We approached the Dickinson homestead on a cold April day. I spied a perfect clump of snowdrop flowers by the back entrance and stooped to take a picture just as the first flurry touched my cheek. Inside the house we bought our tickets and met our tour guide. We were ushered into a small living room near the front of the house to begin the tour. The usual formalities about photography, etc. dispensed with, our tour guide explained that the little sunporch before us was a recent restoration (you can read about it here).
No stranger to Emily Dickinson's poetry, I came to the homestead expecting to be inspired, but I was surprised to be so immediately moved by such a small thing. Emily's little "conservatory" can hardly be called a room - just a small addition looking out to the street and garden - but its story carries the weight of such a common human experience. It's almost archetypal. As the story was relayed to us tears sprang from my eyes. It was my story. It's probably your story. It might be everybody's story.
Our guide shared about Emily's love of flowers and her habit of keeping a collection of specially cultivated blooms in the conservatory all year long. During her life she grew and catalogued countless flowers and herbs, carefully weaving this knowledge into her poetry (you can read more here). If you've read any of Dickinson's work, you've likely noticed that wildflowers are frequently discussed in her verses. Honored and personified, they are called by their names and invited to dance. It is deeply mindful writing - it calls its readers to be attentive to small things. The conservatory was not a frivolous room. Recently I told someone, "Growing a garden has nothing to do with utility. It is primary for me, like the creative instinct." Emily's conservatory was primary. It was a room in her house that likely represented a room in her soul.
After the Dickinson home was purchased and another family moved in, the little conservatory was removed from the front of the house. Its pieces were carefully stacked in a storage building on the property. They settled in the dust for over 100 years, forgotten, and upon their recent discovery were brought lovingly back to life. I stood beside my friend, looking out at Dickinson's most beloved creative hideaway, thinking of my own forgotten spaces. How many times have all of us seen our own hearts partially dismantled? How many of us have forgotten where the pieces were put? We hear about a heart breaking and think the damage must be irreparable. Surely a heart shatters when it breaks. Surely a dream is dangerous to touch after it's been dropped - we fear that if we go near we might come away bleeding.
I made a few notes about the restoration before we moved on to the next room, promising myself I'd not forget to build a song or a poem on its foundation. After an hour or so we were back in the dooryard, bidding the snowdrops farewell. The notes about Dickinson's conservatory settled in my notebook, buried under other notes and schedules and lists.
Long after the flight home to Chattanooga and weeks of settling back into the rhythm of my work, I found myself sitting in an AGO meeting, listening to a bunch of organists swap restoration stories: This organ is electric. That organ is a tracker. This organ stopped working in the 90's, very suddenly, for no apparent reason, and took 20 years to rebuild. That organ stopped singing the week before Easter and wasn't brought back to life for another year, but is better than ever because it has new ranks and more memory than it had before.
I thought about churches I'd served in the past and their instrumental biographies . . . hand bell sets hidden away in closets, forgotten for 20 years, restored and lovingly played again . . . entire music libraries in disarray, waiting for a librarian to catalogue each tune, waiting for human voices to bring each verse to life. Pianos neglected. Pianos cherished. Organs played. Organs not played. Bands acoustic. Bands electric.
We tell our restoration stories like this:
1) How it first came to be.
2) How it was for a long time.
3) How it was lost.
4) How it was forgotten.
5) How it was found again.
6) How it was restored.
7) How it is today.
8) If we're very brave . . . how we hope it might be yet.
I am not going to tell all of you my story in 8 parts. But I do want you to know that if you have a story with 8 chapters from birth to restoration, you're not alone. Many, many people share this pattern with you. Details separate us, sure, but there is an emerging form from one testimony to the next - we can connect our own dots and then connect with each other. We don't have to do all the work by ourselves.
A friend of mine, being most perceptive, blessed me with a very old blessing some months ago. Isaiah 54:11-14.
I really should tell my friend that I've mimicked their gift and have passed it on to other friends since then who have shared similar 8 part stories with me.
It is May now. Hollyhocks in my own dooryard spread their faces wide for the sun. Cone flowers hide somewhere amid sprays of green, reaching for the canopy. Sunflower sprouts seem to grow inches a day, leaning from morning to evening habitually. Marigold stalks reach for each other with pointed fingers, saying, "Soon we'll dance in yellow and orange dresses." They are not afraid.
I am not afraid.
I look at the marigolds and I think, "I'm going to dance with you, too."
Dear ones, you don't have to do whatever it is alone. God will lay your stones with fair colors. Your foundations and gates and windows and walls can be composed of the words and arms and eyes of people who love you. There are people in the world who can love you well. And you can love other people well. You can love yourself. You are someone to be loved. You are someone to love others.