“a Past of Plank and Nail” (Emily Dickinson)

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Sometimes the world is too much with us. Me. The news. I listen, read, and carry it around like a sad burden. The things I know to do to take my mind into other territory haven’t been working. It’s been cold here, with new snow on the mountain to the east. Last week there were some days in the garden, weeding, tucking manure around the raspberry canes, emptying pots of plants that didn’t make it over the long winter and filling others with new soil for lilies and spring greens. But then drizzly rain. The novel I am trying to write has stalled, mostly because I don’t know enough about boat engines. The quilt in progress, the one I pieced together happily but which now looks like an array of French and Russian flags–somehow I can’t bring myself to work on that one. I’ve had a basket of cotton sitting on the end of the dining table for ages, hoping that I will somehow see what to do with it. Mostly (of course) the pieces are blue. But also some other Japanese cotton prints. At one point I thought I might use them with deep purple velvet, a length given me years ago and not really a colour I’m drawn to. The blues weren’t drawn to it either. So they waited.

On Saturday I was thinking about something else entirely, remembering as I tidied the kitchen how we constructed the walls on the platform that is now the kitchen floor, 41 summers ago, raising them with the strength we had then, young parents, our baby in his stroller with his sunhat on. We’d raise the wall together, usually with some sort of brace behind it so that it wouldn’t tumble off the platform, and then I’d hold it in place while John nailed it down. When that was done–I think I have the sequence right–he’d cut a top plate, a long length of 2×4, and nail it along the top of the constructed wall, a horizontal member to give strength.

lumber0002

I was thinking about walls, about lumber, and the rows of stacked logs in the woodshed. The next time I passed the basket of cotton, I realized I could make blocks of vertical strips, like the 2x4s we framed our walls with. I would use blue Japanese prints because that’s what I have but I could also use some linen I once bought at Maiwa (you could fill a bag of offcut and scraps for $10) and I could take apart a thrift store skirt a friend handed on to me because it was tye-dyed and it reminded her of my experiments with indigo. Yesterday I cut strips and took everything upstairs to lay out “walls” on my bed, looking for the right relationships and combinations.

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Late in the afternoon, I began to sew the blocks together, three strips to a block, and they will be finished with a top plate of linen. I have in mind an arrangement, using deep blue for the sashing. And for the back, I have a length of dupioni silk, dark blue with a lighter blue band through it. It’s not exactly beautiful which is why it hardly cost me anything when I saw it on a remnant table at Dressew in Vancouver but it’s right for these blocks.

The whole time I was cutting and arranging, making decisions about placement, and sewing the strips to make the blocks, my mind was on the work in front of me and it was also remembering the construction of my kitchen walls. I wasn’t thinking about Bucha and the discovery of civilian dead, some of them with their grocery bags spilled around them, wasn’t thinking about women living in terror of sexual violence, of lines of refugees, the hideous legacies of war. I was under the same blue sky tumbled with clouds, the one I tried to replicate on the ceiling of the kitchen I was helping to build.

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The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
             –Emily Dickinson

“my sight got crooked”

japanese cottons

These days I am strangely restless. There is so much to do—garden work; some writing projects or requests, as well as ongoing work on a novel that seems too fraught to continue with (the main character had just made plans to go to Lviv when I put the novel aside because of other commitments, and honestly? Who could go to Lviv now, even though the novel is set, oh, last year); and various other things that loom in the night when I’m awake but then sort of fade away during the day when I could actually be doing them instead of repeatedly doomscrolling for news of Ukraine. Instead of burrowing in to something clear and practical, I wander through the house. If I had a quilt to work on, this would be the time to sit with it, stitching, keeping my hands busy in the way that invariably quiets my mind. And I do have a quilt, a big one, but somehow—and honestly I don’t know how this happened—the strips of white (some of it from old damask tablecloths, worn in most places but with some usable areas), various deep blues, red prints, ended up looking like a collection of French flags. Instead of giving me pleasure, the actual quilting is irritating. I keep asking myself how it happened that I didn’t foresee the overall pattern beforehand. I didn’t. I was just happy to be seaming blocks together and then sashing them with deep blue. When Forrest and Manon were here in February, I showed them (and this wasn’t pieced recently but a few years ago; it’s been sitting in a basket in one of the back closets…), wondering what to do. We’d love it, they both said. So that’s an incentive, I guess, even though the stitching won’t give me pleasure.

