A gift for all the people in a group, committee, club or family is a non-starter if I expect to be loved or remembered for the gesture. If you like the idea that a gift to a friend will become a cherished keepsake, a small trinket that costs little or nothing is the best bet. Emily Dickinson, in “’Tis Customary as we part”, gets at the emotion of successful gift-giving.

‘Tis customary as we part
A trinket – to confer –
It helps to stimulate the faith
When Lovers be afar —

‘Tis various – as the various taste –
Clematis – journeying far –
Presents me with a single Curl
Of her Electric Hair –

This little poem, (unlike hundreds of Dickinson poems that describe, analyze and push the limits of language to dramatize loss), focuses on a practical implement that assumes significance only because the people we love are not always close to hand. Nothing amplifies feelings like parting, which the poem uses to universalize itself. I notice the contrast between the immeasurable quality of “we part” and the diminutive connotation of “A trinket – to confer -”. The point being that a token of affection may be infinitely more important than relics of memory alone as a way to keep affections alive.  A reminder in my pocket, drawer or frame has the potential to turn a frown caused by time and distance into a smile, “When Lovers be afar – ”. No token too small. A contrivance! Be that as it may, any little item can become a memorial if it is associated with a priceless memory.

Only the very rich can give automobiles, Tiffany jewelry or, say, a Rembrandt painting. Even these gifts are likely to be held in limited regard if they don’t symbolize palpable, shared love. If a gift will be one that “.. helps to stimulate the faith” it must strike at the heart of the bond between family or other loved ones.

The important element for any gift, if it is to hold its significance, is attentiveness to variety, the kind that fits the variety in tastes among individuals. “’Tis various – as the various taste – ”.

Clematis, or “travelers joy,” is in knowing, or relying on, the quality of loyalty of a loved one.  Joy is symbolically carried with me because I have certain trinkets, like trophies, as reminders to me of the emotional tie between us. Holiday gifts that we give for Christmas, Hanukkah and memorializations of other religions, along with birthdays, serve to “stimulate the faith” as we travel the calendar or “… journeying far”.

There are all kinds of presents. There are all kinds of relationships. The one thing that is constant is the stirring quality, perhaps even explosive element of  “.. a single Curl / Of her Electric Hair -”.

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

Perhaps one way to amplify our recognition of Independence Day in America is to take part in the Emily Dickinson custom of debating loss versus gain.  I suppose Dickinson’s pleasant sense of well-being about “one Day” preceded this lyric reflection that:

Had this one Day not been,
Or could it cease to be

How smitten, how superfluous,
Were every other Day!

Lest Love should value less
What Loss would value more

Had it the stricken privilege,
It cherishes before.

On this national celebration of independence from the mother country England, I’m inclined to feel very warm and friendly to the people around me. “Had this one Day not been, / Or could it cease to be”, my awareness of sharing a common destiny with believers in democracy would not exist.

Without the progress in democratic ideals and ambitions as reflected in establishment of an America independent of monarchy in the 18th Century, where would I be? Where the world? Would I be able to extend emotional or physical support to anyone I feel needs it? Would I live were generosity and giving are recognized as viable and valued traits? Would personal goals and ambitions have any significance in the culture that outlines my reality?

If not, “How smitten, how superfluous, / Were every other Day!”

The poem assists in my effort to imagine such a fate. Of all the words to select in this brief poem, “smitten” and “superfluous” are here as indicators of what that fate might be. Two words that do not seem to me ordinarily good companions in language’s campaign to describe – well – anything.

Yet, there they are. Smitten can mean two entirely different things. Here’s what my online dictionary has:

1 “he was smitten with cholera” – struck down, laid low, suffering, affected, afflicted, plagued, stricken.
2 “Jane’s smitten with you” – infatuated with, besotted with, in love with, obsessed with, head over heels; enamored of, attracted to, taken with; captivated by, enchanted by, under someone’s spell, moonstruck by; (etc., etc.)

At first I’m inclined to select “stricken,” or, “laid low,” to imagine myself without freedom to vote, or make other personal choices. But, perhaps in not having been born into a democracy, the concept of freedom without its reality would render me forever “besotted with,” and, “enchanted” with democracy’s ideal.

The poem causes me to realize I am living my love of freedom, which leads to the luxury to take it for granted, “Lest Love should value less”. And, that  not to be coaxed by familiarity into neglecting its everyday value would be to live in a country where citizens are exploited by cruel monarchies and oppressive despots: “What Loss would value more”.

