EMILY DICKINSON and CHRISTMAS
by Melodie Johnson Howe
On this Christmas Day I would like to share a spiritual moment I experienced recently, even though I am not a spiritual person. Funny how many non-spiritual people have spiritual moments, isn’t it?
My friend, Lenore, and I recently drove to Amherst, Massachusetts to visit Emily Dickinson’s house. The great poet lived in an unpretentious brick home that was painted a deep yellow and decorated with green shutters. Trudging through drifts of snow we made our way to the entrance. The door was locked. We began to knock but no one answered. Then I read a sign that said: We are closed after Dec. 6th. I tapped Lenore on the shoulder who was now banging on the door with her fists.
“They’re closed after Dec. 6th.”
She turned to face me. “Well, what’s the date today?”
“I don’t know, but it’s not Dec. 6th.” I was on vacation. Dates, days and time had left my head. “We can’t get in.” I blinked snowflakes from my eyes.
Lenore’s dark hair was covered in a white cap of snow. She espied a lone car in the driveway. “There’s someone in this house. We’ll get in.”
To tell Lenore she can’t do something or have something is like igniting a brush fire. This is woman who bought and sold with the sharks on Wall Street. She has more mink coats than minks do. Now she is retired and one mink coat has been made into a throw for her sofa. And she does what she calls “the Lord’s laundry.” She washes and irons the Corporal, the Purificator, and other altar linens for her local Catholic church. Which she has also redecorated. But her fierceness and doggedness have never taken a day off.
“You must see where Emily wrote, Melodie. You have to see her desk.” She gave the door a few more loud bangs and then shook the door knob. Silence. We tromped around to another entrance and started banging on this new found door. I began to imagine the reclusive Emily Dickinson hiding in her bedroom. Trembling against our loud rapping.
“Lenore, I think we should go.” All ready Emily was slowly coming alive to me. I didn’t want to frighten her.
“You’re going to see this, Melodie.” Lenore was undaunted.
Suddenly the door opened. Startled, we both leapt back. A young woman with a lovely sweet face peered out us. I looked contrite. Before the woman could tell us the obvious — that they are closed for the winter — Lenore began her sales pitch.
“I was here in the spring. And the minute I saw Emily Dickinson’s bedroom I knew my friend had to see it too.”
“I’m sorry but … ”
“She’s a writer.”
I tried to look like a writer.
“I can’t let…”
“It will mean so much to her. You know, an homage.”
“ . . . let you in . . . ”
“She’s come all the way from California to see where Emily Dickinson wrote.”
I tried to look as if I’d walked from Santa Barbara to Vermont.
“That’s how much it means to her. You know how difficult it is to fly these days.”
She smiled at us. “I’ll have to get permission. If you could come back in an hour. I’ll let you know if it’s okay or not.”
In exactly one hour we were inside the house. It was cold and eerily quite. The floor boards creaked as we made our way up the stairs to the top landing. And there in a glass case was the white dress that the very petite Emily often wore. On a cold winter day it looked as fresh as a linen sheet drying in a summer sun. On her long skirt she had sewn a big patch pocket. It was in this pocket that she stuffed her pieces of paper with her ideas jotted on them. The young woman led us into Emily’s bedroom. The three of us treaded softly as if she might be asleep on her narrow Spartan bed. As if we might wake her. A fireplace, long unused, was opposite the bed. And there it was. Under a large sash window was a small unvarnished straight legged table about the size of a bed stand. A plain wooden chair sat in front of it. Emily’s writing desk. It was surprising in its simplicity. There were no drawers, no locked secret places to hide her poems. I thought of the pocket on her dress. I placed my hand on the table and stared out the window over the snowy gardens to her brother’s house. A house where life was lived. This was her view. The table though sturdy, even puritanical, had a softness to the wood as if it might yield under the pressure of a pen.
“How could she create all those poems and not go anywhere?” Lenore asked.
The young woman shrugged. “We don’t have an answer for that.”
But I knew Emily Dickinson was transported through her fears, her longings, her denied love, by a single passion for putting a word to an image, to a feeling. She could travel anywhere on that passion.
I dreaded that first Robin so,
But he is mastered now,
And I’m accustomed to him grown, –
He hurts, a little though.
(from IN SHADOW)
Next to her bed on a stand was a basket. In it were copies of quickly scrawled lines of poetry she had written on the back of butcher paper or whatever was close at hand. I tried to imagine the room with her alive, with a fire going, with the voices of people drifting up to her from downstairs. I could feel her creative energy on that cold gray day. I could feel how strong it was, stronger than her isolation, stronger than her life. I could feel her inside of me. I smiled at Lenore. She smiled back.
I lost a world the other day.
Has anybody found it?
You’ll know it by the row of stars
Around its forehead bound.
A rich man might not notice it;
Yet to my frugal eye
Of more esteem than ducats.
Oh, find it Sir, for me!
And now on this Christmas day I’m going to do something that can only be called chutzpah, especially after just quoting Emily Dickinson’s poem LOST. I’m going to let you read my one and only poem. I wrote it in 1972 and it has all the youthfulness of a Christmas wish.
Jingle the bells on your red dancing slippers
Swirl yourself in tinsel
Hang Christmas balls in your hair
And bright shining stars in your eyes.
Place angels on your shoulders
And lay golden gifts at your feet.
Then reach out
Catch the falling soft-white bird.
Tuck his broken wing to your candle-glow breast
And whisper hope.
For you are Christmas.
Merry Christmas everyone!