I do have a little hoard of Japanese cottons and what I’m really waiting for is a moment of illumination, a moment when I walk by the basket where they are piled and I see a way to use them. I thought maybe log cabin blocks, big ones, like the quilt I made for Anik, only hers was made with colours she told me she liked. (When I asked, she said this: “I’m a fan of deep reds (not burgundy, but redder, earthier) and what Walter refers to as ’non-colour’ greens. Olive, forest, greens that blend in. Dark blues too. Is that boring?” And no, it wasn’t boring and I liked the results but it was outside my usual palette.)

sunday morning, quilting

In the fall I had some of the Japanese cottons and I wanted to make something with them. That was just as the catastrophic weather events—a system called an atmospheric river, bringing record rains and winds to the province—caused landslides and widespread flooding. I couldn’t cut and sew fast enough, it seemed, stitching the lengths of blue in long vertical strips and piecing them together with red lengths, printed and solid, to somehow echo the news, to remember the rivers I’ve loved that were rerouting themselves, to commemorate the way I’d always stood on their banks and felt their currents within my own body. I was sewing one of the essays in my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal, sewing it into fabric, quilting the oxbows, meanders, and avulsions. You see straight lines here in the finished quilt hanging on my clothes line but in fact all the actual quilting is curved and twisted, just 3 lines of it winding across the surface of the piece.

frozen fog

Now I need something to push the fabric in the basket into something more than itself, into an idea, a correlative, something to keep my mind focused and my hands active. I keep looking at the basket, waiting, while cities burn and we are helplessly watching. There is something I need to see, some way to do a new thing.

Don’t put up my Thread and Needle—
I’ll begin to Sew
When the Birds begin to whistle—
Better Stitches—so—

These were bent—my sight got crooked—
When my mind—is plain
I’ll do seams—a Queen’s endeavor
Would not blush to own—

Hems—too fine for Lady’s tracing
To the sightless Knot—
Tucks—of dainty interspersion—
Like a dotted Dot—

Leave my Needle in the furrow—
Where I put it down—
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight—when I am strong—

Till then—dreaming I am sewing
Fetch the seam I missed—
Closer—so I—at my sleeping—
Still surmise I stitch—

                 –Emily Dickinson

hoard

humminbird tail

It’s the last day of summer. Lately I’ve been thinking about it, remembering its beauties, regretting the things I didn’t accomplish. But mostly remembering. The first summer of my greenhouse, which brought me such pleasure, though to be honest the pleasures were mostly in May, because June and July were the months of the heat dome when I had to sluice down the greenhouse floor several times a day, on top of everything else. But yes, pleasure, as the seedlings grew and the frogs found the leaves to perch on and the scented geraniums filled with space with their fragrance — lemon, rose, deep forest green, oranges, nutmeg.

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…
 

That’s Keats, of course, and for a perfect gift to yourself on the last day of summer, listen to Marianne Faithfull read “To Autumn”.

The other day we were walking up on the Malaspina trail, itself a gift, because finally John is able to walk greater distances. I don’t think we’ll be taking on any long hikes but an hour up the mountain, with the scent of dry grass and the sight of a herd of elk dissolving into the tree line, herded by a bull with an enormous set of antlers, was wonderful.

