They’re all busy
opening the sticky packages
our butternut’s hung out
while I am writing poems
on the grass,
both of us scratching away,
making a general mess of things,
and having the time
of our lives.
Lately I’ve been studying Emily Dickinson. I’ve read biographies and novels about her and spent days pouring over her poems. Like many who encounter Dickinson, I find her maddeningly enigmatic. She never married, spent all her life close to home, and in the second half became so reclusive she claimed she never stepped off the family property. Yet her poetry is universal in scope and displays such rare sophistication and insight it’s hard not to conclude it comes from wide-ranging experience. How is this possible?
Emily Dickinson is considered by many to be the greatest American poet. But during her lifetime only a handful of people knew she wrote poetry at all. In her later years she shared some of her poems in her correspondence. But she kept at least two-thirds of them – about 1,300 – completely secret even from family and friends. And near the end of her life she ordered her maid to burn them after her death.
Some of these secret poems are now her most frequently quoted, including “Because I could not stop for Death,” “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” And – intriguingly – the poem “This is my letter to the World.”
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me
This is one of the poems preserved in the forty booklets Dickinson made by copying selected poems onto folded sheets of paper and sewing them together with string. These packets – later called “fascicles” – have been the subject of extensive Dickinson scholarship since the early 20th century. Handwriting analysis has enabled scholars to order them chronologically. “This is my letter to the World” is the 14th poem in the 24th fascicle.
The first two lines can be read as the grief of a writer who was never recognized in her lifetime. But if Dickinson wanted recognition, why did she keep the bulk of her work secret? Why does the poet caution against judgement if she offered nothing to judge?
Maybe context will help. Some scholars who study this poem have looked at the poems surrounding it in the fascicle and suggest the secret “news” is ominous. In the poems before and after death is ever-present, and bliss is pierced by annihilation.
Did the poet intend a hidden, darker meaning? Is she commenting on the very nature of secrets? Is she writing about some specific event that happened to her or to someone she knew? Or is the whole scenario of the poem a work of her imagination? With Dickinson’s poems I’m always left with questions.
Part of Dickinson’s genius as a poet is the way she weaves paradox and contradictions and questions into the fabric of her work. Which shouldn’t surprise me since they also make up the fabric of her life.
From here, it looks like Dickinson’s letter to the world is one long and rapturous question.
Okay, I admit it – lately I’ve become addicted to Gilmore Girls. It wasn’t on my radar when the original series was broadcast in the early 2000’s. And I wasn’t sufficiently appreciative when my son pointed out the town set in 2010 when he was showing me around LA. But when the recent sequel A Year in the Life dropped on Netflix around Christmas last year my visiting daughter and daughter-in-law eagerly watched it, and drew me in. I wasn’t exactly wowed, but my curiosity was spurred to take a look at the original series and after a few episodes I was hooked.
Many things initially annoyed me about the characters, especially the mother-daughter role reversal and Lorelai’s over-indulgent and often juvenile approach to child-rearing. Yet when I finished an episode it wasn’t long before I wanted to watch the next one. And then the next. It’s become my latest guilty pleasure.
But it’s a guilty pleasure with a hair shirt. Even as I relish the fast-paced, smart dialogue and Lauren Graham’s remarkable acting prowess in portraying the wounded vulnerability of the flawed and charming Lorelai, I get annoyed. Not by the characters or the sometimes silly plot lines or even the stereotypes of rich and working class characters. I can put up with all that. It’s the inaccurate details that get to me.
The series is set in a fictional town in Connecticut and in nearly every episode there’s at least one detail related to the setting that’s wrong. These inaccuracies probably wouldn’t bother me at all if the series was set in a region I wasn’t intimately familiar with. But it’s set in New England, where I’ve lived most of my life, so each time a detail doesn’t ring true, it jerks me out of the story.
In my writing I take the details very seriously. I go to great lengths to keep it real enough so that anyone who’s personally familiar with the setting won’t find the novel jarring. I spend years researching details. Perhaps I’m too obsessive. But I want to avoid doing anything to “break the spell” of the novel I’m trying to bring to life on the page.
