Summer Reading: Love and Poetry

Message 28, “Emily Dickinson: Love and Loss”, 8-01-10

© Doug Slagle, Pastor, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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Thornton Wilder, the famous playwright, when he was asked who it is that understands the nature of death and eternity, responded that only saints and poets have such insight.  This month, and in preparation for our September book club, I’ve chosen to look at three poets and their understanding of that greatest of human emotions, love.  It is in the various dimensions of love that we find so many of our most significant emotional responses.  In deeply caring for another person or another creature, we emote anger, joy, hate, fear, grief, compassion or altruism.  For our purposes this month, what knowledge might we gain of ourselves and our world by exploring the topic of love as it relates to loss, to fear and to social justice?  I’ve taken three well-known American poets – Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes and chosen to examine one of their lesser known poems to speak to us and offer a springboard for our thoughts and discussion.  In doing so, perhaps the relevant poems can offer breath and life to the Sunday topics.  Poetry, music and visual images are all windows into our thinking.  These forms of communication take ideas and then express them with artful nuance and emotion.  I hope we will find such expression with the poems we consider.  I also hope our words, our music and some visual cues will inspire our thoughts.  These right brain ways of thinking call into work our intuitions and feelings which allows us to internalize and remember the concepts.   And so, let us today look at love and how each of us must deal with its eventual loss.

My interest in our topic focusing on loss has much to do with Emily Dickinson and her own life.  As a poet, she was unsung and virtually unknown prior to her death.  Never married, living an isolated life, likely a lifelong virgin and almost always dressed in white, Emily still experienced the heights of love and the dashed dreams of its loss.  To read one particular portion of her poems is to feel her deep love for a sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson.  This was a passionate love which may never have been fulfilled and was apparently later rejected by Susan.  Emily’s love poetry is candid, open and while not luridly specific, leaves many readers wondering if this was a chaste 19th century expression of friendship between two women or a deeper and more profound romantic love.  Most modern interpreters classify them as Dickinson’s lesbian poems.  Even so, they capture universal sentiments of love and its dimensions of attraction, desire, hope, joy, pain and loss.  Let’s now read one of her final poems about Susan entitled “Now I Knew I Lost Her”.  You can find the words to the poem on the back of your programs…

Now I knew I lost her–
Not that she was gone–
But Remoteness travelled
On her Face and Tongue.

Alien, though adjoining
As a Foreign Race–
Traversed she though pausing
Latitudeless Place

Elements Unaltered–
Universe the same
But Love’s transmigration–
Somehow this had come–

Henceforth to remember
Nature took the Day
I had paid so much for–
His is Penury
Not who toils for Freedom
Or for Family
But the Restitution
Of Idolatry.

The loss of love is an event shared by everyone.  Whether it be from a relationship break-up or a death, the loss of someone we have loved will be experienced by virtually every person at some point in their lives.  And this pain is both sharp and memorable.  For Emily, the object of her attention and her love might has well have died.  Even though she and Susan continued to live next door to one another, after their break-up Emily never again set foot in Susan’s home nor did she write any further love poems – after having written over 300.  Whatever the cause, the one person in Emily’s life with whom she apparently had deep romantic feelings, no longer reciprocated those feelings and became, as Emily writes in the poem, an alien or unknown person.  And we feel her pain as we can all likely remember someone who no longer brightens at seeing us and whose attitude, demeanor and interest in us becomes remote, alien, foreign and latitudeless, as Dickinson’s poem so eloquently expresses.  Our investment of love, time and passion is not just lost, but we are left with an ache that is difficult to describe.  Our love for another cannot be fulfilled.  We are, to use a possible comparison, starving for nourishment as we stand next to a table loaded with food that we are forbidden to touch.  The object of our desire is so near and yet so very far.  We are hungry but we cannot eat.

Emily’s shock and hurt are compounded by her self-recriminations – something we often do as well.  In the face of loss, we rebuke ourselves for allowing the situation to have ever happened.  The goddess of love exacts her toll – in Emily’s words – as penury and poverty come not to the noble freedom fighter or devoted parent, but to the love sick one who has created an idol in the image of his or her beloved.  And it is this form of sometimes irrational love, that Emily calls idolatry, which she stoically self-condemns.  Buddhists see this as harmful attachment to an object or person which hinders self-enlightenment and progress to nirvana.  To the Christian, idolatry is the love of anything more than one’s love for god – and it is completely condemned.  For most people, it is a common way we fall in love.  And the Bible memorably evoked such anguish in the story of Abraham when he is called by god to sacrifice his only son Isaac.

