Tag Archives: Winter Solstice

A Birthday Is the Thing With Feathers

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday.  She is 182 years old.  Here is the poem that came to hand this morning.

#1228

So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
That there must be a Heaven
If only to enclose the Saints
To Affidavit given.

The Missionary to the Mole
Must prove there is a Sky
Location doubtless he would plead
But what excuse have I?

Too much of Proof affronts Belief
The Turtle will not try
Unless you leave him — then return
And he has hauled away

A birthday is the thing with feathers. So much to say now. I’ll try to encompass it all, as we move deeper into the winter dark.  First an update:  The weather is springy warm and humid.  The Saints lost yesterday.  The end of the world is nigh.  Not necessarily because the Giants killed the pants off the Saints, 52 to 27.  Yet, surely these facts must have some meaningful resonance with each other.  I couldn’t help myself.  I was depressed and declared that the dwindling days of the Mayan calendar and the Saints’ abysmal performance are energetically linked . . . somehow.  Then it was time for dinner.  Pizza and beer helped my mood.  I also had to ask Geoff, “What spiritual lesson do we take from this game?”  He hates spiritual lessons and would not answer.   He was even more depressed than I was.  After dinner, several hours after I asked the question, he did finally answer it.  I’m paraphrasing here:  The lesson is that however bad it feels when the Saints lose, it’s never so terrible that you cannot recover and look forward with some optimism, a little joy.  Of course, by “forward” we mean next season, not the next game.  This season is cooked.  And that “look” will have to draw on the deepest stores of renewal and fundamental faith in the simple ideas:  Onward, practice, figure it out, and try again.  Try again.  And then try again.

Now for the poem.  Honest, I did choose this one at random.  The Saints line jumped out on its own.  The stanza at the end holds me.  “Too much of Proof affronts Belief.”  The literalness of the physical world diminishes our capacity to strive toward the fuller development of our Self.  We won’t do it without that ever receding thing we call faith.  (Faith in what, you ask?  Oh, I don’t know—honor, dignity, fairness, goodness, that seamless connection on the long pass out of the shotgun, the poetry of beauty that works.)  If the things we want to believe in announce themselves in the world as if produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, we’d scoff at these as too literal.  Paradoxically something seems less spiritually True if we can see it as literally true.

So those things we believe in or have faith in—whatever it is, doesn’t have to be God—such ephemera make us get up in the morning and try to accomplish tasks greater than merely maintaining bodily existence.  In order to draw this effort from us, these ephemera must remain slightly unknown, just beyond the limit of the mind’s capacity to comprehend.  If these ephemera that ask for our faith appeared in concrete totality, so we could see all the sides, top and bottom, then we would not accept them as worthy of our faith.  And the engine loses its drive to exist.

Emily plays with the mind’s ability to set its own impossible tasks.  Human survival requires that we try for something that will never be realized.  That’s the job that keeps our blood circulating.  So this is not idle poetic meandering to formulate such ephemera as honor, dignity, fairness, goodness . . . the hope for that perfect long pass.  These are deliberately elusive.  Suggested without complete realization.  (It takes imagination to love the Saints; you have to be able to see things that may never exist.  Imagination feeds the human life force as much as pizza and beer.)  The power of the unproven outcome to simulate our life force is counter-intuitive, but it works.  Now, you’d want to build a house on a solid four-square foundation, such that you can see all the physical aspects and know it has structural integrity, in order to trust that foundation to hold up your house.  Conversely to build a life, you’d start with a foundation made from a concept (honor goodness dignity) that never fully reveals itself.  You must place your faith here without compete proof that it exists.  Human existence rests on the continuing puzzle of unverifiable existence.

Thank you Emily and happy birthday.  I am so happy that you exist.

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The Seed of Noon

Winter Solstice tonight—time for darkness and contemplation, waiting.  We pause at the turning point before embarking on the long return to summer.  Emily holds a splinter of light and asks: Where does it point?   What is the path it wants to illuminate? Not the whole path, just the beginning.  It begins with a song.

#250, c. 1861

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes —
Each — with a Robin’s expectation —
I — with my Redbreast —
And my Rhymes —

Late — when I take my place in summer —
But — I shall bring a fuller tune —
Vespers — are sweeter than Matins — Signor —
Morning — only the seed of Noon —

Sound brought the universe into existence and so does everything else come to life with sound.  When we speak an intention or desire, that begins it.  “I love . . . I want . . . Why don’t we?  Would you . . . Will you?” All these sounds lead to trouble and change.  The ground shifts because someone says, “I want.”

Emily does something a little out of character here when she writes: “I take my place in summer . . . ”  which pleases me.  She announces her right to occupy space.  She is a fully realized person of weight and substance.  That “I take” borders on aggression, assertion certainly.