Do you make a hoard of summer memories to keep against the cold ahead? Mine includes all the children who raced around in the mossy area they called the Field and who came to the lake with us during the mornings of their visit, two of them learning to swim while they were here, suddenly pushing off and paddling in the generous water. It holds the bees in the oregano by the table where we had our coffee after our swim, 4 or 5 species, buried in the pink blossoms. The owls. The night we kept the little children up to see the Perseids, all of us on the upper deck in darkness, a few flashlights snapping on and off to make sure parents were near, and how suddenly one of them recognized the shape I was describing as the Big Dipper. How the meteors blessed us with their light, one at a time. How we wished.

There was the afternoon in early July when I heard a commotion in the sunroom off my bedroom and it was a hummingbird trapped inside, beating its wings against the glass. I grabbed a cloth, it might have been underwear, it might have been a t-shirt, and gently captured the bird, releasing it out the door, and then realizing it had dropped 5 tail feathers on the blue tile before it flew away at great speed. It happened so quickly I didn’t think to determine if the bird was an Anna’s or a rufous (although maybe that little tip of white means Anna’s?) but it was unforgettable. “A route of evanescence”, wrote Emily Dickinson, and how perceptive she was, capturing the mystery and unexpected nature of their visits with that line, “The mail from Tunis, probably”.

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel–
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal–
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,–
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride–

Over the next months, when it rains for days on end and we are still facing the uncertainty of an unsafe world, when the fires are still burning, all of us counting our losses, I will open my hoard of summer, take a moment to look at the little jar by my bed with its five tiny feathers, “a resonance of emerald”, and that fluid line of elk disappearing into the trees.

shelter in place

doe and fawn

5 days ago I wrote that I’d finished The Occasions, a novella I’d been writing since last summer. In it, I wanted to commemorate a place and human attachments to it, as well as to one another. The novella takes place in a single day and involves preparations for a party to celebrate a significant anniversary. It is also the last party of its kind, for reasons known only to two of the characters. It closes with a group around an outdoor fire.

We listen, as the light fades and the mosquitoes come out to find our arms and ankles. Sit near the fire, Nick suggests, and we move our chairs, find places in the grass to plant our glasses between swallows. The music transports us to another world, where the strings of an oud release long passages so beautiful that some of us brush tears from our eyes.

3 days ago, I described how John and I were preparing ourselves for a form of self-isolation. (Selves-isolation?) We’d shopped, gone to the library (just before it was shut down), and I did a casual inventory of the food we have on hand, the firewood, the wine. The garden and what we can hope for from it. Because we’d had a swim in an empty pool and because the life-guard said she didn’t think the pool would be closing soon, we were looking forward to at least continuing with our swims. But yesterday our regional district closed the recreation centres. I agree with this move, of course, but I’ll miss the water. And then we heard on the news that elective surgery was being cancelled in the province (probably everywhere else too) and that was hard to hear, though understandable in these circumstances. John has been waiting for a double hip replacement and was told by his orthopedic surgeon during a November consultation that his surgery would happen in 4-6 months. So April? Early May? He can’t walk well enough for the hikes we used to love. He does what he can outside (we’ve had two trips up the mountain to bring home chipped cedar for the garden paths from a pile left by someone) but the day before yesterday, hearing of a dear friend’s fall in the garden that shattered his femur, made us realize that even more care will have to be taken. The longer he goes without surgery, the harder it will be for him. For the thousands who are in similar situations. If it was summer, we’d do our morning swim in Ruby Lake before anyone else was there. We’d hear the kingfishers and see the evidence of animals drinking from the lake before our arrival — the prints of deer and bears in the soft sand by the edge of the lake. There’d be loons. Ravens passing overhead. Those days will come again. I hope.

I’m shaken, as we all are, by how quickly our personal safety and our collective safety has been changed and compromised. We will eat well, yes, and we will talk to our friends and family on the phone. I went to the library yesterday and have a stack of books by my bed. I have a work-in-progress and even a title for—well, what? A novella? A long essay? Something, anyway, that came to mind as I woke the other morning. The River Door. Actually, it didn’t so much come to mind as sound itself in my consciousness. In a day or two, I’ll see if that door will open.

