something to do with the old golden rule thing. You know the one–do unto others. I won’t spit on your cheeseburger if you won’t spit on mine, to put it into terms more worldly, or earthly. I suppose it comes down to saying simple things like “please” and “thank you” instead of “whatever,” or expecting people not to have loud conversations on their cell phones in movie theaters after just spending $40 on tickets and two sodas. I think that my family is always concerned that I am going to say things to rude people because I have no patience with rude or stupid, and the reality is that on occasion, I have been known to make comments when perhaps silence may have been the option voted for by the majority. But then, I have never been known for my willingness to go with the flow.

But it’s also a matter of treating other people the same as you wish to be treated. If that way is with respect and courtesy, then you should show ample amounts of respect and courtesy in your dealings with other individuals. That’s usually how it works, or rather should work, but not always. Let’s take the fast food example. These are people who are not making a great deal of money. Does that mean that they should not be treated with a great deal of respect? Some people act that way. Some people in our society, quite a few actually, equate how you treat an individual with how much money that person earns or how that person dresses or what kind of car that person drives, or the color of that person’s skin, or what kind of accent that person has.

We haven’t always had the money to buy our children the right labels for their clothes and shoes. In fact, I make it a point to buy things on sale or at TJMaxx or Marshall’s, simply because I find it ridiculous to pay full price even when I can afford it. What is the point? The point is that I am neither better nor worse than the next person. I think that my expectations are high about the right things. Not about clothes or cars or money. But about respect for yourself and others, and honor, and keeping your word, and doing the right thing when the time comes. I expect my children to try to do their best and to treat others well. They don’t have to be Rhodes’ scholars, nor do they have to be doctors or lawyers or even college graduates. As long as they are happy within themselves, they try to have kind hearts, and they are good to the other people in their lives, then they can be proud of themselves. That is all that any parent should want.