Some of those joys, fantasies, and exhilarating moments tempered with time, but not completely. I continue to cherish a deeper memory of Christmas as a time for giving presents and awakening an expectant hope that sometimes struggles mightily to survive in the hurly-burly of competitive life driven by power, money, and the competition for advancement.
Still I turn to the somewhat mysterious poem of Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," written in 1923, evoking the charm of Vermont's snowy Christmas times, but also the encounter with something quite "Other" and unexplained in an opening between the woods and a lake. Frost tells the story of that encounter in this poem.
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.
Ah, yes, the horse knows something is going on out of sight, but felt, contained within the feelings welling up in Frost, perhaps a memory, maybe even an encounter of years past or even in a recent dream, a story he has read, or the chorus of dead poets. The horse knows something is beckoning.
Many of our encounters are just that, beckoning! A person, a place, a situation, a long-forgotten dream, the cry of a child, the death of a loved one—all of these and more we encounter along life's way. These are not "meetings." These encounters are not planned, likely not expected, sometimes dreaded and scary, sometimes hoped-for and happy. And in many cases, they are transformational. They change lives in some fashion, perhaps in great ways or in little ways. but our life becomes transformed in ways that may or may not be evident to our family and/or friends. We feel feelings long forgotten or never known, we think thoughts that we never knew we could think, we experience transformations deep in our body, and one's actions leap along in new ways—sometimes in new directions. Sometimes we discover courage we never knew we held, strength to lift burdens we thought were too heavy to bear, heights to attain of which we did not feel capable or even worthy. Such is the experience of transformation; such is the experience of that encounter.
But now a warning. It is this: We do not always recognize the encounters. For example, even in the most powerful of dreams, we may dismiss them as "just a dream." Sometimes in the passing of a friend or a situation or a concert event, we may think it's just a friend, just a situation, just the concert event, experiences whose meaning we overlook. But, in fact, these encounters may well be clues to the deeper meaning of our existence, our time, and our world.
In other words, much happens in the space and time of what might be dismissed as meaningless encounters. Consider again Frost's poem. His subtlety lets us in on a mystery. Whose "woods" are these really? What prompts him to pause on his journey? What intrigues him about this open space between woods and lake? It is not nothing; it is indeed something. But what do we say about it, and why does this matter anyway?
I think it matters because this brings us back to what I was describing at the beginning of this writing when I referred to the feelings, thoughts, and sensations I experienced this time of the year as a child. I think it is the incredible experience of being human—the encounter with Being itself. You might say it is a state of mind because the experience certainly is that, but more than that. The encounter with Being is an experience of awe, wonder, enchantment, reverence, and amazement that makes our life worthwhile and transforms our existence.
Note also, however, that Frost does not indulge himself with that encounter of the empty space between woods and lakes when he passes in his journey. He does not linger, because he has "promises to keep."
And our deeper encounters are like that. They transform our preoccupations with our own enjoyment by bringing to mind a deeper purpose in life. We want to share the experience with others. This is a truly fascinating quality that has evolved in our centuries-old journey of becoming human. Actually, we are not selfish beings down deep inside. Any self-centeredness we experience in our being may be transformed by the wonder of our deep encounters and the remembrance that we have "promises to keep."
Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, copyright again in 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc. renewed 1951, by Robert Frost.