Tag Archives: grace

A Gnat’s Horizon

Happy Birthday to me and we are up to our eyeballs in blueberries. Geoff and I went blueberry picking last weekend and brought home three gallons. We gave away a lot but that still leaves us with enough blueberries to last us pretty much for the rest of the summer. I made blueberry waffles this morning. There will be crepes tomorrow morning with ricotta and . . . berries that are blue. I imagine a cobbler off in the distance. Muffins too. Good thing I like blueberries.

Emily sends a peculiar birthday greeting for me.

#372, ca. 1862

I know lives, I could miss
Without a Misery —
Others — whose instant’s wanting —
Would be Eternity —

The last — a scanty Number —
‘Twould scarcely fill a Two —
The first — a Gnat’s Horizon
Could easily outgrow —

Whew! Cold-hearted Emily. She begins and ends the poem with a reference to the expendable people. The center few lines describe the people (all two of them) whose lives matter to her. So the poem’s main concern is to let us know that there are lots of people around who could drop dead and Emily wouldn’t mind too terribly. Was she just in a bad mood when she wrote this? Or just a brutally honest mood? I suspect the latter.

Only in the privacy of her poem could her cold knife of a mind do its work. That means telling the unvarnished truth. Emily can’t be bothered with most people because most of them are, let’s be honest, dreadful. Dogs are better.

Her tone is not nasty or defensive. I do not get a sense of the wounded idealist huddling behind a show of toughness. No, Emily really truly can do without most people. And she did exactly that. You have to admire her consistency and conviction. The poem also makes me wonder what did a person have to do or be in order to enjoy the privilege of Emily’s care. I suspect there was no clear set of credentials. I imagine Em would just look you over, divine the content of your Soul, and then most likely put you out on the doorsill when it became clear (to her) that said Soul lacked sufficient substance. Or if your Soul emanated enough of what the poet wanted in her presence, perhaps she’d offer you a glass of sherry and gingerbread. The standard for entrance into the poet’s select society was whether she could use you. If your Soul offered the light and material grace for her to feel inspired by your presence, then you were allowed to stay.

Make no mistake: Emily stands at the doorway. She doesn’t have to explain or justify who gets in and who stays out. There is no point in cajoling or flirting with her either. She sees right through you. In fact, that is the worst thing you could do. In order to get across this threshold, you have to do the hardest things in the world. Be genuine and brave and risk everything. Good luck.


Filed under Emily Every Day

The Force of Happiness

Today a marathon is running through my neighborhood. Lance and I watched the lead runners pass the 14-mile mark. The lead female runners—two unbearably skinny women—one right on the heels of the other, came just a couple of minutes after the lead male runners. The gap is closing fast. They were all running sub-five-minute miles.

When I watch these elite runners go by, it seems I am in the presence of super humans. The cyclists buzz all around the front runners to make sure nothing happens to their delicate ankles on the course, I guess. The guys on bikes have to pound just to keep up with the athletes on foot.

I enjoy watching these elite runners because they run on ordinary streets in my ordinary neighborhood. It’s a very different experience than seeing the Olympic downhill skiers race on TV. Or even being in the Dome for a Saints game. In the latter example, although I am technically seeing these athletes in person (definitely more exciting than TV), there is so much distance, noise, people, equipment, rows and rows of stands, cameras, coaches staff, between us that we might as well be on different planets. In those instances I don’t get a lived sense of the athlete in the way I do when I stand on Esplanade Avenue at 8:00 in the morning and see a sinewy man run really fast. His quadriceps bunch, the sweat flies from his chin, his face twists in a grimace. Is it ecstasy? Pain? Hard to be sure, but it’s definitely something out of ordinary human experience. He moves at such a clip that the men on bikes have to hustle to keep pace, and I have to drink in every detail of his exertion in a flash that goes so fast, I almost wonder if I really saw it.

Esplanade Avenue is mostly empty, save for me, Lance and a man taking pictures as he waits for his wife, running in the half-marathon to come by. She will arrive much later in the pack. Most of the people who live on Esplanade Avenue are still asleep, I imagine, or just pouring their coffee. They may never know that some of the fastest men and women in the world have just run past their sleepy bedroom windows. I am reminded of the purity in a good run. You don’t need anything but a pair of sneakers, the road, two good legs . . . decent weather would be nice.

