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November 10, 2008

My November Guest by Robert Frost

A poem in which Sorrow appears as guest and companion
1913
 
 MY Sorrow, when she’s here with me,   
  Thinks these dark days of autumn rain   
Are beautiful as days can be;   
She loves the bare, the withered tree;   
  She walks the sodden pasture lane.           
 
Her pleasure will not let me stay.   
  She talks and I am fain to list:   
She’s glad the birds are gone away,   
She’s glad her simple worsted gray   
  Is silver now with clinging mist.           
 
The desolate, deserted trees,   
  The faded earth, the heavy sky,   
The beauties she so truly sees,   
She thinks I have no eye for these,   
  And vexes me for reason why.           
 
Not yesterday I learned to know   
  The love of bare November days   
Before the coming of the snow,   
But it were vain to tell her so,   
  And they are better for her praise.

Sorrow as feminine?  A companion with a name?  And it would seem that she doesn’t just tolerate the gray dark days that November can bring.  She thinks they’re beautiful.  She seems to love the grays and silvers.  Not just endure.  She loves them.  She loves the bare days.  The bare trees.  Even the desolation.  She praises it.  Seems to even find in it a kind of balm.

Not long ago I read a piece in a blog I read regularly, Furious Seasons.  The blog is written by Philip Dawdy, a journalist in Seattle who writes critically, and quite well, about mental health issues.  In the piece of which I’m thinking, he writes about the onset of fall and winter in Seattle, the beginning of a long gray season.  He speaks to what has worked for him in his own ongoing, and periodic, acquaintance with depression.

He writes of how critical it is to remember to eat.  To remember to sleep.  To get outside when he can.  To make some time to socialize.  And then he writes about this other subtler part—not becoming depressed about getting depressed.  Which I think gets at the heart of something. 

He writes:

My experience is if I am not falling into despair over the possible onset of depression then I don't get depressed. Which I suppose proves something about all this mindfulness talk you read in depression recovery circles.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher.  She has this wonderful image for negative emotions—or emotions that we’ve come to think of as negative or unpleasant.  She calls them Wisdoms in Disguise.

One place she talks about these wisdoms is in a conversation with the author Alice Walker, a conversation that was recorded and which is readily available (links below).  She says this, referring to the work of one of her teachers, Chogyam Trungpa:

So when I read Rinpoche what he basically said was, he said there’s nothing wrong with negativity, he said that there’s a lot you can learn from it, it’s a very strong creative energy.  The problem is negative negativity—you don’t just stay with negativity, you spin off into all the endless cycle of things you say to yourself about it. . . For instance, in Vajayana Buddhism, they talk about how each of the powerful negative energies such as anger, envy, lust, jealousy, how these are all wisdoms in disguise but you have to not spin off, you have to be able to relax with the energy.

And perhaps Sorrow too might be one of these wisdoms in disguise?

As if what sometimes gets us into trouble is feeling bad about feeling bad.  Of course this wouldn’t be the issue all of the time—but maybe sometimes?

As if, say, Robert Frost were to be furious at Sorrow.  Dreading her visit.  Berating her.  This making, I would think, for a pretty awful November morning. 

Instead, I picture Frost doing this other thing.  Walking with Sorrow.  Tilting his head toward her.  They’re outside, which is likely going to make everything better.  And Sorrow is going on, praising the grays and the silvers and the bare trees.  And Frost is listening.  Really listening.  Letting her have her say.  Maybe not agreeing with her all the time—but listening.  And keeping a kind of wise silence while she goes on about it.

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See also
Philip Dawdy’s piece, That Tricky Time of Year

A partial transcript of Pema Chodron and Alice Walker in Conversation.
(the full conversation is available in audio form at Amazon)

A piece from this site on Denise Levertov’s poem, Talking to Grief

And, finally, a brief bio of Robert Frost.  Until quite recently I had no notion of the kind of grief that Frost had to deal with.  I’d always pictured him, for no reason in particular, as some kind of gentleman farmer with a comfortable life.  And then I came across a litany of his losses.  If you follow the link and scroll down to Personal Life you can begin to get some sense of how he might have come to know Sorrow.