Most of these Gilmore Girls details I’m grumbling about are small, it’s true. Such as affixing a “the” to the interstate number, e.g. “the 95” instead of simply saying “95” as every New Englander does. Or winter scenes in which snow falls on fully-leafed out trees. Or a character complaining that it’s too cold to be outside because it’s forty degrees. They don’t have an impact on the plot lines or the wonderful dialogue. And maybe most viewers don’t even notice – let alone care.
But it happened again yesterday when I watched an episode that was supposed to take place on Valentine’s Day. The main characters took a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod. And though they wore hats and jackets, the lawns were all bright green, the trees were fully leafed out, there were flowering plants on the patio and sailboats plying the water, and the characters had supper outside on a deck overlooking the ocean. Supposedly in the middle of February. On an island off Cape Cod that a month ago (in 2017) was digging out after getting a foot of snow. All wrong!
Sometimes there’s nothing to do but laugh.
Okay, now that I’ve ranted, I feel better. I’m going to continue watching the rest of the series. Then I plan to re-watch the sequel to catch its nuances. And I expect to enjoy it. I’ll try not to let the inaccurate details bother me. Instead, when they pop up, I’ll think of my son, who’s lived in LA long enough to consider 40 degrees “cold.” And who recently attended a party on the Warner Brothers lot, complete with gently falling fake snow.
My parents were married during World War II and I was born a few years after it ended, which makes me a Boomer. My generation has often been unfavorably compared with our parents’ generation. We’re often portrayed as self-absorbed, narcissistic, and materialistic. Sometimes we were called the “Me” generation. On the other hand, we were generally idealistic, optimistic, and remarkably lucky. We were the beneficiaries of sustained economic growth, and incredible scientific and pharmaceutical advances. We were shaped by the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. We questioned everything.
We grew up in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt. He was both revered and reviled. The two sides of my family held opposing views of his presidency, so for many years I was confused about how to think about him. When I was quite young the animosity was so strong on the paternal side that some relatives elected to call my mother “Ellen” rather than her given name. “Eleanor” reminded them of Eleanor Roosevelt whose only crime seemed to be that she had married Franklin.
My mother’s family, on the other hand, was generally favorable toward the Roosevelts and particularly admiring of Eleanor’s accomplishments. (My mother dearly loved her in-laws and never objected, in my hearing at least, to being renamed.) Eventually I formed my own view of the Roosevelts based on what I learned in my reading and studies. My political coming-of-age was during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which were exciting and tumultuous times, so Roosevelt was tucked in the distant background of my consciousness. In my mind, his administration belonged to my parents.
But his words have become starkly relevant to me as I’ve reflected on our current social and political climate. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he proclaimed in his first inaugural address during the depths of the Great Depression. How I wish we had political leaders who could inspire us with that kind of courage and optimism! But to me it seems that from every side most of what we’re hearing today is aimed at stoking fear.
But in my experience the American people, for all our faults, are not cowardly or pessimistic. We don’t like consuming fear with our morning coffee. At our best we are helpful and generous. Even us Boomers. So maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Maybe it’s not our leaders we need to be listening to right now.
Maybe it’s our neighbors.
I love to poke around old graveyards. Partly because they’re often located in beautiful places, but mostly because they’re full of stories. Real-life stories short enough on details to give my imagination a work-out.
In the second half of the 19th century graveyards were often favorite spaces to spend leisure time. People took afternoon walks in cemeteries, visiting loved ones and even picnicking amid the stones. Some cemeteries, such as Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts and Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were designed by famous landscapers and architects, to maximize the experience for visitors.
But it’s the stories I come for. I could see them all as sad stories, I suppose, since they’ve all ended in death – sometimes after many decades, sometimes after just a few weeks. Some of the most poignant stories can be read in the graves of children, sometimes more than one in the same family. Reading the dates may hint at an epidemic that swept through the entire town. It’s not unusual to find consoling or admonitory verses on 19th century stones – sometimes excerpts from old hymns, or original poems written to memorialize the individual buried there. Once in a while the words indicate the cause of death. I’ve seen gravestones stating the deceased was killed in an explosion while digging a well, and one who was described traveling to restore his health only to die in Italy.
But I don’t think they’re all sad. There’s so much more than death there – there’s faith and hope in the words and the engravings. And love. That’s what comes through to me with the most power. The love.