Then at the end in the direct address to “Signor” her tone dials back from the hungry tigress to the coquette.  “Vespers are sweeter than Matins . . .”  She veils her energy in a pretty and holy metaphor.  By the time we get to the end of the poem, however, it’s too late.  No one can mistake the fierce woman behind the flirty words.  She has already tipped her hand.  She may soften her note to persuade, rather than frighten.  But this Signor faces a woman of appetite.  He should be so lucky.

What is she up to?  Emily sings in celebration of the late harvest, the fuller tune of that mature season of summer that comes after the callow, youthful spring.  Furthermore, her song lasts forever, long after the Robins have been silenced by age, death, winter.  The song that Emily sings onto the page is informed by the intelligence of a long life and all the shocks that give her voice dimension and timbre, the story beneath the song.  This song is sweeter because it is more interesting, complex, veined with an awareness of death, thus more sustaining.  Em says that time has made her the better lover.  Her song isn’t kidding around. Signor is an idiot if he doesn’t recognize the value of that.

Tonight for the solstice, I’ll make a meal—not sure what yet, but something good.  Then we will have grilled figs, our own late harvest.  We’ll light the candles on the Christmas tree, and sit in the darkness to watch the small flame flicker against its opposite.  We’ll do all that just to know what it looks like to hold a light in the dark.  We will complete these gestures, as we do every year, to see our hope external and playing shadows on the wall.

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New Figs in Winter

Good morning.  Today is Emily’s 181st birthday, and there was a total lunar eclipse.  It might have been somewhat visible in our sky at about 6:00 a.m.  But I slept through it.  Chances are it would have been covered by clouds anyway.  The day is gray and cold.  Here are Emily’s prescient remarks:

#415, c. 1862

Sunset at Night — is natural —
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature — Master —
So Midnight’s — due — at Noon.

Eclipses be — predicted —
And Science bows them in —
But do one face us suddenly —
Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.

The poem gives us a solar eclipse, not quite consonant with today’s weather, but I’ll take it.  The “Sunset on the Dawn” is the line I like.  She points to an eclipse, which darkens the sun just at the time that we expect it to be most bright, as a reversal of Nature.  Yet it can happen and often does.  Eclipses occur all the time.  We know about these events and what causes them.  Yet the eclipse still touches some atavistic fear that the sun may be dying and the world coming to an end.  In our primitive reactive lizard brain, nature is perverted when the sun doesn’t do what we expect.

Given that we see eclipses happening all the time, albeit not often, wouldn’t that make it “natural” insofar as it does happen in nature?  Apparently not. Astronomers map out eclipses well into the future in their star charts.  They always know what is happening out there and calendar celestial movements with mathematical precision.  Even with all that comforting information, these events still arouse an old anxiety about the correct order of things.

The eclipses that change us, that reverse Nature, are the ones we didn’t predict.  Here Emily means “eclipse” more broadly as a sudden change, something gone, or something returned.  I want to ask what makes one thing a product of Nature and another a reversal of Nature?   If it happens in the physical world then that is Nature doing its work, right?  If it surprises us or “face one suddenly” that is only because we have not yet fully understood our Nature.  These unexpected “eclipses” that Emily suggests serve only to reveal the unseen parts of ourselves.

I particularly enjoy her blasphemy at the end:  “Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.”  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio . . .  Jehovah’s Watch is Adam and all the humans that descended from him.  The human body and mind comprise the watch tower that houses Jehovah’s presence.  Emily says that Jehovah’s Watch is wrong.  Not Jehovah.  She does not presume to know the mind of God.  But she is willing to dismantle the bricks of the self-appointed watch tower—those fallible humans who have missed a few turns in the road along the way.

She is not willing to genuflect to Science, either.  There are a few things that the astronomers failed to predict or explain.  For Emily the truth is in the middle, in that tension between faith and knowledge, where the foreground and background shift past each other in a constant optical illusion.   The middle ground where poems rest.

Speaking of reversals of Nature . . . my fig tree gave me five ripe figs this morning.  Here we are on the cusp of the Winter Solstice and my silly fig tree, who apparently can’t tell time, has decided to bear new fruit.  Geoff’s fig tree (which I gave him—everyone I love should have a fig tree) has also fruited spontaneously and mysteriously in this early winter.

I was thrilled to receive these fruits, no matter how unnatural their arrival.  The pickings in Summer are usually slim because those idiot Blue Jays eat all my figs before I can get to them.  The birds can spot the ripening blush sooner than I do, which makes sense—they’re more invested.

In any case, my answer is Yes!  I will take this late harvest.  The figs are fat and sweet.  Perhaps a little tougher than what I’d get in July.  Still, this fruit will feed me just fine.

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