1865


Colorado’s Rocky Mountains rise up in my imagination as the most majestic I’ve personally seen. The first time I saw the Smoky Mountains in America’s Southeast, it was like I had crawled, like a child, into the safe lap of a beloved aunt.

Living in New England as I do now, I have to rely on my memories. Though Emily Dickinson had only the Berkshire Mountains and the Pelham ridge (the highest mountain in Massachusetts is less than 3500 feet), she knew the influence on me from these gifts of Nature. In “The Mountain sat upon the Plain,” I find the answer to what it is about a mountain that reaches tender places of thought and feeling.

The Mountain sat upon the Plain
In his tremendous Chair.
His observation omnifold,
His inquest, everywhere –

The Seasons played around his knees
Like Children round a Sire –
Grandfather of the Days is he
Of Dawn, the Ancestor

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That “fine invention,” faith (as Emily Dickinson humorously tagged it in another poem) is discussed in her “Faith – is the Pierless Bridge” in a way that reminds me of a truly modern type of faith.

Faith – is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not –
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side –
It joins – behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.

Nowadays, the majority of my friends and family share a new type of faith. No, we haven’t started some oddball church, nor claim rights to a new religion. Our relatively new belief system “is the Pierless Bridge” of search engines like Yahoo, Google and others. Whether this new faith is justified is quite another matter. Before computers were a gleam in the eye of engineer types, Dickinson’s examination of the ignorance that yawns between fact and fiction led to some fascinating ideas about what goes into that chasm.

A real bridge must exist with piers to support it. No mystery. Dickinson’s poem goes outside the realm of religion when identifying faith as that of pier. For, she claims, we do, in fact, see: “Supporting what We see”. So, faith is both the bridge and the pier.  (If we are to take the capitalized “We” as more important, here, than the lowercase “see,” then, as with the internet, or real-life victors and conquerors in the form of heroes and mentors, it is the communal experience that gives weight to that which is visible – anticipating our Twitter and Facebook culture.)

Modern tendencies that do not to rely so much on religious faith to dinghy us “Unto the Scene that We do not -” may indicate a simple shift of our impulses.  Our frustration about knowing of, but not understanding, all manner of topics, not the least of which may be ourselves, has not dulled aspirations that are “Too slender for the eye”. We stream our faith, just as our beliefs have turned up digitally.

Faith is as modern as ever. Morphed, perhaps. “It bears the Soul as bold/As it were rocked in Steel”. When I was young I wondered and worried about the so-called native-in-Africa, or tiny community in some obscure corner of the world who could not have religion as I knew it. A church building being one of those man-made things, “With Arms of Steel at either side -” that temporarily defined faith for me.

If I remove the clause in the last stanza, I get a critique, of sorts, of my evolving faith: “It joins – behind the Veil / To what, … vacillating Feet / A first Necessity.” Our youth depends entirely on – necessitates – the perception that stability, reliability and enduring love is absolute. That is, if the vacillating, ambivalent feet of tiny humans are to develop effectively. Believing as a young person that my mother is flawless, or that my father defines the world, is exactly what I need. What I must see, if you will.

Like bridges from our youth to our adulthood, “…could We presume / The Bridge would cease to be / To Our far” mature life, then the disastrous effect on our tender welfare would exceed the demise of all things digital.

Imagine!

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

The event that Americans commonly call the first Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony survive their first brutal winter in New England, according to Wikipedia.  Writing from her 19th Century Western Massachusetts home, Emily Dickinson recognizes personal archives playing in memory and emotions in “One Day is there of the Series”.  This completely different kind of Thanksgiving history is as familiar to me as the annual feast.

One Day is there of the Series
Termed “Thanksgiving Day”
Celebrated part at Table
Part in Memory –
Neither Ancestor nor Urchin
I review the Play –
Seems it to my Hooded thinking
Reflex Holiday –
Had There been no sharp subtraction
From the early Sum –
Not an Acre or a Caption
Where was once a Room –
Not a Mention, whose small Pebble
Wrinkled any Sea,
Unto such, were such Assembly
‘Twere “Thanksgiving Day” –

The poem’s first three lines recognizes a community’s shared experience, “One Day….Termed “Thanksgiving Day”, but hooks us on an emotional level with that little word, “part.” It is buried, like a private thought, in a phrase that is otherwise familar: “Celebrated part at Table”.

Isn’t it lovely to pay tribute to those private thoughts of past Thanksgivings as being as dominate in our minds as the spread on the table and the people with whom we share it? The poem intends to place that “Part in Memory -” right up there with the rest.  Individual thoughts of past Thanksgivings include “Neither Ancestor..” of the first Thanksgiving, nor the pets, children or “…Urchin” of today.

When I sit down with loved ones this year, “I review the Play -” of the very first time I baked a turkey in my own home; my children’s first Thanksgivings; my mother’s deft banquet-making; my deceased daughter’s last Thanksgiving when she was 16.

