Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): Robert Graves on surviving the cold

All summer long, I hauled home bags of organic vegetables on Thursday evenings. There were leafy bundles of kale, bright squash and sweet tomatoes, vegetables overflowing from the bag onto the cutting board. They were gifts from the farmer parents of the three-year-old I babysit. I was convinced that I had turned a corner in my life and learned how to cook because of how amazing these vegetables tasted after sizzling in the pan in a little bit of olive oil. I ate them on my back porch with my feet bare.

Then the cold set in.

This winter, I keep buying produce that goes rotten as quickly as my mood. I found the snow sort of peaceful after the storm struck last week. Then, I remembered what it feels like to trudge through sludge for weeks, and part of me shriveled. I don’t know how to feed myself in the winter, both literally and figuratively.

Robert Graves, who died in 1985, was an English poet who crafted poems that are concise and musical, little boxes you can wind up again and again. There is one I’ve been thinking of since the snow fell:

“She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,

With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.”

The last two lines were quoted in a novel I read once. It was winter then, too, and I repeated them to myself a lot while I walked around: “Despite the snow, / Despite the falling snow.” It was a long time before I went searching for the poem in its entirety. When I found it, the notion of the earth still putting out flowers in the cold is what struck me.

I want to believe that things can grow in the winter. I want to believe that I will think of new thoughts, cook rice, stop leaving parties early to watch Netflix, make messes and decisions and say something important in the dark hours of the morning, even if it’s just to myself. I want to believe that the cold doesn’t keep us from nourishment.

I snuck a burrito into the movie theater this past weekend and ate it while watching “20th Century Women” (2016) by myself. That felt like some kind of answer, even though the burrito wrapper made too much noise and I kept worrying I was going to be kicked out of the theater. I slid all the way home while speaking on the phone with my mom. “It’s really cold here,” I said. We both sounded surprised by it, as if this doesn’t happen every winter. I tried to imagine things growing deep down in the earth, under all the snow.

Robert Graves was famous for his love poems, which might make him seem like a kitschy choice for the day after Valentine’s Day. But I like “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” because it is ambiguous. We don’t know who she is or who she is telling her love to. It’s beautiful if, in the dark hours as the snow falls, she is telling her love to someone.

And it’s beautiful if she’s alone.

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