Lessons from Directive

In the course that inspired me to study literature as an undergraduate, our professor told us of a question he once asked on a final exam: What do you do to get into Nature? Many students listed the outdoor pursuits from which they derived philosophical guidance, quoting Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The professor continued, “No! You do not get into Nature by getting out into Nature. You go in,” he paused pointing at his chest, “to Nature.”

The natural world is a teacher. The forest, ocean, plains, and mountains are rich in metaphor. However, spiritual transformation does not happen from the outside in. You are not transformed by hiking in the woods. You are transformed by navigating the hills and valleys of your own soul. The woods do not heal you; they inspire you to heal yourself. Indeed, nature is an enlightened teacher. We do learn from her, but what we derive from her scripture is a lesson in how to uncover the inner wisdom within us about the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical components of our human condition. Ever a student of literature, I turn to literary works on the natural world for this illumination.

Directive is a lesser-known poem by Robert Frost. Though it is not often anthologized, the work is a moving meditation on finding wholeness through stillness. It begins:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off

Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.

The first lines offer a retreat from the present moment, the “now” that has become “too much.” The speaker guides the reader back to a simpler, less burdensome time, as if to say, drop what you’re carrying and follow me. Though melancholy, Directive is like the fresh air that rises after a summer thunderstorm. It offers clean, restoring breathing space.

In the poem, Frost introduces a “guide” who will take you to the source, if you are willing to surrender. The speaker describes this cryptically, “The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost.” In order to follow the guide, you must let go of your control. In order to find what is hidden, to find perhaps what you might be seeking, you must trust an unfolding that will not immediately make sense.

I believe many of us are spiritual seekers. Most of us seek to find meaning in our daily lives and trust something larger than ourselves, whether it be our intuition, God, science, tradition, love, the ocean, or mystery. Every day we receive confusing messages about where to find meaning or fulfillment. We may trust in a power or principle that is greater than us, but culture – and I mean popular culture—floods in to fill the gaps. You want redemption? Ask your doctor about X pill. You want to feel whole and complete? Bikini body season is coming! Do this workout, so this man will want you. We fall for these tricks because advertisements, for example, provide tangible advice that can have seemingly immediate effects in our daily lives, the lives that involve anxiety and insecurity, that involve wanting to find a partner or make more money. The problem is their promises will never last. Their promises guide our desires and intentions to external things that we expect will heal our inner wounds. Wholeness, as described by Frost, is found through inner adaptation, healing that mirrors what one may find in the woods.

Frost suggests that a part of finding what one seeks requires some detachment: “if you’re lost enough to find yourself.” For perhaps, getting lost, accepting what we do not know, is essential to finding our true North. Just as the speaker asks you to back away from modern society, he asks you to let go of your preconceived notions how to find yourself. The outer cultural world may say: Here, take this to find yourself. Frost’s speaker says: No. Getting “lost” is the key to finding what you seek, to coming home to yourself. This requires patience and trust. It is worth contemplating: Do you find yourself through striving, or do you find yourself through allowing and listening?

The speaker pays particular attention to things of childhood to reignite creativity and curiosity. He describes:

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.

The speaker highlights the objects’ meaning. He says to the reader: “Weep for what little things could make them glad.” He remarks at the pure innocence of the children’s joy. We often lose sight of the simple things that bring happiness to a human life. Modernity has brought unprecedented complexity and an abundance of material goods, but do those things provide fulfillment? In a world that values technology over artistry, adulthood often brings a lack of creative work. Work is comprised of rote actions, often for many, devoid of inspiration and exploration. For the adult reader of the poem, childhood joy is contextualized, made more poignant by the passing of time, by life’s disappointments, by having lost our way at one time or another. The thought of the gladness of the children that must have lived there is thus more precious. The essential is clearer.

Reading the poem is an act of recovering imagination. Frost’s work itself is peppered with original, beautiful imagery that brings new inspiration. One such image that will forever be etched in my mind is the “belilaced cellar hole… slowly closing like a dent in dough.” This is a graceful image: the forested landscape growing over the cellar hole, slowly covering the history of the home once there. In nature, examples of resilience are abundant. In our own lives, adaptation is an essential part of our continuing metamorphosis.

Frost’s guide highlights representations of neglected parts of ourselves, like an abandoned house in the wood or the children’s toys in the playhouse. We need the guide to show us that which we cannot see ourselves, that which we have forgotten. Like an entangled forest that changes with the seasons, we, too, change radically. We need to walk into the unfamiliar to notice new things about our inner lives. The speaker continues:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.

The guide reveals he “stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse,” a counterintuitive place to find the Holy Grail. Indeed, uncovering the Holy Grail is unusual here, as the speaker employs irony to tease aspects of organized religion with its rules about who are the wrong ones and who can or cannot be saved. Frost’s guide demonstrates that the cup of salvation is the cup of self-healing. It is an empowering message: you, too, can find the “broken drinking goblet” in the woods of your own life. It may be hidden where you least expect it, near the trees you haven’t explored in years.

The speaker ends the poem with these lines: “Here are your waters and your watering place / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Holy water is found in the woods, in quiet places. Through the baptism of introspection and stillness, we can find wholeness. Your journey may start in the literal woods, but the process of finding joy and peace occurs within by claiming the forlorn parts of our minds and spirits.

Love is our natural internal condition, which can only be revealed to us by going away from culture and into stillness. This grace, beneath all the rules, noise, and chaos of our time, is always there for us to reclaim – the grace we knew perhaps in childhood—when we are ready to search for it, when we are ready to become lost enough to find ourselves.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on the near side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” This notion mirrors Frost’s advice in Directive. The guide leaves us with the idea of wholeness beyond confusion, peace beyond busyness, perspective beyond chaos. The waters and watering place—stillness, quietness, whatever our inner resting place may be—catalyze our transformation. The simplicity on the far side of complexity, like Nature, is within us and has the power to affect everything around us.

Nature reclaims everything. Look again at the old cellar hole covered in earth and lilacs. We, too, will return to our natural condition in time by following our inner guide. Find your resting place within. The stillness that you crave beneath the noise of daily life will welcome you.