As you may know from reading the Bible, Abraham and his wife Sarah were well into advanced age, many, many years past the years of fertility, when they realized they would never have a son.  In such a patriarchal and chauvinist culture, sons were worth far more than a daughter.  After a series of mishaps and painful episodes as they struggled to fulfill their fervent desire for a son, Sarah miraculously finds herself pregnant.  And a boy is born who is named Isaac and all is well with Abraham and Sarah who now see their legacy living onward.  A cherished son – the object of countless hours of prayer and hope and disappointment – is finally theirs.  But soon god decides to test Abraham’s love and trust in him.  This is a cruel test to be sure and one that was very likely contrived to instruct instead of being actual history.  God, as the story goes, tells Abraham he must take Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah, the hilltop on which Jerusalem was later built, and there kill and sacrifice him as a sign of love for god.  And Abraham agrees, despite anguish and pain and much crying on his and Sarah’s part.  Just as he is about to plunge a dagger into the heart of his only son – a boy loved by Abraham virtually as an idol – god stays his hand and all is made well.  This is a cruel, jealous and petty god who is not one I choose to accept, but the story is nevertheless instructive.

For those who choose to make any thing or any person into an object of absolute worship, the hand of fate and pain will eventually take it away.  We are called to love with devotion and passion but a loss of clear eyed respect for the soul of the person we love is dangerous for our own well-being.  As hideous as this story is – of a jealous god who petulantly forces Abraham to show his love for him in a sadistic stunt, the lesson we might take from the story is important.  In our love for someone, do we objectify the other?  Is he or she simply an object to which we can attach affection out of some unresolved need or insecurity within us?  Or, to the contrary, is our love a kind that does not idealize or idolize the other?  Is it a liberating love that, as Abraham was willing to ultimately prove, is capable of loving the other so much that we are willing to let go – both emotionally and physically?   If not, then nature will, as Emily Dickinson so wisely observed, have its Day of vengeance, our idol will be taken from us and we will be left in a form of loveless penury.  Contrary to all of our love impulses, the more we seek to hold on to our lover, the more we objectify and idolize him or her, the more likely we will be to lose it all.

I recall the day I learned my ex-wife and I would divorce.  We remain good friends today and she has been graciously and wonderfully supportive of me.  Even so, even as I sought to come to terms with my own identity, the impending separation and divorce was like a death.  I was heartbroken, depressed and cried for days with the coming end of my first loving relationship – one that lasted 18 years.  In its aftermath, I could not eat for many weeks and I lost a lot of weight.  My head knew what was best for my wife, for our daughters and for me.  But my heart had witnessed a gentle romance, the birth of two cherished children, the long years of education, growth and struggle as we sought to find our individual life purposes and the everyday give and take of a marriage.  We were the first lovers for one another, we married very young – ages 22 and 23, we both knew and discussed my sexuality confusion and we were each other’s best friends.  We knew each other as well as two people can understand another.  At the end, despite her hopes for me and my concern for her well-being, we parted ways still the deepest of friends but I had an ache and an empty hole in my heart where she had once lived.  My circumstances are obviously unique but I know, and I understand, the great pain of love and loss.

As many of you know who heard him speak here in February, my partner Ed experienced the loss of his first love in a different way.  His first partner died from the ravages of AIDS and Ed was left to mourn alone without the support of family or many friends.  Ed fell in love when Michael had already been diagnosed with AIDS, so he never contracted HIV himself but he was forced to watch the person he loved – and still deeply loves – slowly slip away.

And from private conversations with some of you, I have been honored to share a bit of your private pain – the gnawing, heart-wrenching ache of lost love.  It is as if we are each taunted by the gods and goddesses of Eros to climb the summit of attraction, passion and soul pleasing love.  And then, once at that summit, too many of us find ourselves tossed into the abyss.  Mountain top euphoria gives way to the valley of tears.

But, of course, we rarely stay in the valley of tears.  We all have heard of the several stages of grief – time periods within the process of emotional healing which vary in duration and severity from person to person.  These were first proposed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and have often been used by therapists to assist persons in dealing with personal tragedy.  As we first learn of lost love, we often move into a period of shock, denial and numbness.  Our senses cannot comprehend the tragedy and so we find ways to cope – we shut down, we ignore reality and we cease to feel.  Emotional and physical shock are ways we cope with pain – the natural instinct is to deny our loss so that the pain cannot be felt.  When this emotional shock wears off – which it always does, we are confronted with what is true – the end of a romance, a partnership, or a marriage.  Our common instinct then is to react with fear which manifests in anger, depression or both.  It is often here that the dark pit seems to envelope us.  We are still close enough to the past feeling of love that its loss is so acute and so powerful, we are in deep and sharp pain.  Often, we have difficulty emerging from this place where hurt cannot be avoided, reality has set in and we are in mourning.