Thoughts and emotions about past Thanksgivings have their own law, leaving me to decide what to say out loud. “Seems it to my Hooded thinking/Reflex Holiday -”. Or, my hidden thinking has an involuntary and untaught way of observing private history. When feelings for someone absent help to define this Thanksgiving they are as real as ever. “Had There been no sharp subtraction/From the early Sum -”, had there not been a huge portion of cherished people razored off; and, though they own no local property and you won’t see their photo published here, “Not an Acre or a Caption”, they are part of the holiday, nonetheless.

Just as thoughts jam and mesh between then and now, the poem’s lines combine thoughts, “Where was once a Room – / Not a Mention,”. It once required a room of her own to give reasonable care and acknowledgment, but now the house is a reflection of schedules and plans where she is not mentioned. Where once so many friends and family admitted, “whose small Pebble/Wrinkled any Sea,” because every life was a “sea” and she was a “small pebble,” who left such a pleasant wavelet.

These thoughts and others, “Unto such, were such Assembly / ‘Twere “Thanksgiving Day” -”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

How often I’ve demanded of myself to come to my senses and get down to a favored course of action.  Then, to dispense with daydreams, spending foolishly or some such stumbling block; if successful, then apply myself to my declared goals. Emily Dickinson’s “A Doubt if it be Us” scrutinizes these disparities between intention and action.

A Doubt if it be Us
Assists the staggering Mind
In an extremer Anguish
Until it footing find –

An Unreality is lent,
A merciful Mirage
That makes the living possible
While it suspends the lives.

To dramatize the phenom, the poem uses the circumstance of severe trauma, extreme anguish. In this case, then, I am willing to accept instinctive uncertainty if to “(Assist) the staggering Mind”, doubt provides a cushion “Until it footing find -”.

I can’t help focusing on both the poem’s implied advantages of doubt, and its description – as though it were like a knee jerk to doctor’s tap. Customarily, doubt is seen as a chosen lack of conviction or uncertainty toward something others do or believe. Is it not? Or, like suspicion, an attitude that is aimed at others. Rarely, is doubt aimed inward seen as sensible. The poem looks at doubt’s instinctive characteristics. And, that this instinct is one of self preservation.

Sometimes I am good at handling the relationships, finances and commitments in my life. At other times, my perceptions challenge what formerly seemed to come natural. Shock after great pain is when “An Unreality is lent, / A merciful Mirage” keeps me from comprehending for a time how much my reality has changed.

In smaller shocks to my system, outcomes are also unpredictable. For example, my tastes are more lavish than I can afford. If a financial opportunity comes up, will my susceptibility to beautiful clothes, jewelry, books and art sabotage my ability to handle relationships involved to turn transactions to my benefit.  Clearly, two distinct truths clamor for “That (which) makes the living possible”.

The outcome turns entirely on the Doubt Instinct. To personalize Dickinson’s “Us” of the first line into “me,” one or the other alternative (spending unwisely or organizing wisely) will hold sway. If my doubt instinct operates for my long-term benefit my tendency toward extravagance will be held at bay. Will it be strong and instinctive? Enough that I am careful not to invest money needed for everyday living? Doubt, “While it suspends the lives” , may last for seconds or days.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Say it isn’t so, we say, when a deep sea oil drill disaster destroys land, water, fish, wildlife and tiny organisms on a Biblical scale.  Emily Dickinson’s “A doubt if it be Us” points out that my very definition of myself and “you” can be changed by catastrophe. Hostility to, and refusal to accept, is built in, the poem declares.

A doubt if it be Us
Assists the staggering Mind
In an extremer Anguish
Until it footing find.

An Unreality is lent,
A merciful Mirage
That makes the living possible
While it suspends the lives

How can it be, that hurricanes reorder an entire human system: homes, businesses, relationships and hearts. We would rather “..doubt if it be Us”, than accept what’s happened. This much tragedy happens somewhere else. Doesn’t it? The furthest extreme of this experience is a response to trauma such as loss of speech, amnesia, even death from a heart attack.

In this poem about shock, doubt, itself, is portrayed as our ally. For it, “Assists the staggering Mind”. Doubt is usually regarded as somewhat benign and simply a way to describe uncertainty or indecision. In religion, hesitation or dubiousness about tenets of faith are respected as signs of thinking things through.  Doubt as suspicion or confusion about things-that-go-bump-in-the night are accepted as part of being aware. Doubtful queries and questions about everything from political campaigns to why your teenager was out past her curfew, a sign of being engaged.

But, in that unknown landscape of my nervous system, somewhere between shutting down completely in death and everyday doubts, the staggering mind receives help from a sustaining type of doubt. But only “In an extremer Anguish / (and no more than) Until it footing find.”

