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


Demands and temptations of the outside world can cause me to lose track of what I really want in life – my goals and objectives.  Emily Dickinson’s, “I cautious, scanned my little life”, takes stock, while considering unintentional, misappropriated and fateful influences on inner feelings and personal desires.

I cautious, scanned my little life –
I winnowed what would fade
From what w’d last till Heads like mine
Should be a-dreaming laid.

I put the latter in a Barn –
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo, my priceless Hay

Was not upon the “Scaffold” –
Was not upon the “Beam” –
And from a thriving Farmer –
A Cynic, I became.

Whether a Thief did it –
Whether it was the wind –
Whether Deity’s guiltless –
My business is, to find!

So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?

I may want to do an Emily Dickinson and withdraw from the outside world to cut through the ideas that govern my life and separate what I want from someone else’s expectations: “I winnowed what would fade”.

The idea of a time-honored practice of self examination shows up in the first and last stanzas’ use of old English punctuation like “w’d,” and “a’dreaming,” and the personal pronouns “thou,” and “thee.”

But, a very present-day word like “cautious” connotes being on the lookout for dangerous or opportunistic effects to “my little life -”, one that may be tender, vulnerable. I’m tempted also to read “clueless” into this diminutive term for the self. If we’re vigilant/cautious we are watchful for a purpose. So the self in this poem takes on two personas: the one who needs looking after and the one who is circumspect. The cautious one is alert to the dangers and errors that can cause treachery or trickery to the “little life.”

I find it helpful for grasping meaning in “I put the latter in a Barn -” to draw from the final stanza.

“Art thou within the little Barn/Love provided Thee?” Am I synchronized — are my goals/objectives in tune with my inner feelings and personal desires? When “I put the latter (what w’d last) in a Barn -” my brain/barn may not remain in tune with my feelings and personal desires if I mistake society’s or an authoritative-powerful other’s judgment for my own.

For, “…my priceless Hay”, the very trajectory of my life, may lose its bearings, causing me to discover it “Was not upon the “Scaffold” -/Was not upon the “Beam” -”. When I go full speed ahead with a project that I judge to be meaningful in some way only to realize in the course of events that by continuing to give it time and energy I am robbing myself of accomplishment in ventures that express the very essence of me, I must develop a healthy skepticism. “And from a thriving Farmer -/A Cynic, I became.”

All sorts of scenarios play out when I think of “farming my brain” for new words and ways to use them. But, you may ask, are these ways consistent with the brain “Love provided Thee?”

Ponder A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

Postscript: I am indebted to participants in the lively conversation yesterday of the Emily Dickinson International Society Poetry Conversation, which took place at our local library. The comments made and the shared ideas about this poem showed me more than I’d suspected through my solitary reading and sent me on a search for more.

Like many children, when little I was entertained by garrulous motormouths. At some point in late adolescence I started to appreciate those who could concentrate on a topic so as to enjoy a lengthy conversation.  Not long after, I learned self-confidence when I discovered a knack for leading group discussions and that I enjoyed public speaking and performing. Emily Dickinson sets up conversational references in “I fear a Man of frugal speech -” perhaps to comment on the developmental effect of our interaction with others.

I fear a Man of frugal speech –
I fear a Silent Man –
Haranguer – I can overtake –
Or Babbler – entertain –

But He who weigheth – While the Rest –
Expend their furthest pound –
Of this Man – I am wary –
I fear that He is Grand –

My tendency is to rattle on to fill the gaps of silence in the conversation, as described in line one, between me and someone who uses speech very sparingly, frugally.   In the second example, since there’s no conversation possible with “… a Silent Man – ”, I think of a party or group meeting. There’s the inevitable one who sits listening. The only conversation in this instance is the one I have with myself, so I feel compelled to try to “make ’em talk!” Or, heaven forbid there drop a moment of quiet in an otherwise lively exchange of ideas. Then, I’ve more than once jumped at the chance to have my say.

I read the third example as outright funny. “Haranguer – I can overtake -”. What a spectacle it is when I take the bait and get into a contest of insights, opinions and interpretations with someone who confuses their entitlement to beliefs with their right to exist. Fourth, it is probably a sign of a dampened conscience that my mind goes into to cruise control when I’m around naturally loquacious individuals who epitomize the gift of gab: “Or Babbler – entertain – ”.