Experts all suggest that this phase of grief is not only common but ultimately healthy.  In order to heal, we must allow ourselves to feel, to cry and to mourn.  This is a part of a normal healing process.  Life is all about loss – we along with all of nature are continually in a state of creation and re-creation where, in order for new life to occur, some loss must happen.

To deny our loss or to sublimate the feeling is to remain in the first stage of denial.  Too often our cultures tells us that grief must be stoic, silent and unmentioned.  It is not proper or mature to cry, to mourn and to deeply feel a loss.  Many experts disagree.  And I do too.  We all know that crying or venting our anger in safe places is cathartic, that it releases pent-up emotions and thus gives them free expression.

In one often quoted teaching from Jesus – “the truth will set you free” – I believe it is in acknowledging the truth of our feelings and their open expression that our hearts and minds are liberated.  In this regard, we are not alone and we should seek friends, family and communities like the Gathering to share our grief.  In doing so, we accept our loss of love and the pain that results.  In our state of grief, we must also give ourselves time and space to experience it fully.  Some might cry once and that is enough.  For others, the pain is more acute and it must be continually acknowledged and brought into the open with gentle friends or with professional counselors.  As Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Some days will be good ones as we seem to move beyond the hurt of loss.  On other days, we will regress and mourn or feel anger all the more.  This too is normal according to many therapists.  The trajectory of healing is individual and it is often marked by many ups and downs and many mistakes.  And that is not only ok, it is good.

Eventually, we arrive at a place where we realize that despite the loss of love, a new life is possible.  We will survive.  We are not destined to live forever in the valley of tears.  The process of re-creation and renewal has begun.  Our love is not forgotten or forsaken.  It has just been moved into an appropriate place in our memories – one where we might cherish the love we experienced and give thanks for it, or one where we might appreciate all that we learned from the painful loss.  With every death there is new life and with every loss there is something new to be found.  The Bible’s Book of Psalms poetically says, Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

And it is at that perfect emotional place where I believe true healing has taken place.  For us to love, we must undertake risk – risk that the other will not respond the same way, risk that the other will hurt us or leave us, risk that the other will die or even risk that our own love will wane and not remain.  But for each person who experiences the summit of passion, this feeling is worth the risk.  For most, the summit does not last and they move on to a more constant and tranquil form of love.  While all of our loves are eventually lost, we are never the worse for it.  Indeed, I believe that love is actually never really lost – it is just transformed to a newer reality.  If we understand that the love we had still remains but in a different form, we can celebrate the fact that we once were on the mountain top, we did experience the exhilaration of attraction and the realm of pleasure given and pleasure received.  Even if the object of our love has hurt us, that does not negate the beauty of our original love.  We can give thanks for it and for the many ways we learned and grew into more enlightened individuals.  In this regard, I am reminded of a silly but nevertheless profound bumper sticker I once saw.  It read, “Love like you will never be hurt.”

For Emily Dickinson, she refused to accept such a truth.  For her, to have loved once and then lost it meant a lifetime of relative isolation and stoic acceptance of fate.  Until her death, she regularly dressed herself all in white as if she were some young virgin on the threshold of a great romance.  She poured her heart out in poems and letters – many of which were never sent or shown to others.  And it would not be until after she died that her relatives discovered many volumes of poems and letters she had written offering insight and beauty into her lonely pain.  Apparently, Emily never consummated a loving relationship and the pain from the love she lost with Susan appears to have sadly never healed.  And yet, in so many ways, the love she had did not die as it lives on forever in her poetry.  Emily may not have emerged from her loss, but she has likely helped countless others understand such pain.

Love is the nectar of life.  It is what moves and motivates the world.  We form relationships, we create life, we work and we play – all for love.  We might love things or money or other people, but we are driven by its force.  Ultimately, I believe all human relationships either succeed or fail due to how skillfully we love.  And while the method of our love is a topic for another day, the loss of love is one we consider today.  How do we understand, grieve, and heal from love’s loss?  Be it from death or mistake or hate or a natural separation of ways, we will all lose at the game of love.  But it is a game – if it were only that – which we cannot and must not refuse to play.   To love and be loved.  Such is life.  We all want to know what love is.  We all want to feel its life enriching power.  We want to see it, feel it and live within it.  But, despite the risk of loss, despite pain, anger and denial, we must always – we must always – love freely and love extravagantly…

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