Since I don’t “do” such horrific changes to my known world easily, or well, “An Unreality is lent, / A merciful Mirage” takes over to keep me from comprehending what’s changing. Everything. Mercifully, “That makes the living possible”.

Curiously, the last line describes the impact of these psychic mechanisms – “While it suspends the lives” – and, withholds resolution of the matter. This particular day is the 74th day of no conclusion in the Gulf of Mexico. A continuation of suspended lives after the BP Oil disaster.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

With one eye on the so-called big picture, and the other on myself, personal meaning must be discovered. “I cannot buy it – ’tis not sold -” is one of many Emily Dickinson poems I find satisfying for their guiding principle in matters of ego versus destiny. The meaning of life, no less, is forever rooted in these sometimes dueling forces.

I cannot buy it – ’tis not sold –
There is no other in the World –
Mine was the only one

I was so happy I forgot
To shut the Door And it went out
And I am all alone –

If I could find it Anywhere
I would not mind the journey there
Though it took all my store

But just to look it in the Eye –
“Did’st thou”? “Thou did’st not mean”, to say,
Then, turn my Face away.

I remember the first time I recognized that my view of life and myself was not something I could obtain from someone else. “I cannot buy it – ’tis not sold – / There is no other in the World – ” occurred to me when I was too young to be more than quizzical. I was slightly startled, as a little girl, to realize “Mine was the only one” among the outlooks surrounding me that would accompany me always.

There are several ways to read “I was so happy I forgot / To shut the Door…”. Unselfconscious pleasure at living, while reveling in all the delicious sensations people and nature produce, is both ideal and potentially hazardous. If I am so moved, emotionally, by the majesty of a panorama that I walk too far out on a cliff to admire it, something scary can happen. The “it” in “And it went out /And I am all alone -” recalls the duality of self confirmed when, uninhibited, I get into trouble.  But, “it” also can describe alternating periods when, to begin with, I find it necessary to be alone in order to find out my purpose-in-chief. At other times, I am compelled to ask these same questions together with friends and loved ones. These apparent contradictions are built into questions of meaning.

Occasionally, at my wits’ end, “If I could find it Anywhere / I would not mind the journey there”.  If this poem speaks for the majority of thinking people, it brings to mind a tendency to look for “geographical cures” for life’s biggest dilemmas. Though the poem uses the impulse to travel in search for meaning, or purpose, others will recognize different alternative routes; sex or marrying for the wrong reason, using drugs, alcohol or food. Sometimes, it’s just so tempting to expend all energy available, “Though it took all my store” to jet around town or across continents in search of the answer to life’s burning questions. (With a nod to Garrison Keiller.)

Sometimes when I read this poem the final stanza (all stanzas, a yielding three-legged instead of the solid footing of quatrains) delivers an attitude akin to having settled the issue. “But just to look it in the Eye – ” has all the sound of having given up on journeys and other “jailbreaks” to resolve issues only I can.

Yet, still, questions persist. “”Did’st thou”?”, Destiny asks Ego. “Thou did’st not mean”, to say,” Ego always has a retort.

It is the last line that throws the question back to me, the reader. “Then, turn my Face away.” Is the poem turning away from me at a certain point because I am looking for answers that it cannot provide? Am I turning away from myself? Away from others? It strikes me that at different times, the answer to each question is, “yes.”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

When Emily Dickinson wrote “A loss of something ever felt I — ” she gave voice to pain locked in the heart of every abused child. Outright sexual or physical abuse and the equally harmful slippery realm of sarcasm, insult and neglect. Or, chronic disharmony.

A loss of something ever felt I –
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was – of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out —

Elder, Today, a session wiser,
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is —
I find Myself still softly searching
For my Delinguent Palaces –

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven –

It will not be until it is too late that “The first that I could recollect” can be given a word, “Bereft”, bereaved. Experienced as loneliness, not from physical isolation, but from inarticulate feelings.

But, youth itself betrays the young. Childhood’s pastimes amid family disharmony that may be no one’s fault conspire to seal him in an unsolicitous inner world. Then, “too young that any should suspect / A Mourner walked among the children”. As an adult I’ve come to recognize physical symptoms of too much solitude. Lack of energy is the most obvious. But, childhood’s energy “.. not withstanding went about”. Adults only see a busy child.

Ah! if only the tiny sorrowful could pronounce, “As one bemoaning a Dominion”. If attempted, what comes out is whining. The reward, “Itself the only Prince cast out”.

The poem is written from the only vantage point that allows such insights: “Elder, Today, a session wiser”. Unable, like the child with his preordained rambunctiousness to cover up his “softly searching” for palaces of love from others and a connected wholeness. 

Now grownup, I begin to realize that to look to others “For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven”, for perfect peace, is itself a childish endeavor. “And a Suspicion, like a Finger” of one I am now capable of perceiving as tender, patient and kind, begins a dialogue.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

 

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