It’s a truism, isn’t it, that life is filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, tugs to the right when we were planning to turn left. One measure of a life is how we cope with adversity. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” We hear similarly wise words from John Walsh. 

John Walsh is a partner in the East Greenwich-based communications firm, Walsh & Associates. He writes a monthly Op-Ed column for the Providence Journal, which published an earlier version of this essay. 

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the collection of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me. The worn paperback had belonged to his father.

I was surprised. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to books, not poetry. 

I first encountered Frost in high school when his poem “Birches” was assigned in my freshman English class. The speaker in the poem recalls climbing to the top of birch trees as a boy and flinging himself outward feet first to bend the trees: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches” he says. “And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The weary speaker tells us he’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?

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. The car gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited my friend’s house, his dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d look up and politely say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I sussed 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. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reasons, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I believe Jim’s dad knew long before I did.