It’s almost May 15, so it seemed the perfect time to share this post, an excerpt from our upcoming book of inspiration called You Belong. Whether you’re a poetry fan or not, both Emily and Lauren have some interesting thoughts on faith. And if this post leaves you hungry for ginger cake, we’ve got that covered, too, with a link to Emily Dickinson’s famous recipe below.
I shall know why, when time is over,
And I have ceased to wonder why;
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky.
Some of my most beloved saints are not really saints—no feast days in the church, no special prayers written on their behalf—so I improvise. I like to mark their deaths. Today is the death of the belle of Amherst.
Emily Dickinson has compelled me since I was tapped to play her in a school production at age nine. I wanted to play Betsy Ross, who had more lines, actual dialogue, and who got to sew; my entire role consisted of sitting at a desk, leaping up from said desk, and declaiming a sixteen-line ode to nature, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose.”
In the end, clad in my mother’s white Lanz nightgown, I performed my small part with a melodramatic verve that would have made Joan Crawford seem subtle, and I felt bereft when the play was over. I decided I liked being Emily Dickinson, the recluse, because after all I was on stage alone—Betsy had to share the stage with George Washington. This experience inaugurated a thus-far lifelong troika: a) I secretly long to try out for community theater, but don’t dare; b) I battle regularly, but probably not regularly enough, my love of melodramatic declamation, my tendency to perform rather than listen, my desire to be the sole object of an audience’s enthralled attention; and c) I am obsessed with Emily Dickinson, with her seclusion, with her small world of desk and window, with what she could make words do, how she bent them; with her beguiling consonant rhyme and eye-rhyme, a soundscape where more and despair are coupled, wind and God.
For the anniversary of her death, a few friends and a few students come over. Dina brings ginger cake, made with the recipe Dickinson herself used, all those ginger cakes she lowered down out of her window into the waiting hands of neighborhood children: 3 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon of ginger, 1 cup of molasses, butter, cream, baking soda, salt. I read a poem about forgetfulness; Sarabeth reads a poem about a bird; Karin reads a letter Dickinson wrote, late in life, to a judge whom she might or might not have wanted to marry: “On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings . . . we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.”
Here over the ginger cake it seems to me that Dickinson was describing my own state, and my own hope: the winding back and forth between belief and disbelief, the hope that such peregrinations won’t dive me crazy or make me cynical but rather keep me nimble. What strikes me, too, about these words from Dickinson is that for all the hundred-times-an-hour, she doesn’t seem frantic; she doesn’t seem to be wringing her hands about this back-and-forth, or anxiously aspiring to a more settled belief or disbelief.
Later that night, I find myself thinking maybe this is a way of inhabiting faith that is, indeed faithful; that is generative. Maybe God has given some people belief like a pier, to stand on (and God has given those people’s steadiness to the church, to me, as a reminder, as an aid), and maybe God has given others something else: maybe God has given to some this humming sense that we know nothing, this belief and disbelief a hundred times an hour, this training in nimbleness (and maybe that is a gift to the church, too).
From You Belong: 52 Stories to Strengthen Your Purpose, Faith, and Relationships, coming in August, 2016 to BELONG Tour events and bookstores. Copyright ©2016 by Live Event Management, Inc. Used by permission from Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved. Story originally in Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis © 2012 by Lauren Winner, published by HarperOne.
Want to bake Emily’s cake?
Click here to see her recipe, courtesy of the Boston Globe.