One day, in a Hiram College English class (mid-1960s), I remember Prof. Ravitz saying something like this about Emily Dickinson: From her garden she scanned the universe. I liked that--hoped I'd remember it (which I, more or less, have). Over the ensuing decades I've fallen more and more in love with her, "The Belle of Amherst," as she facetiously referred to herself in a letter--a facetious prediction, actually. On May 7, 1845 (she was fourteen years old), she wrote to Abiah Root, a girlhood friend, about her imagined future: I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. ... But away with nonsense (The Letters of Emily Dickinson, vol. 1, 13).
Over the years I've memorized a number of her poems (I just checked: I know 13--not a lucky number; I'd better hurry and add another), and among my favorites is the one that begins with the line that heads this post:
“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.
Hope is a bird that perches in the soul.
I've been thinking about this poem a lot in recent years, mostly because I see all around us the deleterious effects of hopelessness. It seems to me such a simple thing to understand: When people have no hope, then they cease caring about both themselves and the rest of us. The results are obvious--and horrible.
I've never known hopelessness--only in the most superficial, even silly ways. (I don't have a date for the prom yet! ... I'm not good enough to play for the Cleveland Indians! ... etc.) I grew up in a very stable home--educated parents who cared about us--good schools (well, most of the time)--never hungry a day in my life--got to go to college virtually free (my father was on the faculty)--etc.
I never worried that my life would collapse, that "things would not work out," that my son would not have a chance at an even better life than I've had. That I would be jobless, or homeless. I quit a few jobs, but I never lost one. I am now enjoying the benefits of Social Security and Medicare and the (Ohio) State Teachers Retirement System. We own a snug home in a safe neighborhood. When I need a new winter coat--or pair of gloves--I go buy them. We are not wealthy by America's 1% standards (not by a long shot), but by the standards of most of the rest of the world, we are in the 1%.
I believe very deeply that we need to do all we can to assure that all of us never experience hopelessness--that we don't permit Dickinson's bird to fly away. When people wake up in the morning and feel they have a chance--that their neighborhoods are safe, that the public schools are strong, that the social safety net is secure,that their children have a hopeful future, that the rest of us care about them--then we live in the sort of place I believe we all want to live in.
But now? Too many of us do not feel safe, do not have adequate housing, do not have jobs that pay a living wage, do not have decent public schools for our children, do not ...
Too many of us, in other words, are feeling the birds in our souls ruffling their feathers, preparing to fly.