wars laid away in books

“Sailboats in Pourville”
by Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz

Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?

So sailors say — on yesterday —
Just as the dusk was brown
One little boat gave up its strife
And gurgled down and down

So angels say — on yesterday —
Just as the dawn was red
One little boat — o’erspent with gales —
Retrimmed its masts — redecked its sails —
And shot — exultant on!

~ Emily Dickinson
(The Poems of Emily Dickinson, #6)

Now that I have a Kindle and can read for hours on end without bothering my eyes, I have delved into a huge comprehensive biography of the life of Emily Dickinson, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. The above poem struck a chord with me.

What I’ve been learning is that Emily grappled with an exhausting spiritual struggle during her childhood and young adulthood. One by one more and more of her family members and friends experienced evangelical conversions each time a revival made its way to her mother’s church in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily was never moved to convert, winding up a solitary holdout, and I suspect it was the hypocrisy and inconsistencies in the dogma as presented by her teachers and ministers that never sat well with her.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
~ Emily Dickinson
(The Poems of Emily Dickinson, #236)

Emily found spiritual fulfillment and ecstasy in nature. I think it can be found in the creative arts, too, and in healing. I will read on, as I just got to the “Adrift!” poem yesterday, but my feeling is that once she made peace with this realization, she was able re-trim her masts, re-deck her sails, and get on with her true vocation, her poetry, her spiritual expression, her own way of worshiping.

As a child my intuition rebelled against my father’s atheism. The first chance I got I latched on to a religion with just as much oppressive dogmatism as the scientific atheism from which I was trying to escape. But while ‘gurgling down’ in my spiritual struggle, it slowly dawned on me that religion and science are simply different ways of trying to make sense of and explain the world and the universe. The assumptions of both can be terribly flawed and misguided. Organized religion and organized science can both be dogmatic and self-righteous. People who worship science, in my opinion, give up their own experience of the divine to the men in lab coats, our modern-day priests. Ideally there is a balance between Logic and Wonder, however.

When I started reading Emerson and Dickinson I found myself home at last with the ideas of transcendentalists:

The transcendentalists felt the presence of God in their intuition, but they advised that intuition should be guided by reason, and not follow its own course unaided. They discerned that God speaks directly to the self within us. They stressed the value and importance of personal mystical experience over beliefs, doctrines, rituals, and institutions. All their insights derived from their inner life. Their movement was a reaffirmation of the inner way of introversion or interiority.
~ Wayne Teasdale
(The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions)

How I admire Emily for holding on to her inner life!

18 thoughts on “wars laid away in books”

  1. Barbara,

    What a wonderful approach ! Can you imagine one struggles with those ideas and beliefs back in the days of Emily? The person who came to mind for me was St Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582, a women of wealth who became a nun, and than proceeded to have visions, and spiritual experiences, during the Inquisition. All of this compared with today, when we have the world wide web to search, to read, to study and research from.

    I find this blog one of the most moving, beautiful pieces you have place out there. Good for you!

    I am Love, Jeff

    1. My goodness, where DID this week go? Too many appointments to keep, errands to run, and decisions to make…

      Thank you so much, Jeff, for your encouraging and kind words!! I imagine there were and are people living in each period of history who struggle against the prevailing notions or current paradigms. To a new correspondent Emily confided that her family was religious but she was not. Yet she was deeply spiritual, but perhaps had no way to comprehend that then.

      Never heard of St. Teresa of Avila! I see Amazon has her autobiography available on Kindle, so that may be the next book I read! Thanks for the tip, I am very curious to see how she describes her mystical experiences.

      We are indeed fortunate to have the world wide web! It can be used for wonderful things, a great resource for seekers…

      1. Barbara,

        I am glad I was able to shine more light on your journey. As to St Teresa of Avila, her story is one of courage and inner strength. Caroline Myss takes you on a journey in her booking “Entering the Castle” by unpacking the levels of St Teresa’s inner journey. You may wish to check that out after ward.


  2. Our inner life is so important. I appreciate knowing more about Emily Dickinson’s struggle. It can inspire all of us through our own inner challenges.

    1. So true, Kathy, our inner lives are very important… When I was a child I had no idea others thought about these things! What a joy and inspiration to discover that many others have been through similar inner journeys!

  3. Cultivating a beautiful inner-landscape is vital. What a model Emily Dickinson was–and continues to be today. Her work is enduring.

    (I love my Kindle too)…

    1. Another Kindle lover! 🙂 I love your metaphor, Laurie, “Cultivating a beautiful inner-landscape is vital.”

      Maybe that’s why I had such a strong feeling that something was missing as I was growing up. Rachel Carson said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder… he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” I think her words can also apply very nicely to the mystery of the inner world we live in. I needed help to cultivate that inner-landscape!

  4. You make a very good point about science and religion. They go hand and hand. You can not separate the feats of the bible from the science of the present. Why these two factions seem to be constantly at war with one another just doesn’t make sense. Great post!


    1. Thank you, Tim! Perhaps science and religion, when over-organized, grant too much power to those supposedly in-the-know. I think the tendency to have greed for position and prestige corrupts those who would otherwise be offering inspiration and information.

    1. Thank you, Eva! It is interesting thinking about who inspires who and why. Writers, musicians and artists all seem to resonate with different people. What connections form between creative people and their fans are endlessly fascinating!

  5. I have finally come to visit your site. It looks as though I am going to have to learn more about Emily Dickinson. I have not been much of a reader of poetry, but have started to appreciate it more recently. I love the fact that she had to work all of this through as well. I’ll be back to read more of your blog.

    1. Thanks for coming to visit! I’m not much of a poetry reader either, actually, but for some reason Emily’s poems inspire me. She was going through the same stuff in a different time period with different surroundings and institutions, but possessed that inner life that is beyond time and space…

  6. I loved the quote at the end by Wayne Teasdale going to look for that book on my NOOK (a Kindle by any other name). Also the quote above by Rachel Carson. Just wonderful these gems you have. So true that the inner life is what is so vital. And yet how our culture values outer life, face lifts, the right clothes in the correct colors, spray tans, and the false front smile.

    Reaching inward, transcending.

    1. You’re the second person I’ve “met” with a Nook! Very happy to share any of the gems I’ve collected over the years… I know what you mean about our culture, it’s that outer landscape, appearances, that most people seem to be obsessed with. What a relief to get past all that, transcending it with joy….

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