Faith and Chance: A Letter to Emily Dickinson

Dear Emily,

I didn’t plant crocuses.

I have nothing against them. I actually adore them – they are the first, fierce little signs of spring, and are always a welcome sight. I should plant some. I would like to. But I didn’t.

I am certain crocuses never grew there because I made that garden from scratch last year. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted a garden. I was living in a new home with my love and his sons, and I was craving solitude. I needed to escape them sometimes, and an outdoor project, a creative, life-giving one was perfect in many ways. It had been a challenging year. I wasn’t well. I wasn’t quite myself. I loved the order of earth in my hands. I felt in control, which I often need. I felt sane and secure and silent.

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It’s funny, Emily, how gardening helped me make sense of my world. It was easy to get lost, to surrender to the simplicity of what I was doing. It is such an act of pure faith, growing something. Especially when you don’t really know what you are doing. I researched, I asked other gardeners, I spent hours at the garden centre and what started as a little idea took over. A front flower box turned into a 20 foot border, which turned into a winding rock bed in the backyard (built after two glasses of wine at 9 pm in the rain), which turned into a flagstone path. My little urge grew and suddenly my small patch of the world was in bloom. I spent the summer in my garden and grew back into myself a little bit. Then, it grew cold. I wrapped my shrubs in burlap and cut things back in time for the frost, and I left it.

Today was the first glorious day  of Spring. I found my gloves and my trowel, took myself down to my garden, and got to work. Under leaves and bits of trash blown in from the street and the twig-dry remnants of last years flowers… was life. It was all there. It was creeping up and out and ready to return to me. I hadn’t planted crocuses. But there, brazenly standing in the midst of the dead forget-me-nots, was this:

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I did not plant it, but it grew.

A garden is full of secrets. We can plant and weed and prune, but we do not know what seeds sneak in, we do not know what gifts will be revealed, with or without our willingness to receive them. You know this. You were a gardener. You had a gift and knowledge of flowers that I am only learning, and you often sent gifts of posies to dear ones with little verses attached. Your verses were gifts, and only as part of something larger – a bouquet, a letter. No doubt they were carefully created and thought upon, but it is possible that much in the way I see myself as a garden enthusiast, rather than a real gardener, you may not have regarded yourself as a real poet.
Many of your papers were destroyed after your death, at your request. Many, but not all. It is clear you were a passionate and deeply intelligent person. You were educated, you were among the first educated American women. You were lucky to be a product of the Massachusetts in the mid 1800s society paved my Emerson and Thoreau that opened the doors of existentialism. Despite your Puritan upbringing, you were able to become quite well read. You loved Shakespeare, the Brontes (it blows my mind to think of you, so far away from me in time, also being influenced by books that I have read and loved. Ah magic, ah reading!) Your father, noticing your affinity for words, bought you books, though he discouraged you from reading them, lest they ‘joggle the mind’. Louisa May Alcott famously said something similar – funny, since she is also of your place and time. Perhaps your progressive society was not so progressive.

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You wrote in secret. This is the incredible thing. You wrote and you wrote and you wrote. Yes, you published perhaps a dozen poems, and yes, you made inquiries and developed long correspondence with admired literary critics, but your name was unknown in the literary world. Oh, it was whispered in your community as you became more and more reclusive, wearing only white clothes, speaking with visitors only from the other side of a closed door. You were as enigmatic in your life as in the single, smirking picture of you.

 

Nowadays, we have labels. Anxiety. Agoraphobia. Depression. We are working to lift stigma. We are becoming accepting of the oddities that you struggled with. You could not even leave your room to attend your father’s funeral in the parlour downstairs. You were obsessed with death, immortality, and yet also so feverishly in love with life. How bittersweet that you lived so little of it.

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You formed strong attachments to men who you identified as ‘teachers’, ‘masters’, you wrote many letters, you put great stock in their opinions of you and your work. It seems you almost enjoyed submitting to them. You were not well able to empower yourself, it seems. You enjoyed guidance. You believed it. You believed it when the few poems you eked out into public were brushed aside, not further encouraged. You knew, though, as we always know, what the most sacred part of you was, in your case, poetry.  While you perhaps lacked the tenacity to push for its manifestation in the real world, you cultivated it so preciously for yourself.

You lived at home with your mother and sister, whom you had made promise would destroy your papers upon your death. When you died after a fairly sudden illness at 55, she went through your things. She found 40 volumes of poetry, each lovingly and meticulously written out, folded and sewn together, containing over 1800 poems between them.

What a find. What a gift!

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You were most productive when withdrawn from society – most prolific when isolated. True, you had passionate, intense friendships mostly through letters, and you formed deeply felt attachments to people. You took it very hard when you lost them, whether through death or other circumstances. But you preferred to be removed. I wonder how you would feel today, when it is so easy to live behind a computer screen. I imagine you would have had an enchanting Instagram account. You might have thrived in this insular, technological world we have now, though you would likely find it sometimes so shrill, so throbbing with life that you would return to your place behind the door, alone in your room. I envy you for that. I do not have a room of my own, a door I can close, and sometimes life, family, even love pulse too hard and I need an escape. There are days I would live better behind the door.

Perhaps you would have published, if you had had the right support, if one of your ‘mentors’ had seen your brilliance. For whatever reason, although you loved your poems enough to bind them into books, you wished to destroy them upon your death. But we don’t always get to choose our legacy. Your sister had them published and you will go down in history as one of the great poets. That’s what happens when you have the faith to plant something. What grows there isn’t up to us.

I will plant some crocuses for you this spring.

 

 

-L

Emily Dickinson 2

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