In a life where there are everyday terrors, or wearisome intrusions for those who stay out of the spotlight, it is indeed a “stricken privilege” to have a mental picture of what freedom would be like.

To be compelled to live according to the discretion of the powerful would do battle with any attempt at integrity and make me feel superfluous, as the poem describes in line three.  Yet, the assumption, the demand of every newborn is a fundamental right, “It cherishes before.” It doesn’t particularly matter what “before.”  To say, “before what?” disregards the intrinsic nature of a sense of freedom, with which all humans are born, and, which the framers of the U.S. Constitution immortalized.

America does not represent a “Pollyanna” view of reality that refuses to recognize trouble and pain in the world, but of a real sense of belonging to the family of the earth.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I recently read a book on feng shui by Denise Linn. It’s a great tutorial for increasing awareness of personal symbols. Emily Dickinson’s “You taught me Waiting with Myself – ” may go a bit further by uncovering why such a process matters.

You taught me Waiting with Myself –
Appointment strictly kept –
You taught Me fortitude of Fate –
This – also – I have learnt –

An Altitude of Death, that could
No bitterer debar
Than Life – had done – before it –
Yet – there is a Science more –

The Heaven you know – to understand
That you be not ashamed
of Me- in Christ’s bright Audience
Opon the further Hand

I don’t pretend to grasp all the syntax, including all the second or first person pronouns and their references. Nevertheless, I am fascinated with the idea of being taught how to accomplish a “Waiting with Myself -“.

Without having divulged personal motivations, the poem’s serious intent is hinted in the high priority of an “Appointment strictly kept -”.  What, we might ask, is the alternative to such dedicated effort? For me, if the driving motivation is to go deeper into the what-ifs of personal barriers and hangups there’s a risk of intellectualization and “beating the dead horse” of old experiences and situations. When what I really need is feeling or solicitude.

While I wait with myself, as in meditation, I am ideally only aware of the present. (In some feng shui meditative exercises, I was amazed at present meanings I give to objects that have their origins in my past.) The poem follows meditative waiting with myself with acknowledgment of being compelled by the future. “You taught Me fortitude of Fate -”.

The wonderfully transitional “This – also – I have learnt -” reiterates fate’s impervious fortitude, or mettle; and, levels my attention on “An Altitude of Death,…”. I believe this line, and the next two, refer to what I have already said about the risks involved in too much intellectualization of private quandries and concerns.  On and on it can go until paralysis sets in, more like death – or, at least one of its classifications – so that the effect is as bad as the cause. “(T)hat could/No bitterer debar/Than Life – had done – before it -” gives to death all its customary bitterness.

But, wait! Science to the rescue!

Is “Yet – there is a Science more -” a false clue about how to be liberated from this self-imposed brainiac solution?

For now the poem speaks the language of the soul; the supportive sounds of “The Heaven you know – to understand/That you be not ashamed”.  The Heaven.  You know.  To understand.

Instead of a level in hell, an altitude of death, the upper regions of consciousness, “Me- in Christ’s bright Audience” are foretold.  I read now of feeling. Sympathy and compassion lead away from self-inflicted isolation to a place where the brightest audience awaits. There is real satisfaction when “That you be not ashamed” takes hold with compassionate understanding.  Successful acceptance of psychological realities leads to personal freedom. The things audiences do best, applause, or “give a hand,” are echoed when “Opon the further Hand” I place my trust. Both here-and-now, as well as further and unseen. That may be the applause of eternity – an inner condition with myself.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Emily Dickinson persuades us with the allure of beauty and its devastating seductions in “Nobody knows this little Rose – ”. Exquisite grace, in a little Rose, or other form of beauty, takes part of its appeal from its intrinsic vulnerability.

Nobody knows this little Rose –
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it –
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey –
On its breast to lie –
Only a Bird will wonder –
Only a Breeze will sigh –
Ah Little Rose – how easy“
For such as thee to die!

When reading this poem, I first visualize a pretty little rose going unnoticed, except by me.  This vision is accompanied by a tugging emotion.

As “It might a pilgrim be” may indicate a purpose other than the one I attribute it, so also could the “Little Rose”‘s beauty be something intended just for me. (In the 11th line a capitalized “title” replaces the all-inclusive little Rose in the first line.) Similarly, important choices about identity, career and family must entertain alternatives.

In the background of my thoughts I’m compelled to wonder how many other charming examples of wooing-nature, either in my own character or my environment, suffer the fate of being barely missed when I “…take it from the ways” that are available to me when I act on my own volition.

