Friday, April 12, 2013

Finding God with Emily Dickinson

Poet Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Mass. on December 10, 1830. While she was alive, few people knew her as a poet. In fact, few people knew her. She stayed in the family home for most of her life and was not known as a poet probably because few of her poems were published during her lifetime. In fact, only ten appeared in print during her lifetime, but now we have this 25-poem portion in I told my soul to sing published by Paraclete Press,
Author Kristin LeMay, who teaches writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, sees herself as a good match for "Emily," as she calls her. They seem to have similar likes and dislikes, thoughts and beliefs. Both are poets, both sometimes waver between faith and doubt. LeMay thinks of Emily as "patron saint of all who wrestle with God."
Emily was brought up in a strict, conservative, Calvinistic atmosphere, as her father ruled the family with love and firmness, but probably not much fun and humor. They were in a college town, but Emily had few contacts outside her own family and church. She and her brother Austin were close friends during their growing-up years, and when he married, his father had a home built for him and his wife on the family property. Sister Lavinia, third child, also stayed at home, caring for their mother and the household when their mother became ill.
During those years, there was a lot of pressure from both family and church to "be converted, believe in God." This was after the Great Awakening, 1740 and onward, and many small towns in New England and all over the country felt the pressure to "convert to Christ." As a teenager, Emily attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, then returned home and traveled very little during the rest of her life.
When Emily died at 55, her sister Vinnie found a box full of letters and poems that Emily had written. There were more than 1800 poems and over 1,000 letters. Author LeMay explores her choice of 25 of those poems. She says hers is "not a scholarly account" and she goes on to explain how Emily’s poems and prayers have enriched LeMay’s own spiritual beliefs and helped with her doubts. Emily is very open and vocal about what she thinks about God, nature, believing, doubting, on and on. Over the years her beliefs became more firm and settled, but she still had many moments of doubt, as her poems show.
It’s interesting to watch how Emily’s spiritual life opened up as she became concerned about the people she knew: relatives, friends, and correspondents. She wrote to them with love and offered encouragement and even care where possible. Emily loved to bake and used her ability there to give gifts to those for whom she was concerned. She wrote loving letters to her cousins for instance, and sent them bits of poetry for encouragement. She told them she "cannot pray," but then she did pray throughout her poems.
Emily said it’s okay to borrow words for prayer, so LeMay, when faced with doubts sometimes borrows Emily’s words for her own prayers. LeMay also discovered the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, can be useful for our prayers.
Emily stayed inside her home and gardens. At some point she began to wear white dresses. She avoided talking with people. She did not attend church. Perhaps Emily used her own poetry as a path to conversion. LeMay says that Emily’s poetry was "her means for working out her own salvation." LeMay believes that Emily "never stopped converting, never stopped turning and turning around those questions of life and death."
I am thinking that Emily Dickinson suffered from an ailment that probably was not known in her day, now called Agoraphobia. There are many people who have some of the symptoms, but they probably don’t know what it is nor how to cope with it. Sometimes it begins with a stressful event and over time, the person may consider more and more public places as "out of bounds," until eventually they are confined to their homes. They may have panic attacks and try to avoid that by staying at home. There may be depression. It is a type of anxiety disorder, but there is treatment and Agoraphobia responds well to treatment.
Emily tried to deal with it as best she could, I’m sure. Staying home, writing poetry and letters to her friends, probably all helped. And, we have the gift of her poems and letters. Many thanks to Kristin LeMay for her book. Anyone who appreciates Emily Dickinson should have this book to read, study, compare, question, and enjoy.
—Lois Sibley