In March–or perhaps April–of 2008, I hosted Bunco at my house, and as has been my tradition for two years running, I used a poetry theme, with poems written on the table cloths and in various places throughout the living room and kitchen. In searching for the poems, I found an Emily Dickinson poem that spoke to me called “Hope.”
Maybe I liked the poem because I was waiting to find out whether or not my new lump was cancerous.
Or maybe I liked it because I related to Emily and her whole “tortured artist” life. All I know is that I held onto it, and after my diagnosis I placed it on the folder I first used to store “the cancer cards” (until I had so many I needed a hat box to hold them). The poem goes like this …
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.
The poem, if we were to analyze it, could say a lot of different (even contradictory) things about hope. Hope never stops. Hope never needs to be fed. Hope is fleeting like a bird. Who really knows for certain what Emily’s point was, when she seems to have several.
All I know is that the word “hope” has meant a lot to me this year. I even sent a Christmas decoration that said “hope” to another woman with breast cancer, and was delighted when my brother and his wife sent me my own sparkly Christmas ornament that spells “hope.” But I have to say, I agree less and less with Emily. Her words are lovely, but I think hope actually asks a lot of us. Hope does need to be fed. Hope does (frequently) disappear.
If the elusive author of the book of Hebrews is right, and faith is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1) then, it follows logically, hope must require faith. And faith is sometimes difficult to hang onto. It can be less of a bird and more of a slimy toad–you know when you have it in your grasp, because you can feel it’s heartbeat, but when it’s gone you’re not really sure how or at what exact moment it managed to slip between your fingers.
What I have discovered is that it takes a great deal of faith to hope that one can get a job in 2009. It takes a great deal of faith to hope that situations can change, when all evidence points to the contrary. It takes a great deal of faith to hope that life could someday be easy, when it rarely ever has been.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. And I know this isn’t the end of the subject, but instead is the beginning, which is why I’m calling this Part One.
Perhaps I’ll be able to write more tomorrow. But, for now, I have to say: While it’s a very pretty poem, I don’t believe dear Emily was right about hope. Frankly, I’m not even sure she believed it herself.