What are the chances? I chose a poem yesterday by flipping randomly through the pages of my book. Didn’t like what I came up with so waited a day and tried again. Random flipping, random flipping, and asking: “Emily, what do you want to tell me today?” Yep, the same poem came to hand again. She is relentless, this woman. Here it is:
#586, c. 1862
We talked as Girls do —
Fond, and late —
We speculated fair, on every subject, but the Grave —
Of ours, none affair —
We handled Destinies, as cool —
As we — Disposers — be —
And God, a Quiet Party
To our Authority —
But fondest, dwelt upon Ourself
As we eventual — be —
When Girls to Women, softly raised
We — occupy — Degree —
We parted with a contract
To cherish, and to write
But Heaven made both, impossible
Before another night.
When Emily writes, “We talked as Girls do” she means something more than a frank discussion of our favorite shoes. She points to the innocent arrogance of young, smart girls. We think we are in charge of our lives, while God listens silently. Makes me think of the proverb, “Man proposes. God disposes.” Except that here Emily claims the power of the disposer. God is the silent partner. He quietly dispatches while we girls, with the folly of youth, plan our futures as we grow to be the women we imagine.
The promise to cherish and to write is also awfully girlish. Something happens in the lives of young girls, their relationships to each other, their awareness of their ability to create with their words and their love, that makes them feel wondrous and powerful. And Em here dwells on the cruelty of denying that.
The part that moves me most deeply is, “talk as Girls do”. The phrase assumes so much, as if Girls are a well known, well studied and documented species. That one can consolidate their discourse to a shorthand. You know how girls are. How they do go on.
What pains me is the truth of this assumption. I recognize it immediately. Emily honors the innocent arrogance of girls, not merely their youth but their gender as well. Girls, in Em’s view, have a special fondness for this feeling of direction and creativity over their own destiny. A direction born out of an ability to imagine and articulate the future. These girls “speculate fair”. There is no ground they can’t traverse within the fruitful fields of their imaginative conversation. And that’s the center of it right there—the magic for girls is in the sharing of the ideas.
The other thing that girls do like nobody’s business is make promises to cherish each other. And to write! Absolutely one must write! Girls have to communicate or they don’t exist. (Cell phones were devised with girls in mind.) Writing, speaking, sharing, cherishing—all this is how girls stay alive. Transferring information. Constantly.
And when girls make a promise to cherish each other and remain connected through words, it’s a promise for real and for good. I am remembering my best friend from childhood, Helene. I usually went away during the summers, and we wrote pages and pages of letters to each other. Helene signed her letters, “friend always.” She is the only person in the world for whom those words actually mean what they say. Helene is still my friend. She will not let me go, no matter how much time or distance there is between us. She wrote “friend always” about 35 years ago. And she has made good on that promise.
In Emily’s poem nothing could put a stop to the promise made between these two girls but the will of Heaven itself. Only God, the eavesdropper, who silently allows the girls to go on about their imaginary authority over their own lives, can put a stop to it. And He does. Without a word. He takes Emily’s friend away without an explanation. He doesn’t have to explain. He’s God.
Emily’s tone here is indulgent toward girls and their belief in themselves, but she is not patronizing. She believes in their talk and their promises. She also sounds angry. It’s not fair to give girls all that power to imagine and speak, and then take it all away. Not fair at all. Downright mean, in fact.
Another proverb comes to mind: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I have always thought this was a gentle reminder to be humble in the face of time and change. Now I hear it more as a cruel joke.