When I follow a particular path in my life, perhaps I fulfill my destiny, “And lift it up to thee.” Typically, however, someone — a parent, friend or employer has other ideas. In fact, I may be removing myself from another purpose where someone needs me to be, as in, “Only a Bee will miss it – / Only a Butterfly, / Hastening from far journey – / On its breast to lie -”.

Feel the drama. Praise, and pay tribute to, the discovery of purpose. Mourn the dismissed alternative. Let your heartstrings be pulled. “Ah Little Rose – how easy” to be, after all.

But, of course, the contest, the tension derives from the evenly matched deftness with which we may choose something else, some other way, “to be.” “For such as thee to die!” Some alternative must always be set aside. And, we cannot hope for complete anonymity in our choices. Even if, “Only a Bird will wonder – / Only a Breeze will sigh – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

There are so many Emily Dickinson poems inspired by romantic “Valentine” preoccupations. I decided for this Valentine season to start, as they say, at the beginning. “Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,” launches every comprehensive collection of Dickinson poems. The very first poem I find if I start reading at the beginning recalls those delicious feelings of teenage puppy love while it also tries to sound very grownup. Another teenage trait.

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
for sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain,
all things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
the life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
none cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
and they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
the wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
and the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
the wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
no more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and Heaven a knight so true,
and Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
to bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
and a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
and seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
and give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower;
and bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum –
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

The first time we have a teenage crush on someone, an infatuation, we don’t know we have started the long road to learning to balance feelings that provide for lasting attachments, “…strain divine”, with an equally strong urge to be possessive: “tie my Valentine!” The painful problem especially of “tweens” is of wanting a friend to pay attention only to “me” alone.

The heavenly transformation from this self-absorbed condition is captured in poem after poem of Dickinson’s work. Dickinson’s sense of awe toward love relationships was just getting started when she wrote this Valentine poem. The spiritual mystery of romance as a catalyst for selfless action and spiritual self-denial, produced many poems that served as gateways to the poet’s highly evolved spiritual understanding.

I have an aunt, the youngest of Daddy’s sisters, who turns 91 this month. She had a long and happy marriage to “her Johnny” before he died. In a few short years after Johnny died, Aunt Claire, who was in her late 70s at the time, met an 80-year-old deacon in the church they both attended. She described to me the feelings she had when he first invited her to a church social. “I was all giddy inside,” she said. “I felt like a teenager. Isn’t that silly?”

“No, of course not, I said.”

I might have added, “and seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

It is a source of endless fascination for me to examine my own and others’ individuality when acting from within marriage or other committed relationship.

Emily Dickinson’s interest in these dynamics may be described when “She rose to His Requirement — dropt” employs the skeptical voice of the unmarried.

She rose to His Requirement — dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife —

If ought She missed in Her new Day,
Of Amplitude, or Awe —
Or first Prospective — Or the Gold
In using, wear away,

It lay unmentioned — as the Sea
Develop Pearl, and Weed,
But only to Himself — be known
The Fathoms they abide —

In my first marriage, I was reasonably happy for many years with its terms. Though, I remember looking in the mirror the first few days after the wedding expecting to look different.

Not so. Though, in looking, I sought to discover whether “I” would survive the urge to merge. The stakes are high. The difference is that between a weed and a pearl.

Of myself I might have said, “If ought She missed in Her new Day, / Of Amplitude, or Awe —”, the fault lay entirely with “her.” There were so many “.. first Prospective(s), I leaped from one to the other for over a decade without much thought about the end-game.

The poem makes “marriage” and “work” synonymous, a fairly common idea in the 21st century. Still, who isn’t drawn to the idea of rising to the challenge posed by sacrifice? Added to that enticement, our culture’s “.. the honorable Work / Of Woman, and of Wife —”, and most women’s egos are drawn to act accordingly, if given the chance.

So, having “dropt / The Playthings of Her Life”, what then?  If “… the Gold (love)/in using, wear away”, the couple may use the convention of marriage to hide the misfortune, (the weed.)  The wearing away of love may, or may not, lay, “unmentioned – as the Sea/Develop Pearl, and Weed,”. The poem’s intrigue is in the issue every paparazzi butters his bread with: willing sacrifice versus sacrificial loss.

The universality of a truth that not only lies with women, for as “.. only to Himself ”, both partners bear truth’s burdens. Whatever is left unsaid, will be “The Fathoms they abide —”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way