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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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

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

Two little girls and a boy I know, who like bedtime stories and cuddly night-night prayers, let me know evening rituals need not include too much kissy-face.

My urge to send them off into the unchaperoned world of dreams buried in kisses, as I would bundle them in woolens in winter, is part of my desire to protect.

Emily Dickinson’s “Now I lay thee down to Sleep —” turns a nursery rhyme prayer on its head, with a similar motivation.

Now I lay thee down to Sleep –
I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep –
And if thou live before thou wake –
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make –

The familiar, “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my Soul to keep/If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my Soul to take” provides the form for the poem. A version that has scared the stew out of many children obliged to pray, meander off to sleep, and half invite death. Possible death before morning?! There is small comfort in prevailing upon “the Lord” to get busy and take the child’s soul if such a catastrophe were to occur. 

Dickinson’s poem does not ignore the concept of death altogether. “I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep — ”, regards life’s earth-bound origins as part of a process before, during, and after earth-time. I ask the Lord to keep you intact. Great idea.

Less clear, but astoundingly concise, “And if thou live before thou wake —”, indicates that my child and I are never to young or too old to begin living. If “live” is to smile my own smile, not theirs; find my own words, not theirs. Live my own life, not someone else’s. No one is too young to learn to be true to herself.  She need not wait for “the Lord my Soul to take” to wake to the miracle of miracles — Life.

The loveliest concept of all, “I pray the Lord thy Soul to make —” suggests that neither violence, poverty, neglect or loss may be allowed to make a soul into a contorted reflection of misfortune. The poem suggests a knowledge gained from experience, perhaps a regenerative one, a love for life that we want to give our loved ones. But, that cannot be imposed, or forced, if they do not want either a kiss or an authentic life.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

 

Emily Dickinson’s “Color — Caste — Denomination — ”, like the great equalizer, death, discards all my best and worst as mere symptoms of my fallible, error-prone status as human.

Color – Caste – Denomination –
These – are Time’s Affair –
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are –

As in sleep – All Hue forgotten –
Tenets – put behind –
Death’s large – Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand –

If Circassian – He is careless –
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber –
Equal Butterfly –

They emerge from His Obscuring –
What Death – knows so well –
Our minuter intuitions –
Deem unplausible –

“These — are Time’s Affair” is an easy concept, somewhat nostalgic in nature. They are words that role off the tongue. Just as conditions of race, social standing, or religious ideology skirt out of memory as soon as we are dead. Or, perhaps even in sleep.

Important only when our consciousness is controlled by time, “Color — a black president, Caste — corporate titans vs. poverty’s luckless, and Denomination — Catholics, Mormons and Muslims, all define current events. These concepts are essential to understanding temporal civilization and earthly history, but lousy at classifying people.

The poem suggests to me, by its own simplicity, that it need not be so hard to avoid defining myself and others by such episodic concerns.

If I really want to get it straight, the poem counsels, when looking for what really matters in this life, I should use death as my guide. For death does not know about distinctions: “Does not know they are — / As in sleep — All Hue forgotten —”.

All the principles that guide my treatment of myself and others; all my beliefs about what to expect; all the doctrines I’ve inherited about God and honor: are no more, no less than “Tenets — ” that are flawed when “put behind — ”.

As the “purest” type of white person, “Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful on earth, prized by Turkish sultans. The use of this kind of human description is funny when followed by the idea of “careless,” almost scientific, experiment. Butterfly cocoons of different species, may be indistinguishable.  Put two chrysalis (that sheltered stage of growth that obscures color) away on a shelf.  They may emerge from that obscure state to surprise the experimenter by their color.

If I am focused on the differences, (“Our minuter intuitions —”), the poem has a wry, sardonic retort. For by prizing such transient descriptions I am more sheltered from the truth than the larvae.  For I cannot  perceive what “Death — knows so well —”.  Red, or yellow, black and white, “Blond — or Umber — / Equal Butterfly — ”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

If my life is like a problem that must be solved by breaking it down into manageable components, “The first Day that I was a Life”, by Emily Dickinson, may provide a kind of map.

The first Day that I was a Life
I recollect it – How still –
That last Day that I was a Life
I recollect it — as well —

‘Twas stiller – though the first
Was still –
“Twas empty – but the first
Was full –

This – was my finallest Occasion –
But then
My tenderer Experiment
Toward Men –

“Which choose I”?
That – I cannot say –
“Which choose They”?
Question Memory!

I view myself in terms of before and after several events. Before and after sexual abuse at age nine. “I recollect it — How still —” my life seems, then: “The last Day that I was a Life” unused to buried thoughts, rampant need and suspicion. 

“I recollect it —as well —” when my daughter drove off and never came home. “’Twas stiller — though the first / Was still —” in a childlike way. The earlier wariness informed my subsequent  dread. I could not prevent the first from contributing to the definition of the “.. finallest Occasion —”, my “second life.” Having learned early on that days and years could unfold without waiting for me to unfold, to disclose I “’Twas empty — but the first / Was full” of newness.

When I was a child, “my tenderer Experiment” with trust “Toward Men — ” weakened my adaptation, slowed my grief over my child. And contributed to blindness toward the needs of my other children.

If, at last, I have a choice and can determine an ideal environment to create an equally pivotal but preferred condition, “Which choose I?” 

The poem does not suggest a limit on how many times a life can experience one of these before-and-after seismic shifts. Only that they engender separate lives. And, that to “Question Memory!” may help explain the role others have played. Whether my decision to access support and comradery among other students of Dickinson since I moved to Amherst will prove equally self-defining, “That — I cannot say —”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

 

There are several kinds of silence.

I’ve known quiet that is a terrible tool, leaving me disoriented and the victim of my own imagination. The kind of silence in “Speech is one symptom of affection”, by Emily Dickinson is a mature, caring, active choice. Not one that aims to manipulate or punish. Nor to attempt a self-made shell of protection.

Speech is one symptom of affection
And Silence one –
The perfectest communication
Is heard of none

Exists and it’s indorsement
Is had within –
Behold said the Apostle,
Yet had not seen!

When a child, I knew no other way to cope than to be silent when I was sexually molested at age nine. Fierce upheavals went on inside my mind and emotions, creating near-hallucinatory perceptions of the world around me. 

I became obsessed with a lot of things. One of them was the idea that silence could be anything other than harrowing. I find numerous, beautiful, evidence. “They sat tranquilly, side by side, in no hurry to begin the mangled business of communication. A slight breeze cooled their skin,” muses a character in The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker.

Self-hate has not been so much overcome by self-love as by the chipping away of my hatred of silence. The poem doesn’t claim there is ever perfect communication either in speech or silence. But, that, compared to speech, “… Silence one — ” way to show affection, is sometimes better. “The perfectest communication / Is heard of none”.

For an emotion to find its ratification by its self-authored authority, “Exists and it’s indorsement” / Is had within — ”, was life changing for me when I began to read poems like this one. Encouraged by the poem to trust the elements of my war within, looking around me for clues to a proper existence, I find I can listen to the imaginative and sometimes intelligent inner voices. 

It is no longer a minor miracle to discover myself enjoying what the poem recalls in the story of Jesus as predictor of spiritual inheritors of Thomas, another doubter. Love can be shared, though “Yet had not seen!” 

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way