Whenever I visit a graveyard I come away feeling overwhelmed by all the stories. I’m aware that beneath each stone lies the remains of what was once a living, breathing human being, a person whose life – whether long or cut short by illness or accident – profoundly touched other lives. A person who was loved.
I recently saw a photo of my great-grandfather as an infant, a man I never knew, and in fact knew very little about. Sitting beside him in the perambulator is his twin sister, who died at the age of two, probably not long after the photo was taken.
I imagine her death affected my grandfather and it surely affected his parents. Her short life became part of the family story that came down to me in subtle ways I wasn’t even aware of. I’ve never visited her grave. I don’t even know where she’s buried. But I kind of hope that at some point a stranger walked by her stone and stopped long enough to try to read her story.
Since childhood I’ve associated snowstorms with books. On those winter days when the roads were so slick with ice and snow that school was cancelled, I could look forward to an unscheduled day of doing what I loved best – reading. The anticipation was delicious. There was nothing better than spending a whole day lost in a novel, encountering new places and situations, deeply engaged in a world of the writer’s imagining. That little shiver of happiness revisits me to this day whenever we’re a little bit snowbound.
This morning, I stood at our living room window watching the snow fall. It was light snow, falling fast – the kind that usually lasts all day and accumulates. The kind that’s perfect for curling up on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee. I felt that familiar delicious shiver, thinking of the books on my (long) TBR list.
The snowplow hadn’t come through yet and there was no one out and about. Then, perhaps because it was so quiet and lovely as the snow accumulated on the trees surrounding our home, I thought of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.”
It’s one of those poems I can’t remember not knowing. One I memorized as a child and one that’s easy to remember because of its lyrical cadence. On the surface it paints a Currier-and-Ives-like portrait of a man driving his horse and buggy home at twilight and seeing snow fall on his neighbor’s woodlot. It’s a poem that’s a favorite of American English teachers at all levels and it’s been analyzed and dissected for hidden meaning countless times. But the line that kept running through my head was “To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
That’s what I did this morning. Like Frost, I just stood still and watched the woods fill up with snow. I forgot about the books I wanted to read. Time disappeared, along with the day’s agenda, and all the cares and concerns I usually carry around with me. There was just the snow gently falling. And peace slowly filling my heart.
Like many I’m heartbroken by the direction our nation appears to be taking in the recent presidential election. In my distress I’ve turned to faith and poetry for solace. These have been touchstones for me all my life. And, as always, they’ve helped put things in perspective.
I’ve also been reading blogs and op-ed pieces that offer various viewpoints – from calls to protect the socially vulnerable, to reminders this nation is filled with good people who genuinely want what’s best for themselves and their neighbors.
Feelings are raw and fraught with surprise – and fatigue – after the absurdly long and intense election season. (It’s impossible not to notice the parallels to a carefully scripted reality TV show.) And it’s still too early to predict how this will all shake out. So I hesitate to offer any wisdom on the situation, especially having been so very wrong in my assumptions about the election itself.
However, one thing is pretty clear: people want change. Americans are not happy with the status quo. Part of that may be baked into our DNA – we’re mostly a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants willing to risk hardship and even death for the possibilities of a better life. At heart, we’re gamblers.
But change, for all its appeal, is painful to live through. The next four years will test our national character. And while I’d like to believe we Americans will meet that challenge and come out stronger and more united, I don’t think that scenario’s inevitable. It will take work on both sides – and lots of it – to get there.
I’m a writer who steeps myself every day in American history. I go deep and I’ve found over the last three decades that the deeper I go the more complex and messy it gets. It’s often hard to ferret out useful “lessons” from history, no matter how often we’re cautioned to learn from it.
But when I come up for air and try to take the long view on what’s happening I think maybe what we’re going through is the shattering of colonialism. It has a long, global history and is an integral element in the founding and policies of the United States. It will take a long, long time for it to die. And there will no doubt be a lot of ugliness and suffering along the way. But a better, more just and equitable world could emerge.
And maybe I’m wrong. My track record hasn’t been very good this week when it comes to seeing the future.
But I do think it’s in our nature to hope. And I know — from experience as well as faith — that good can come out of evil, that new life can emerge from death, and that the end is not the end.
That’s what resurrection means.