Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune - without the words, And never stops at all."
A Duracell bunny with feathers, that's Emily Dickenson's version of hope. It's a good one I think, tuneful and unstinting, the little songbird that could.
Hope sings eternal in the poetry of Dickenson, even as it perches side by side with loneliness and a raging crush on Death.
I've been reacquainted with the poetry of Dickenson thanks to a mysterious correspondent who has been sending me letters care of this paper since this column began. They arrive week in, week out, pages cut into rectangles, filled with lines of poetry written out in gold and silver pens.
Dickenson mostly, but also Keats, St Augustine, and Kurt Cobain as well. I'm never sure what this person is trying to tell me with this poetry, maybe they think we've got some sort of private understanding going on, or maybe they just want it to be read and heard.
I've never answered any of these letters, some weeks, to be honest, I don't even open them, I just stick them in a drawer with the rest. I opened this morning's one though, it felt heavy and I was curious as to what was inside.
There was the usual Dickenson dispatch "One crucifixion is recorded-only-/How many be/ Is not affirmed of Mathematics-/Or History-".
Wrapped around the poetry was an enamelled copper cross, shiny and jewelled and about the weight of my palm. I didn't hold it for very long - I'm superstitious about that sort of thing, and I sometimes fear a hex, but it made me wonder about the effect a newspaper column has on readers, and what it is this person thinks I need. Religion? Protection? A touch of ornamentation? Right now, I would possibly say yes to all of the above. It's a funny feeling when someone you've never met sends you a crucifix in the post. But it's a funny sort of job too, writing your feelings to strangers every couple of weeks, talking to people you don't know on the radio.
These are jobs that invite all sorts of wonderful opportunities for connection, but also for inspection and perhaps inevitably, disapproval. Why do I them? For attention? Connection? Applause? Possibly none, probably all of the above. Communication is an impulse, perhaps the strongest one we feel. These things are in my nature, I get satisfaction from what I do.
Why then should I complain when people write opinions about me, or I get sent crosses in the post? It's not a question of complaint though really, more wonder and perhaps concern that this is what I've chosen to do.
"One Calvary-exhibited to Stranger-/ As many be".
The potential downside of public life perhaps? Courtesy of a 19th century New England anchoress who spent her days sequestered, more or less.
But the good outweighs the bad, as always. The last column I wrote, about getting started in life provoked more thoughtful responses from you than I've ever received before. There was the fellow 31-year-old who wrote to me, identifying herself as the lost generation I wanted to speak for, and berated herself for trying to be an adult in relationships while she's still making mix-tapes for her ex. And the man who emailed to tell he's embarking on the next great adventure of his life, with a move to Whitianga at 76. Or the new acquaintance at a dinner who said she read what I'd written, and where I am is a good place to be. And all of the others who sent in recommendations of books to read, and radio shows to podcast. Best of all were all the people who wrote just to say "Me too." I'm as guilty as the next person of wanting to be liked. Like most of you, like Prufrock, I get up every morning and carefully prepare "a face to meet the faces that you meet", but the reason I do this is for connection.
Feathered hope sings only when you know you aren't alone. If the crosses and the arrows come because of that, so be it, you have to take the rough with the smooth.