In California, people are being asked to “shelter in place”. That’s a term that sounds less lonely than “self-isolate”. Acknowledging that a place can (though not always) shelter us, offer us its care. This morning the fire in our woodstove is warm, sourdough bread is rising on the counter, and the makings for a big vat of bolognese sauce wait in the fridge. I’ll freeze most of the sauce though I’d love to invite a crowd of people to share spaghetti and fresh bread with us, glasses of wine by the fire.

Humans and their hominim ancestors have gathered by fires for a million years. Were those early Homo erectus inhabitants of caves in South Africa cooking on their fires or using them for warmth? Or were they places of congregation? Shelters in place, with sources of heat? The fire in The Occasions is a gathering place, a collective experience. Its inspiration, the stone circle by my vegetable garden, has a little ash in it, from the last time people sat there, talking. How long before we’ll have those occasions again, I wonder?

Ashes denote that Fire was —
Revere the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile —

–Emily Dickinson

 

redux: a mutation of thrushes

This post, from 2014, reminds me that the robins regularly nested nearby,  on the beam across our patio or once in the rose canes by the front door. Then in 2017, the cat Winter came to live with us. He lurks on the beam and so far the robins have avoided it. And the year before he came, a weasel darted across the beam and ate the eggs. So maybe Winter isn’t entirely to blame for this fairly recent aversion on the part of the robins. But yesterday John was looking out at the big fir between the house and the printshop and he said he thought the robins must have a nest there. We couldn’t see but we could see two robins taking turns leaving and returning. When we stood under the boughs, sure enough we could see the mossy nest tucked into a crotch of branches.

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I looked in An Exaltation of Larks for the collective noun for robins. There are so many of them this year, singing, playing chicken on the side of the highway (and these must be males, flying up at the last minute…), and following me in the garden, ready to plunge their beaks into the newly-dug soil for worms. And there’s isn’t one. The closest is “a Mutacyon of threstyllys” from the Porkington MS, a mid-15th century miscellany of poetry and prose now held in the National Library of Wales.  The term appears to come from the belief that thrushes grow new legs at ten years of age and cast their old ones aside.

Last year, in July, I wrote a series of posts about the robins nesting on the cedar beam across our patio. It was the first time they’d nested in that particular spot, though we’ve watched robins build on an elbow of drainpipe on our printshop, in an angle of grapevine climbing our southern wall, and — three times! — in a willow now completely claimed by clematis above the west-facing deck. One year we watched three robins learn to fly and it echoed the passage of our own children away from home. It was very sweet to see the parents and two of the young all in a fir tree calling to the remaining nestling until, whoosh, it flew clumsily from the nest to join them. Every time I see this, I wish for wings myself. Imagine just…well, flying. Gliding away from the nest on wings you never knew you had, the whole world opening.

We were away for four days last week and when we returned, there was a nest in exactly the same place on the beam. No sign of robins but a nest, newly made. And by yesterday, there was a female robin tucked into it — so I’m assuming she’s incubating eggs. The literature talks about “nest fidelity” — the willingness of robins to return to locations and even reuse the same nests. Ours have never reused a nest but maybe that’s because we occasionally remove them (the one on the beam last year) or else the clematis smothered the opening where a bird might enter the cool interior of the willow.

This year, the female is not as skittish as last July. She remains on the nest while I’m watering. I put a saucer of worms on the ground below the nest and went off to do something else. When I passed that way again, I noticed that all the worms had been eaten. So I bet she remembers that I fed her last year too.

I think of Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Every year the same things happen. I begin the tomato seeds. I wait for the first ripe fruit. Baskets of sun-warmed tomatoes give me such pleasure that I forget I’ve done this for nearly 30 years. And the robins, with their echo of our own life, the tune without the words : a nest,  patience, the helpless young growing to maturity in the time it takes to close my eyes, then open them.

