by Dr. David Sanders
Presidential inaugurations, like so many formal celebrations, tend to be formulaic. In 1961, John Kennedy broke with tradition by inviting the poet, Robert Frost, to share an original poem written for the occasion. It all went wrong. Frost, who was then eighty six years old, was unable, in the bright sunlight of that January morning, to see the original poem he had penned. He extemporized and presented his poem, The Gift Outright, from memory.
Frost and Kennedy were both New Englanders from Massachusetts and Frost was an outspoken supporter of Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. Kennedy in turn would often end his speeches on the campaign trail with the final lines of Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening:
“These 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.”
You would think that a New Englander and with the last name Frost, would know the trails through a deep and dark snowy wood. There are those, including Frost’s biographer, that permute the word trails to trials, directing us to consider that the promises to keep are what keep the man trudging, not through snowbanks, but through the depths of a dark night—the soul’s traverse through the nightmare of despair.
Joe Biden once reflected on the dark night he went through grieving for his wife and baby daughter who were killed in a car collision. The profundity of his grief led his to understand how someone could feel that life was no longer worth living, to consciously decide to commit suicide. But Joe Biden had miles to go before he would sleep and as he wrote back in 2007:
“It’s time for a president to stand up and remind the American people that we have promises to keep — promises to the world, promises to one another, promises to our children and to our grandchildren. In rededicating ourselves to the hard work of fulfilling those promises, we restore America as the hope of the world and the vision of a brighter future.” (Promises to Keep)
As Kennedy before him, Joe Biden chose a poet laureate to inspire the nation at his inauguration. The youngest U.S President chose an elder statesman, the oldest U.S. President a youngster, Amanda Gorman, who in the bright sunshine delivered a promise and a hope she was no longer keeping to herself:
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
When George Floyd was murdered I made a promise to do my part in the reckoning of social justice for all. I have chosen to bring to light, through the teachings of Kabbalah, our evolution toward the bringing and bridging together of our diverse human family.
As part of fulfilling on my promise, please join the KE community and me, this Sunday, for a showing of the short film “enough.” followed by a conversation with poet and musician, Nathan Nzanga, who is “brave enough to be it.”