Emily Dickinson's Conservatory: You, Me, & What we Might Be.


Emily Dickinson's Conservatory: You, Me, & What we Might Be.


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.

Poor Jerusalem, storm-tossed, and not comforted,
I will set your stones in black mortar,
and lay your foundations in lapis lazuli.
I will make your fortifications out of rubies,
your gates out of sparkling stones,
and all your walls out of precious stones.
Then all your children will be taught by the Lord,
their prosperity will be great,
and you will be established
on a foundation of righteousness.
You will be far from oppression,
you will certainly not be afraid;
you will be far from terror,
it will certainly not come near you.

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.





Wildflowers and Folk Tunes: untamable variation.


Wildflowers and Folk Tunes: untamable variation.


Today I walked a lovely wooded path by a stream and saw wildflowers. I noticed a clump of daisies to my right with perfect white petals. Just a few paces later I saw another clump of daisies to my left, but these were just a bit smaller and were just barely blushing. Similarly, in my own back yard I see dandelions in two sizes, one much smaller than the other, both blooming in the same season. The spring beauties I find beneath my favorite oak tree are different than the spring beauties my mother finds beneath her maple tree - we live in the same part of the same state.

Wildflowers thrive in variability and grow according to their unique surroundings. This adaptable spirit can't be quantified, bought, or sold. It confounds our desire for uniformity and perfection. It's a visual lesson in tenacity and survival. We purchase hothouse flowers at the market. We cannot purchase the many long years it takes for each lovely variation on the first daisy to develop in the wild.

Students of the Kodály philosophy learn to carefully analyze folk tunes in terms of melodic profile. This is a great departure from traditional theoretical training in our schools of music because we leave the idea of vertical analysis behind and pay close attention to all that is horizontal. I recall this being one of the more difficult aspects of my Kodály training. It was so foreign to me. I'd never been taught to pay attention to subtle variation in melodies apart from great works for choir, orchestra, piano, etc. But if a person is going to understand a folk song or a folk based music tradition, the starting place has to be the melody, and there can be no declaration of "the perfect" or "the right" variant. All variants are to be respected according to their unique sources. Each unique pathway can be traced to a person who learned what they learned from another person. Each variant tells a story and connects to a naturally unfolding human conversation. Folk tunes thrive in variability and are sung to fit their unique surroundings.


Almost all our efforts in formal education become tied up in monetization one way or another. Text book companies seek to earn money on their materials. It behooves them to become the only right way to teach something.  Companies that make tests seek to earn money on their materials. It is in their best financial interest to become the only perfect measure of any given subject. Human beings have done their best to put a price tag on so many things . . . but some things defy commoditization. We cannot purchase the many long years it takes for each lovely variant on the first iteration of a folk tune to develop among people. We cannot purchase the relationship between a parent and a child or a teacher and a group of students. Folk songs are many things, the chiefest being human.  We cannot buy and sell humanity, although human beings often try to buy and sell each other (in many ways).

When I was a little girl my mother would sing The Water is Wide. She sang it to me with its first words and also with the words from the United Methodist Hymnal (The Gift of Love). I've heard countless arrangements of each text, always with the same beloved tune, but none of them compare to my first hearing. She had no accompaniment. It was evening in our quiet house. I was little. She was my mother. She opened her mouth and sang to me. Then she told me how old the song was and talked about what the poetry might mean. A story unfolded in my mind. I recognized the tune in the hymnal sometime later and told her about it. She talked to me about the borrowing of tunes. It was the first hymn tune I ever chose to memorize on my own. I sang it for a children's choir audition when I was 8 or 9. I treasured it because it was given to me by a human being I loved. 

Recently I sat in on a lecture by two professors from Holy Names University. They were sharing a collection of little known folk tunes and variants of better known folk tunes. They shared a variant of Shenandoah I'd never heard before. I loved it. They passed it on to their audience by way of a story about its human source. I recalled the first time I'd played the better known variant in high school band and how touching I'd found it. Then, just a few short weeks after the folk song lecture, I was in an airplane during a rainy landing, seated next to a very dear friend. Knowing about my nervousness, my friend sought to distract me and began singing old songs. Shenandoah was one of them. It wrapped my mind in the same sense of treasured longing it always has, along with memories of all of my human connections to it. Folk tunes thrive in variability and are sung to fit their unique surroundings.

We live in a world that cannot be bought or sold. Our society seeks to buy and sell almost everything. When we pay attention to the original creative material in a folk song and seek to honor it (along with its human origin) we are practicing a sort of defiant mindfulness. We are valuing the relationship between humanity and creativity. We can find many ways to value the relationship between humanity and creativity if we really want to. We can start by paying attention.