In stark contrast to circumstances where another’s silence or “frugal speech” prompts thoughtless chatter on my part, in the fifth line, “But He who weigheth – While the Rest – ”, the poem indicates a progression. Perhaps “the rest” is about those of us who talk or say little because reflective or philosophical thinking is forgotten in the anticipations and apprehensions of discussion.

The word fear is used three times in the poem; twice in the first stanza and once in the second. Fear of what I will say when reacting to someone’s silence by blurting the first words that occur to me. Fear of how much smarter they might be than me. Akin to the fear of the unknown, these conversational lapses remind me that nothing is foreordained. Surely fear in the sense of respect, too, for one who keeps his own counsel when others, “Expend their furthest pound -”, put all they can into convincing others, or showcasing their own cleverness.

In young children it is endearing when bravado and bragging enter into their language and behavior. As Erikson’s “stages of psychosocial development” describe it, 2 to 3-year-olds will either enjoy autonomy or feel shame and doubt; ages 4 to 6 will exhibit self-motivation or guilt; diligence or inferiority will typify childhood from 7 to 11. Autonomy, self-motivation and diligence in these ages is easy to recognize in little babblers and haranguers.

Whether I interpret wary and fear in the final, “Of this Man – I am wary -/ I fear that He is Grand -”, as dread or esteem depends on whether I have found any grandeur in my own life and being – my motivations and responsibilities. And, whether I have the power to experience sympathetic understanding in all kinds of conversations.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I’ve been looking at quite a few websites devoted to Halloween recently. A recurring theme is of being trapped, locked inside a haunted house or other creepy place.  On some level we must all be claustrophobic. Emily Dickinson uses that spooky dread to call attention to a private “trap” that is a feature of the human species in, “A single Screw of Flesh”.

A single Screw of Flesh
Is all that pins the Soul
That stands for Deity, to mine,
Opon my side the Vail –

Once witnessed of the Gauze –
Its name is put away
As far from mine, as if no plight
Had printed yesterday,

In tender – solemn Alphabet,
My eyes just turned to see –
When it was smuggled by my sight
Into Eternity –

More Hands – to hold – These are but Two –
One more new-mailed Nerve
Just granted, for the Peril’s sake –
Some striding – Giant – Love –

So greater than the Gods can show,
They slink before the Clay,
That not for all their Heaven can boast
Will let its Keepsake – go

In the first stanza there’s a dichotomy set up between “…Flesh (and) … the Soul”; body and spirit. There is ample room for me to speculate that Dickinson has no need for metaphysics, if I prefer to think of this as the me that others know versus the me I know myself to be.

I might mention here that some editors have changed “vail” to “veil” in this poem, where vail in, “Opon my side the Vail – ”, is judged as a figure of speech for a lady’s hat. But, there’s an old English usage of vail that fits perfectly if we want the word to carry the metaphor for contradicting energies. That is because vail, meaning “take off one’s hat or otherwise show respect or submission to someone” leaves a more universal, i.e. males included, application. I think, too, it lines up with Dickinson’s suggestion of my spirit being obliged to submit to the confines of physicality. I have a picture of a proud competent spirit/servant showing respect, with eyes cast downward, that the body/employer will have the last word.

My experience is often of feeling my soul’s identity is obscured because, “Its name is put away” by the actions I pursue. The hungers, angers, dreams and ambitions that are “As far from mine, as if no plight / Had printed yesterday,” when writing one line took hours. Hours.

Did you ever see a better analysis of the effort taken to be known in all my best intentions, as opposed to what others – family, friends, lovers, bosses – interpret? “In tender – solemn Alphabet,” – so much care, so much deliberateness in tackling a role, or a project. Only to do a one-eighty, “My eyes just turned to see – / When it was smuggled by my sight / Into Eternity – ” never to be the success I imagined.

But, no matter. There are always, “More Hands – to hold – These are but Two -”. Perhaps the point is not, after all, to succeed. Perhaps the chase to find a reconciliation of my flesh and my identity-as-I-know-it is, “Just granted, for the Peril’s sake – ”.  Why didn’t I think of it myself?  “Some striding – Giant – Love -…So greater than the Gods can show,” is an over-arching principle.

The struggle I find myself in at this point is to accept that there is a greater truth than spirit or body, soul or flesh – even if it is Love – that great, long striding Giant. And, that like a memento of an adventurous trip, spirit will be a souvenir put away in deference to the authority of the fixed number of years I’m given.  And, “slink before the Clay, /That not for all their Heaven can boast / Will let its Keepsake – go”.


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

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

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