My life with Emily Dickinson

How can I have a life with Emily Dickinson? She lived well over a century ago behind gates in Amherst, Mass. I live on the edge of waste beds left by the Allied Chemical Company. Her father served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Mine came in steerage across the Atlantic when he was 12. Her father stocked his shelves with all of her favorite authors – George Eliot, the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. My mother sent me over to the Hazard Branch to get a library card. Her idea of good literature was the 20 volumes of Early Childhood a traveling salesman sold her on the installment plan.

Emily’s father bought her a fine, square piano, which he installed in the parlor for her enjoyment. My mother found a much-used upright for our small parlor and sent me to Mrs. Casey for 50-cent lessons, nine years of lessons, until I could rip off Malagueña with the best of them.

How can I have a life with Emily Dickinson, who disavowed religion when I not only embrace it but also live religious vows? She did sleep in a single bed, though, a nun’s bed, and most likely was celibate, although she took no vow.

Maybe that is where my life with Emily Dickinson begins, in that single bed and in the blank, white inner space where poems poke their insistent fingers, where the Word of God dwells and no one else does or can. Emily Dickinson brings me to the threshold of the eternal, the timeless. We look at the same sky and see the same sun rising a ribbon at a time. We invoke the same Trinity. She signs herself In the name of the Bee, and of the Butterfly and of the Breeze. Amen. I pray In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. My Amen is richer for Emily Dickinson’s metaphors.

Sometimes we both must say to one who would possess us, “I cannot love you because Your Face Would put out Jesus’.” And when God seems silent, verily unimpressed, when we do not know which thy chamber is, we resort to prayer and knocking everywhere. She does it. I do it. She also knows what a joy it is to bake cookies, put them in a basket with a long rope attached and swing the basket from her second floor bedroom to school children down below. I hear their delight when I do the same thing, swing a basket of cookies from an empty second floor classroom down to first grade children below. Same children, same universal squeals.

Same dread when one of those children dies. Death is no respecter of gates or sanctuaries, claiming her beloved eight-year-old nephew, Gib, and my 7-year-old cousin, Ann Marie. And that is just the beginning: aunts and grandparents leave us, friends, then fathers and mothers. So many come to console us, to help ease the heavy heart. All the while, the nerves sit ceremonious and the feet go a wooden way. Emily Dickinson’s grief is my grief when I stand in the rec room of a nursing home holding my mother’s hand. She lies on a broken lawn chair in the clothes I have carefully laundered, her feet in her favorite K-mart shoes. I hold her hand tighter as her breathing slows. Then stops. I cannot stop the stop. I stand frozen in disbelief.

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then stupor – then the letting go.

Of all the books from the Hazard Branch library where my mother sent me, the poetry of Emily Dickinson remains, sustains. It matters not a whit what century she lived in, what gates she lived behind, what domestic help she had, what church she did or did not go to. She is my sister during dark evenings of the brain as well as when joy breaks up my feet and I tip – drunken.

The soul selects her own society and I have chosen Emily Dickinson.

[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. “We were called Sister” (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the CPA.]