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Getting to Stop by Woods on a Snowy Evening

February 21st, 2024 | 4 min read

By Simeon Swinger

This winter I was literally stopped in my tracks, in the woods, on a snowy evening, by mitral valve disease and found myself slowed down from my usual 45-year-old pace of classroom music teaching.At first this seemed like a hardship to me, something I would have to endure.  I’d have to drop some calendared events, and I’d have to wind down my running activities.  

But as days turned into weeks, I started noticing things I had previously written off or passed by without a thought.  I found myself listening more closely to the wind in the trees; I became more attentive as the first light spun it’s twig-web in the oaks that lined the rim of our valley; and I discovered, that  buried under the busy blanket of adult life lay my childhood of winter wonder—memories of singing with guitar by the hearth, walks through snow covered fields, sledding and skating by starlight—and I began humming a song my grandmother Marlys Swinger taught me, which evoked all this wonder in its simplicity....from there I found myself heading to the piano, and letting my fingers find their old grooves again, this is the result:  An almost forgotten gem of American history, Peter Dykema's setting of "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening!:"

You can hear a piano sing-along track with lyrics here:

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

By Robert Frost

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.

As I let the music wash over me, my thoughts became more quizzical—can stopping by anything be the beginning of something?  Can I still feel arrested by the beauty of a winter evening walk?  Can I implement a pause before someone or something else pushes my pause button?  

Deciding to give it a try, I took a post-snowfall stroll.  On the southwest side of our pasture, the top of each post was capped in snow. I paused in mid-stride, and settled into a relaxed pose.  This time, instead of rushing past, wrapped in my own dreams, I would take time to marvel at the scene before me:

Although caressed by evening sunlight, the snow caps did not melt away drop by drop down each column.  Instead they remained mysterious snow apostrophe’s punctuating every fencepost; blobs of snow improbably suspended between space and time, much like my own life in this season of uncertainty.  This gave me pause to think—

In my rush to analyze and memorize Frost’s famous winter poem in 11th grade English class, had I perhaps extemporized the meaning? In thinking about the woods, dark and deep, the miles to go before I sleep, had I completely skipped over the very first title word, Stopping?  Had I gazed in awe at snow-capped mountains, but never explored the caves within?  Had I elegantly played blue monk, and missed the spaces between the notes?  Had I trained doggedly for a marathon, but left out the rest days?  Over studied, over looked, over practiced, and over trained, had I neglected the most prominent point of all—was stopping then, the secret missing ingredient in my life’s recipe book?  

Now I find my thoughts less hurried and more lilting, going along with the flow: I get to slow down, and stop, whenever I can, not just at stop signs.  I get to turn toward the setting sun, lift my face to collect falling snow flakes, feel pattering rain drops on my arms, listen to the beauty of breeze brushing softly in the branches of the white pines.  And delve into the intricacies of music history—Did you know that Peter Dykema started choirs where ever he taught, implemented one of the first music appreciation classes in the country, and advocated for community music in villages, towns, and cities?  He urged music educators to instill such a love for music that their students would continue making it long after compulsory private lessons had ended.  He also promoted the idea that adults should have opportunities to study instruments as beginners.  

As a result of his enthusiasm I now get to celebrate life with music that is in my heart, songs that were passed down through community sing sessions.  I get to bask in each moment of this precious life, that Annie Dillard so aptly said “we are all terminal patients” of, and in, and through.

With an altered pace of life, I get to implement the therapy of recovery for myself and all of earth’s “terminal patients” around me—making time for singing each day, reciting poems around the fire, or taking time off work to organize an Oldies jam at the local senior center.  I get to laugh, pause, and finally, simply stop by woods on a snowy evening.

Simeon Swinger

Simeon Swinger is a Bruderhof member, father of four, and a passionate advocate for music education, special education, and agricultural education.

Topics:

Music