Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday. She is 182 years old. Here is the poem that came to hand this morning.
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.
5 responses to “A Birthday Is the Thing With Feathers”
Thank you for the post. Happy Emily Day!
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“Too much of Proof affronts Belief” – I appreciated your thoughts about this poem. So happy that timeless Emily exists, too!
Just found your blog, I’m a writer who just published a middle grade/ya novel that includes some of Emily’s poems, not the most popular thing to write about for that demographic these days, but the words are too valuable to lose
“Too much Proof affronts Belief” is for sure the key line. Methinks it’s Emily’s version of “Methinks he doth protest too much.”
Hi Eiv, Thank you so much for checking in. It was great to meet you and read your blog. You may have noticed that I have not posted on mine in a long time. I let the Emilies hang out there for readers as they find it. best, Constance