With Compliments to Emily Dickinson
"A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period,
When March is scarcely here.
A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.
It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament."
--Emily Dickinson, #812 "A Light Exists in Spring"
(April, 2010) Spring--the season when life seems to begin anew after so long being asleep and hibernating during the cold and bleak days. After such a long winter, after so much snow, after so many days of cold and nights that
were even colder, the first glimpses of spring are a welcome experience. It is a season, as Dickinson expresses it, with "a light . . . Not present on the year / At any other period."
Plants emerge again, animals give birth to new young, people begin to emerge and congregate outside. It is the season of love--love in many forms. It may be love toward a partner; it may be love toward life itself. It is what "human nature feels" whether science can understand it or not.
This spring the renewal of life is especially lovely to see. After being cooped up for so long and surrounded by so much snow, it is lovely to see the renewal of spring approach. "It waits upon the lawn." Today, as I walk around I still see a few patches of the remainders of snow piles, but I also see
flowers starting to come up and bloom. I know that shortly all the snow patches will disappear completely and the grass that sleeps below will grow green and lush.
It is a spring that "speaks to me." This last fall I planted five pansy plants. The winter left them buried under mounds of snow in their pots, but just in the past couple of days the flowers have peaked out and shown their colors of yellow, purple, and white. Spring speaks to us all. It is not only the
flowers that are coming out. As I go around town now I see more people out and about. The once empty chairs on the patios at the local restaurants are now occupied again. As soon as the days became somewhat warmer people started sitting outside again, even if it meant still wearing a light jacket while doing so. It is as
though people just start coming out of the woodwork. Where the sidewalks used to be barren save for the person scurrying to wherever they needed to go as quickly as possible, now the sidewalks have people stopping to chat. Even the paces have changed. Where someone once would walk at a fast pace, they now meander and slow
All of us, I suspect, love spring, perhaps like no other season of the year. We love the new birth we see all around us and the possibility it brings which allows us to start over, to slow down and be more observant of the life around us, to connect with people and the world around us, to be like the
pansies which survive the snow to bloom in the spring.
But is it that easy? Look again at the Dickinson poem. Dickinson speaks to the passing of spring which brings with it "a quality of loss." What does she mean? She concludes the poem by suggesting that ". . . trade had suddenly encroached / Upon a sacrament." We stay, Dickinson suggests, too often bound
in our lives without fully appreciating the "sacrament" that the rebirth of life offers us.
Dickinson is talking about a number of complicated ideas, but to understand what she is saying is to come to increased enrichment in our lives. She talks about "sacrament." We most often think of sacrament in religious terminology, and certainly the concept is a religious one--but not necessarily a
doctrinal one. A sacrament, in its traditional sense, is an "outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace." In other words, the outward sign must be internalized if the outward experience is to become sacramental. Moments of grace often abound all around us, but we have to consciously see those moments and internalize them if
they are to have more than simply passing awareness for us. One of the factors that help us to see is to be aware of contrasts. It is contrast that often calls us to awareness in the spring. We come into spring after experiencing the winter. Without the winter, we would have less appreciation, less awareness of the beauty of
spring. It is the contrast, the flowers that bloom just as the snow disappears, that give us that special moment of awareness. The first daffodils that bloom, the first robins that appear on the lawn, the first green shoots that appear on the trees (a green so intense that it almost hurts our eyes)--these are the special
moments of "outward signs," and they hold special meaning for us because they come after nature's hibernation over the winter.
Spring is not, however, just a season of the year that follows winter (though, of course, it is that as well). If we would truly experience it, we need to appreciate it as a sacrament--a sacred return to life. All too often we find that our lives encroach upon that sacrament. Our lives are busy. We have
jobs, we have families, we have obligations that require our time and our energy. Those are the items of "trade" present in all of our lives. We have moments when we catch a glimpse of something more, of something that, again in Dickinson's words, "almost [emphasis mine] speaks to me." We experience moments when we catch a
glimpse of the sacred. It is the moment when we see the first pansy peek out from the snow; it is the moment when we vow to look more closely, feel more clearly, appreciate more deeply all that surrounds us, the life and people and events that make up the substance of our lives. But the moment passes before we can internalize
it. We see it, but then we let it go. Our lives and our obligations intrude. "It [that moment] passes, and we stay." The moment passes and we stay tied to the ground, tied to our obligations, tied to the realities of our lives.
"Nothing gold can stay," says Robert Frost. Emily Dickinson would agree. But I suspect that both poets would invite us to prolong those moments when we glimpse the sacred. The reality is that, while we can never live permanently in those special moments of the sacred, we can be more aware of them when
they occur and we can value them for the joy they can and do bring to our lives.
As Dickinson affirms, "a light exists in spring / Not present on the year / At any other period." That light, that brief time, can be a sacrament if we hold on to it and internalize it in our lives. Now that spring is upon us, may we really look, see what is all around us, and internalize it for the
enrichment it brings us.
Read other articles by Katherine R. Au