Book Review: “Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief” by Roger Lundin

Emily Dickinson and the Art of BeliefEmily Dickinson and the Art of Belief by Roger Lundin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew nothing about Emily Dickinson before reading this book. Now I feel like I have a good running start. As the title suggests, Roger Lundin sets the book against the backdrop of the religious, political and social events of the times and the extraordinary changes that took place in all those areas throughout the 19th century. Despite the fact that Dickinson was an avowed recluse, she was profoundly affected. Despite seeing people on very rare occasions, she read voraciously, kept up with current events and most importantly, carried on many intimate correspondences by letters with dear friends over years, both men and women. Considered an enigma by many, she left behind an incredible legacy of words through her poetry and letters.

Admittedly I am completely dense when it comes to poetry. Despite the fact that I have written song lyrics, I just don’t understand poetry. And here I choose the most difficult of them all to read! But Emily Dickinson is also considered one of the greatest.

Lundin’s book was a page turner for me. I knew I was hooked the moment I whipped out my pencil and started my customary conversation with this book. Many underscores and notes later, I am sad that my read is over.

As I had hoped, he devoted a chapter to examining some of the poetry she wrote during her most prolific period which aided greatly in my understanding. Against the backdrop of the Civil War for which she had little first-hand contact save the death of friends and neighbors who fought, she fought her own war within herself, a great turmoil that produced her most brilliant work.

I was most fascinated by her seclusion and how many in her own family accepted it as normal to her character. Her sister-in-law Susan wrote in her obituary the following which I think sums it up perfectly:

“Like a magician she caught the shadowy apparitions of her brain and tossed them in startling picturesqueness to her friends … who fretted that she had so easily made palpable the tantalizing fancies forever eluding their bungling, fettered grasp.” (pg. 265)

From Lundin’s description of Dickinson I got the impression that she fashioned her life exactly as she wanted it. She saw her limited options as a mid-19th century woman and made her choices. She was indeed fortunately to have family members, especially Lavinia (“Vinnie”) protecting that choice and allowing her to live it even if they did not begin to comprehend Emily’s genius.

I can’t say that I can now go and read Dickinson’s poetry and “get it.” But I can certainly try. I can also visit her home in Amherst which is only an hour or so away from me.

How I do love living in New England!

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Owning our grief and why this is helpful to others–Virginia Woolf and Louisa May Alcott as guides

I wrote a book about loss and grief. In a second book, I included passages from an author who guided me through my loss and grief.

And yet, I am afraid to share that story with others.

Sounds absurd–after all, both books have been published and are available for the public to see. But I am glad I don’t have to be there when the book is read. Well aware that grief is uniquely tailored to the individual, I feel utterly unqualified to say anything about it, face to face.

Mysterious … unpredictable …

Grief is mysterious, unpredictable, you might even say, capricious. I can’t tell you how many times grief has decided to drop in when I am in front of other people. It has often visited in the form of tears and I have to hide away until it passes. It has also visited on too many occasions when I’ve sung in public, crippling my voice or simply rising up in the form of irrational fear.

Mike Schaffner Angel of Grief, Flickr Creative Commons
Mike Schaffner Angel of Grief, Flickr Creative Commons

Important to share

When I read this story by Claire Fallon, Virginia Woolf’s Guide To Grieving, and how she connected her grieving over the loss of her mother to that of Woolf (both lost their mothers near puberty), I realized it is, in fact, important to share our grief stories.

woolf books

Comfort through companionship

Fallon derived a lot of comfort from Woolf, not because Woolf offered consolation or answers, but because she was a companion on the journey. Fallon found a like mind in Woolf which helped her work through grief that had been bottled up inside for many years.

My companion

Reading Louisa May Alcott did that for me. Alcott offered no quick answers, no “5-step plan,” and certainly no skirting of the truth of suffering and death. Instead, Alcott shared her beliefs about death through her stories and they just happened to match mine. I was numb with grief at the time I took up reading and found that turning the pages of my mother’s antique volumes of Little Women, Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag and An Old-Fashioned Girl (all marked with her personal nameplate) and reading Alcott’s words helped me remember my mother when she was healthy and vital.

alcott books

The best way to help

My process did not take as long as Fallon’s but it reminds me yet again that the best thing I can do to help someone who is grieving is to just be there to listen. And when it’s appropriate, share a few stories.

The value of writing

Alcott and Woolf had the courage to write it down and share it with the public. Writing has a way of uncovering what is really going on inside of you. Writing doesn’t have to be public to be helpful–keeping a a journal and writing letters to others (handwritten, as opposed to email) can help a great deal. But if you choose to share stories through the written word or through conversation, you have to own it.

That’s what I have to learn how to do.

Here is the link to Claire Fallon’s article. I think I will try a little Virginia Woolf; she is showing me the benefits of ownership.

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Fun Facts Friday: Dr. Seuss and historical women books; feral cat success story; fun in the mud; kayak adventures; singing for the Pope

Books

This book cover image released by Random House shows "What Pet Should I Get," by Dr. Seuss. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Random House
This book cover image released by Random House shows “What Pet Should I Get,” by Dr. Seuss. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Random House

“What Pet Should I Get?”, a recently discovered Dr. Seuss work, is on sale starting July 28.

Apparently. Dr. Seuss’ wife discovered a carton with manuscripts in the attic. AND, this book is just the beginning!

How cool is that???

historical novels

Novels About Real-Life Women Are Saving Forgotten History

Some fascinating women in history are explored through these interesting historical fiction novels.

Cats

people for happier cats

People for Happier Cats – Compassionate Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) Pilot for Feral Cats

This is an amazing initiative by Tinykittens.com with a feral colony of cats. The first experiment, that of trapping a pregnant feral so that she could give birth in in a warm and safe place resulted in her four kittens being totally socialized and adopted out to loving families while the mother cat was returned to the colony where she would be the happiest.

forest kittens

Nature/Education

fun in the mud

Fun in the mud: Children benefit from exposure to nature

How many of us remember making mud pies? Hiking in the woods? Splashing in a stream? Observing birds and butterflies? Every kid needs to experience the outdoors and this program offers some amazing options.

Kayaking

kayaking through the caves

Kayaking Through the Apostle Island Sea Caves

Check out this video of a kayak trip through the Sea Caves of Apostle Island – heavenly!

veterans kayaking

War veterans say kayaking helps them cope with combat trauma

As an avid kayaker familiar with its therapeutic benefits, I can see how this would be a tremendous benefit to our vets.

Music

As you all seemed to enjoy the video I posted of Sarah Hart singing “Praying from a Broken Heart” so I thought I’d share this:
October 26, 2013 – Sarah Hart singing in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Francis and a crowd of 150,000; Sarah meeting the Pope at the end of the video

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