Humans in motion. No, I mean super humans in motion. I can make an effort to finish a 10K without dying. That makes me merely human. When I watch these magical, ropy, ephemeral creatures, I witness a moment of grace. There I see what may be possible in human form. (Not my human form, mind you.) These runners display something extraordinary. They vaguely resemble us fellow humans, our general shape. We have the same number of arms and legs. Yet, they transcend the regular definition of being human. They defy physics and overturn the usual expectation we have of our bodies. They leave us onlookers momentarily amazed. “Look!” is all we can say and point. Quick, before this grace passes. You can miss it, if you’re not paying attention.

Here is a note from Emily.

#787, c. 1863

Such is the Force of Happiness —
The Least — can lift a Ton
Assisted by its stimulus —

Who Misery — sustains —
No Sinew can afford —
The Cargo of Themselves —

Too infinite for Consciousness’
Slow capabilities.

Emily says, and I agree, that super humans, like those running at the front of the marathon, transcend ordinary physical limits because they have contacted something non-physical. Or extra-physical. Emily calls it happiness. The force of happiness makes a person super human. Anything is possible once the mind finds joy. Or as Huggy Bear once said on “Starsky and Hutch” (my favorite TV show when I was a kid), “When the spirit is willing, the flesh can do all sorts of groovy things.” I don’t know if the philosophy of Huggy Bear was informed by a close reading of Dickinson’s work. I do know that happiness has as much power in the world as a gun, or a car crash, or an earthquake.

The only note I’d add here is that we tend to think of happiness as an accident that happens to us, rather than something we actively create on our own. Thus we remain powerless and weak in despair when considering happiness and its force in the world. In that brain wrinkle, happiness is something that happens to other people, if they’re lucky.

Then I see a runner like the ones I saw today. They get that way by putting on their shoes every day and hitting the road. Happiness or the state of being super human is a practice. It is a cultivated state that accumulates force over time, preparing the body to receive that grace. Unanticipated grace is the other part of this equation, sublime and quickly passing. When a habit of mind meets a world disposed toward movement, anything is possible. You have to be ready.

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Newest Grace

I can’t think about anything but the Super Bowl right now. Sure, we just elected a new mayor (at last!), and I have to make a sweet potato/turnip casserole for the party. And then there are the sundry Sunday chores to do around the house. Yet, I cannot hold a sensible thought beyond the game this afternoon. What has happened to me? I used to have my head straight. Now I’m a Saints fan.

Emily doesn’t care about the Saints or football, for that matter. Not really. She pretends to go along with the tide of enthusiasm, but I know she’d rather dither in the garden with a Bee.

# 896, c. 1864

Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee
His service to the newest Grace
Present continually

His Suit a chance
His Troth a Term
Protracted as the Breeze
Continual Ban propoundeth He
Continual Divorce

Maybe when she wrote “Breeze” she meant to write “Brees”? Maybe not.

How like a Bee is a man. Or how like a Bee is the masculinized Emily. What is it, Em? Are you the flower? One of many visited by the inconstant bee, who “marries” and “divorces” lightly and often. Or are you, Emily, the one whose shifty heart refuses to remain fixed on one love? The poem does not tell us where she stands in the scene. Nor does the poem tell us what we are supposed to think of a bee whose affections are so unreliable.

The bee is a “traitor”, guilty of pretty flattery (“silken speech”) and offering false footing in relationship (“specious shoe”). Yet he is present to grace continually. That appearance of the word “grace” holds my attention. It is the only wholesome word in the poem. The only inspiration to rise out of the wretched mass of deceit and betrayal and divorce.

Grace. The bee is the agent of grace at every moment. I am still struggling with grace. How to explain it? The best I can do is to describe the space or movement around grace. Grace exists in a spontaneous burst, unsolicited and unanticipated. Grace descends from Heaven, touches us and is gone. We can’t ask for it and can’t hold it. It is the only real gift from God.

Emily says that grace, this ephemeral treasure beyond measure, may come to us by specious means. Do not judge the agent of grace. He may appear as a corrupted form. Untrustworthy trickster, unfaithful, unreliable. No one you’d introduce to your friends. Yet he may bestow the only gift worth having. We may not understand the container that God chooses to deliver grace. That is not ours to evaluate. Nor can we refuse grace if it comes to us by way of a character we do not admire. It would be hubris for us to decide what is the proper form grace should take. Our role in relationship to grace is to receive it. Allow our soul to be pollinated by the visitation, and let it go.


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