How Much — How Little

Emotions are high. Tears, anger, frustration, arguments, hurt feelings, and a feeling of failure have all been on my computer desktop this week, through emails, Zoom meetings, and snippets of social media. It’s been weeks since we started school, such as it is, not together on a campus, but remotely through keyboards and computer screens across town, and few days go by when, as the principal of an amazing school, I don’t see tears and shaking heads as part of my working day.

Emily Dickinson caught the emotion of it all in her short, short poem:

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much—how little—is
Within our power

It’s in those last two lines that I suspect at least some of the emotions originate. It’s easy to feel that much, very, very much to be honest, is not within our power.

A counselor I work with made the comparison between our pandemic prompted separation and being an astronaut. Astronauts, she said, know when they’re coming back to earth. We don’t.

And so… as a high school principal I see small things turning big ones for many of the students and families I work with: that mis-marked absence, that grade on a quiz, that inability to see anyone beyond an inch wide square in a video conference. Day after day, week after week, those small things add up and can feel big.

When it’s not in our power to chat with a friend in the hallway, stay after class to ask the teacher a question (discreetly), or stop by the counseling office without an appointment, we start wondering what is within our power.

For some the answer is disheartening, unhealthy, or worse. The pain I see in the eyes of my staff, students, and parents is real. And…

In another, more well known poem Emily Dickinson reminds us that:

“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.

“Chillest land” and “strangest sea” sound about right, at least on some days, and the hope that Emily Dickinson writes about, resilient, consistent, and quietly powerful, is appealing. We all want to believe that the stress we feel can be overcome. We need to hope and hold on to hope, and Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” is a nice reminder of that need.

Nice, of course, but… right now this present gale does seem to be “abashing the little bird” and, for me at least, that familiar poem isn’t the only place I’ve found some comfort and inspiration from the Belle of Amherst, and it might not even be the best.

One poem that struck me as apt for today was a lesser known piece (at least to me) from early in Dickinson’s poetic life.

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!

This poem, which I didn’t remember as I was reading it out of the big book of Emily Dickinson poems I brought out during the summer, reminds me that while there is much not in our power (the coming of fall, for one thing, and its attendant chill), we can control our view of it. We can choose to notice “the eyes of many elves” where others might see only gray days and frost on the ground) and look inside ourselves for peace and “a sunny mind” to see us through the winds we bear.

I like that, a sunny mind against the winds. How much is within our power.

Or maybe it’s just time to go watch Elton John sing “I’m Still Standing.”

I think if she were alive today even Emily Dickinson would smile at that.

One thought on “How Much — How Little

  1. Pingback: Friday Poem: Hope is the thing with feathers | The Cheesesellers Wife

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