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“How much – how little -“

We live in smoke. The wildfires rage throughout the province and a dense haze muffles the world. Changes it, makes it eerie and dangerous. Familiar landmarks are hidden (Mount Hallowell behind us, the rise of Texada Island to the west). Yesterday, after John filled the bird bath, five purple finches arranged themselves around the water, dipping, drinking, cleaning themselves. We never see finches around our house, though I know others have them regularly. Ravens have been hanging around, muttering, and the day before yesterday, one coyote was eating an old corn tortilla I tossed out for the birds just about 10 feet from the back door. Another one loped by my study window. The balance has shifted, altered.

I don’t know what to say about the world. It burns, a madman rages to the south of us, floods carry people to their deaths.

Instead, I cut out and prepared a quilt top to work on once it’s cooler. I catch up on work at my desk. And watering orchids yesterday, I saw this beautiful new frog on one leaf. It’s there still, wise face and still body. Like me, it’s waiting.

new!

Yesterday a friend who came to lunch brought a gift of Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, the brief gnomic messages she wrote on the backs of envelopes later in her life. There is stillness in these, and such power. Last night I read them, looking for hope—for the earth, for everything unsettled and troubled. And did I find it?

In    this        short        Life
that     only      lasts an hour
merely
How    much –    how
little –   is
within  our
power

N.B. I can’t get the poem to retain its format. Think of it forming a triangle, like the flap of an envelope.

“and one bee”

waiting

I’ve been outside all morning, transplanting tomato seedlings and planting sweet-peas in tubs on the upper deck. Sometimes the things we do are by chance — I like to have roses near the table where we have our mid-morning coffee and I always put some sticks in the tubs for sweet-peas to clamber up. Flowers bring bees and the tomatoes need pollinators. We sit with our coffee and watch the timeless process of attraction and pollination, year after year, decade after decade. In the trees nearby, birds are courting and locating nesting places, some of them the cedar boxes made for one species but nested in by others. And the image here? Just a chunk of cedar with holes drilled into it for blue orchard mason bees. The other day John noticed that this year’s bees have already chewed their way out of their cocoons and the mud last year’s females used to plug the holes. While I was planting sweet-peas, the mason bees were buzzing around, looking for flowers. And hummingbirds were darting in and out of the flowering currants.

Every year the bees, the flowers, the birds, the tomatoes. The roses, entwined with sweet-peas. A corner of pots becomes a garden.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee —
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

–Emily Dickinson

rose corner

the thing with feathers

primroses

We were in Vancouver on Sunday night. We’d gone to see Jordan Tannahill’s superb play Concord Floral at the Roundhouse and then we met with others for dinner at a Greek restaurant. We talked, ate well, drank retsina, and then John and I returned to our hotel. I looked at news on my tablet and read about the atrocity in Quebec City. I kept reading, trying to make sense of it. A young man goes into a mosque and shoots people at prayer? In what country could something like this happen? Not mine; please, not mine.

But it was. For the past few months we’ve thought violence and intolerance lived elsewhere, most recently, even until Sunday night, south of the border in particular, and that we were somehow a kinder gentler nation.

I don’t know what to say. Words seem too small and meaningless in the face of what happened. We will keep on doing what we do. We’ll try for goodness, for kindness, and we’ll try to do something practical too. You are what you do. And there will be something.

