robert frost

Living with life’s ups and downs

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

On fences, children, and letting go

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2015.

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Deb, and I had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard in East Greenwich, a line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to me:

“Good fences make good neighbors.

But our fence was less about neighbors than about children. We had two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a new baby was on the way. With our house smack-dab in the middle of town, half a block from busy Main Street, we needed to make sure our kids didn’t wander off.

Good fences make good barricades.

Our lot sits on a hill, and the backyard slopes precipitously. That didn’t seem to concern the burly, good-natured guys who did the installation. They navigated the tricky terrain masterfully and, after two days, the cedar fence gathered our boys in a fragrant embrace.

Over the ensuing years, within the fence’s confines, our children ran through sprinklers and built snow forts; chased our dog and tried to dig to China; tossed Wiffle balls and played manhunt.

At the same time, northeasters slammed the fence’s flat boards and squirrels gnawed on the arbor above the gate. When frost heaves left four or five sections askew, I had to call the installers back to re-set the posts.

As our kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door in their daily comings and goings. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, drama rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. Somehow, seemingly overnight, the fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

Good thing.

The first break came when Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island in 2011. I watched from my kitchen window as one of the fence’s back sections listed awkwardly, a wooden sail in the storm.

I rushed down with clothesline rope to tether the flailing section back to its post. Irene scoffed at me with a whoosh of wind and rain. Afraid the next gust would hurtle the rack of wood onto a neighbor’s car, I laid the section flat on the ground, hefted six cobblestones onto it, and prayed.

The cobblestones (or my prayers) did the job. But after the storm, the fence wobbled badly on either side of the missing section. The entire back run needed to be replaced, the fence guys told me; most of the posts and crosspieces were rotted. When I heard the price — and thought of pending college tuition payments — I asked the guys to simply take the battered back run away.

Miraculously, the fence’s side runs held on — until Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two sections on the northern edge of the yard fell, and those that remained upright were now more vulnerable than ever. Storms no longer needed a name to pose a threat. The mere mention of heavy winds had me peering outside with trepidation.

One blustery Saturday morning, I looked out my kitchen window and, again, noticed a gap in the fence — this time, a section was breaking ranks on the southern property line. I grabbed my drill and headed out to the yard. I pulled the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s would reunite them.

But when I leaned into my churning drill, it pushed right through the mushy wood. The brace and the screw fell to the ground, and the fence resumed its tilting.

As I searched for the screw in the leaves below, I thought of my children. My older son was in Los Angeles, chasing pop music dreams. His brother was on a train to New York, trying to kick-start his own path in the recording industry. And my daughter was asleep upstairs, perhaps dreaming of a college campus far away from the backyard of her childhood. In less than a year, she would leave, too.

A different line from Frost’s poem spoke to me now:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I abandoned my mending and went back inside.

On Fences And Letting Go

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Good fences make good neighbors. Those words from Mending Wall by Robert Frost came to me seventeen years ago when we had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard at 112 Peirce Street. But the fence was less about neighbors and more about children. We had two young boys, and a third child was on the way. We needed to make sure the kids didn’t wander down to Main Street when they went out back. Good fences make good barricades.

Putting up the fence wasn’t easy. Our lot sits on a hill and our backyard slopes precipitously. The two side runs of the fence had to be stepped down before connecting with the long run of sections across the back. But when it was done, the fence was a thing of beauty. It gathered the boys in a cedar embrace.

The fence marked time with its color, going from toddler blond to adolescent brown. Within its walls, the kids ran through sprinklers and built snow forts, played with our dog and tossed Wiffle balls. At the same time, squirrels gnawed at the posts and moss crept up the flat boards. Wisteria strangled the arbor, lifting its posts from the ground. In random places, the fence lurched from frost heaves below.

As the kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, play rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. The fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

The first break came in August 2011. As Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island, two sections of the back run listed awkwardly, wooden sails in the storm. I rushed down to secure them by wrapping a rope around the post they shared and tethering it to a nearby tree trunk. No luck. Afraid they would hurtle onto the cars parked nearby, I laid the breakaway sections on the ground, weighing them down with cobblestones.

After the storm, the back run – minus the two fallen sections – wobbled from end to end. I called the guys who had done the original installation. When they told me the price to replace the run, I hired them for a fraction of the cost to simply take it away.

The two side runs remained… until last October and Hurricane Sandy. More sections fell, and those that didn’t were now more vulnerable – even storms without names posed a threat.

It’s early Saturday morning. Sipping coffee, I look out my kitchen window and notice a new gap in the fence – another section breaking ranks. I grab my drill and head outside. I pull the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s will reunite them. But when I lean into my churning drill, I push the screw right through the rotted wood. Grabbing nothing, it falls to the ground and the fence resumes its tilting.

As I search for the screw in the snow-covered leaves, I think of my children. Peter is in Los Angeles, chasing big music dreams. Evan is on a train to New York, trying to kick-start a business career. Juliana sleeps upstairs, perhaps having REM visions of a college far away from the backyard of her childhood. Soon she will leave, the last one.

Frost speaks to me once more, seventeen years after the fence first went up. It’s the same poem that I remember, but now a different line resonates: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

I abandon my mending and go back inside.

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