For now, a poem.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

–Emily Dickinson

scraps in winter

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Late Middle English (as a plural noun denoting fragments of uneaten food): from Old Norse skrap scraps; related to skrapa to scrape. The verb dates from the late 19th century. — from Oxford online

Small detached piece of something, fragment, remnant, (pl.) odds and ends, useless remains… — from Concise Oxford 1973-74 (my copy bought for university)

I’m thinking about scraps and fragments and, yes, remnants. I just made a comforter for the crib we’ve recently bought for visiting grandbabies. We have a smaller portable crib which has been fine until now but babies grow and this crib has the added feature of converting to a toddler bed. Grandson Arthur will come for Christmas and I thought I’d use some scraps of quilt batting to make a crib-size comforter. And then I wanted to make a cosy cover for it. I had enough blue striped flannel for one side so I found a remnant of that pink print at the wonderful Dressew on Hastings Street in Vancouver the other day. And sewing, I thought of all the quilts I’d pieced together at the kitchen table, all the remnants and scraps that somehow became something larger than themselves. I don’t like waste. I have baskets and bins of little pieces of fabric and I love to find new functions, new meanings for them.

It’s the same with writing. I’ve been revising the essays that will form a collection called Euclid’s Orchard, to be published next September. One of the essays is called “Tokens” and it is a series of linked meditations about my mother, my attempts to find out about her biological parents (she was given up at birth), and also to find out who she was all the years she was my mother. And in the process of writing about her, she was there in the room — the bottle of My Sin perfume my father brought her as a gift in (I think) 1962, still 3/4 full; her Harris tweed coat nearby, her scent still in the satin lining. Her sayings, always a little off: “Let’s play it by air.” “He was mad as a hatter.” (This, to explain someone’s anger.) “By the same token.” (For anything.)

Winter is a good time for thinking about scraps, fragments. The Ptolemaic scrap of papyrus with three lines from Book 20 of the Odyssey that don’t exist in other versions of the poem. Unfinished music. Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems. The Archimedes palimpsest, which I remembered this morning: years ago I read about the cleaning of a 13th c. prayer book that contained (partly erased but recoverable by delicate conservation practices) two treatises by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and physicist (and astronomer, inventor…) who lived from around 287 B.C. until around 212. There’s so much still hidden, so much to be discovered, often in fragments, like the lines of the Odyssey, to offer us moments of the world before us.

The other night, John and I had dinner with our son Brendan who was in Vancouver for some math work at UBC — conferring with a research partner and giving a seminar. We asked for news of our grandchildren and I loved hearing how Kelly, who is 2, refers to her Daddy’s work. She calls it “counting by the vending machines.” When she and her mum and brother visit her Dad at his job (mathematics professor at a big Canadian university), they meet up at the vending machines in the lobby. And math? Well, it’s a kind of counting.

the thing with feathers

It’s been a long grey week. The rain, the news of the British referendum, the aftermath of the murders in various parts of the world (that ask us again and again to think how we are implicated, whether our silence serves or distracts or ignores), our radio and television airwaves filled with the noise of that awful man south of the border, a more personal sorrow, and the images of fires in California, flooding in many places: you wonder where to place your hope, if you have any left.
This morning, around 6, I woke to light. Not just morning light but a sky without clouds. Blue as a book of hours. In the trees, a pair of western tanagers, so brilliantly coloured that I wondered (as I do every time I see them), why they chose our green landscape for a summer home. They spend their winters in Central America and find their way here, to the bigleaf maples below the house (I think that’s where they nest; they always come from, and head back, to those trees). And listening to a recording just now of their call, I realize that’s what I’ve been hearing the last few mornings. So maybe their young have fledged and they are teaching them about territory, food sources (elderberries, salmonberries, huckleberries…), and dangers.
And when I got up and came down to my desk, I watched the robins gliding in and out of the nest just beyond my vision, around the corner of the house, tucked into an elbow of grapevine. I’ve been thinking that the young must be about ready to fly but I’ve stayed away from the nest out of superstition. (The last robin nest we were watching with hope was raided by a weasel…) But I did go this morning, just to see, and yes, there are at least two young’uns. When they saw me coming, they quickly hid. But I waited and was rewarded with the sight of two eager beaks poking over the side of the nest, while the parents watched from the arbutus. Here they are, just barely visible. Like hope.
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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
                           –Emily Dickinson