Tracy Lee Karner
Poetry

A Formal Change, inspired by Emily Dickinson

Tracy Lee Karner
Gazebo in Winter

After great pain a formal feeling comes– (to read Emily Dickinson’s entire poem, click here).

The day before my birthday in January, we buried my grandmother. On that same day, January 30th, my granddaughter was born.

For more than fifty years, I have been my grandmother’s only granddaughter. It is difficult to explain what a privileged position this was. She was my mentor and confidante. She taught me how to live. Now, more than ever, it is important to live what she taught me.

A crisis of grief has forced me to notice that life goes on. Death and birth enforce change in my life, both internally and externally.

My grandmother was a wisp of a thing, never weighing more than 100 pounds. Yet, she was a surprisingly strong woman. She managed, with grace and by endurance, to do whatever she set her mind to. Her housekeeping was immaculate. She fed birds and squirrels. Her flower beds thrived (she especially loved peonies and petunias) and she nourished her many house plants through seasons and years. She tended a Christmas cactus that had belonged to her mother. Under her continued care, that plant grew to be more than fifty years old.

Her hands were always busy with needlework. She crocheted perfect doilies, angels, and snow flakes, and she knit prayer shawls. She gave most of her work away. She loved northern Minnesota and knew her way around the Boundary Waters before they became The Boundary Waters. She knew all about conservation and sustainability, decades before it became hip to be green.

She loved well.

She didn’t graduate from high school because her family was poor during the depression; she had to go to work instead. And yet, she was surprisingly knowledgeable.

She quoted Shakespeare. She loved the impressionistic music of Debussey, especially Claire de Lune. She knew the western writers Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour and read almost everything they’d ever written. She knew how to make terrific beer-battered fish. She knew how to bait a hook and catch the fish–on Lake Kabetogama, near the mouth of the Ash River Trail–although she didn’t particularly like the slime of worm skin or scales of fish. She wore gloves to handle them. She could dance the Charleston with the best flapper.

She survived cancer three times, once in the 1960’s, again in the ’80’s and in the ’90’s–not three recurrences, three separate cancers! But as a result, for decades she endured severe, recurring physical pain. She met each day without complaint, with a cheerful resolve to enjoy the gift of being alive. Her fortitude was remarkable.

I, too, am mortal. I will not have forever to do what fills my body and soul with joy, to seek what intrigues me, to become my most authentic self, to write my best poem and live my best life. I want to spend more time relaxing, immersed in nature, meditating. Perhaps I won’t want to blog about my life at all. Maybe I’ll feel like it takes too much time away from living.

I doubt that I will ever again be able to forget for an instant, that life is brief, that losing it is inevitable. I want to live my life, authentically. I want to write poems even when I believe, as Emily did, that no one important will ever read them.

What do you really want to do? 

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9 thoughts on “A Formal Change, inspired by Emily Dickinson”

  1. To be nobody-but-yourself
    — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else; means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
    and never stop fighting. ~E. E. Cummings

    Wonderful post!
    love and miss you –

    1. Thank you so much for the ongoing infusion of courage.

      Wendell Berry has something to do with it, too. K. & I have both been reading him recently. It’s impossible to write with that much wisdom, unless one lives intentionally, with that much wisdom. It is a hard fight, though.

      Love and miss you, too. We’ll talk–soon!

      1. I adore Wendell Berry – he’s the inspiration for our “intentional community” idea.
        Time with sisters in AZ was wonderful!
        Let me know when you’re up for a Skype chat…

  2. Thank you for a wonderful post, Tracy. Without meeting your grandmother, I felt I knew her because of your touching and vivid details, and by the end of your description I loved her like a member of my own family.
    What a beautiful blessing and assurance to welcome your granddaughter on the day you said good-bye to your grandmother.
    Happy belated birthday to you, dear Tracy.

    1. Thank you Marylin. It was a packed 24 hours. I was extremely conscious of being in the middle of five generations of family.

      I didn’t mention that they named the baby Claire. The kids had the name picked out months before, before they knew that Claire de Lune was Grandma’s favorite music. I love that kind of serendipity. And yes, it is an assurance of hope and blessedness that birth came in the midst of grief. She has been a beautiful comfort.

  3. Tracy, What a lovely story about your grandmother. I felt myself wishing I would have known her better. Then again, it seems that much of her spirit lives on in you, my friend. Thank you for such a moving post.

  4. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your grandmother – you wrote beautifully about her. And congratulations on the birth of a granddaughter! Life has has a funny way of reminding us how fleeting it truly is. I’m wondering how the Christmas cactus is coming along?

    1. My son is a plant person and is tending the cactus, from which I’m going to take a cutting the next time I’m back in the midwest. Isn’t that cool? He’s the fifth generation. I hope to nurture the cutting into a huge and lovely plant by the time my granddaughters are old enough to take their own cuttings, if they turn out to be plant people. (I think a person either is, or is not, a born plant person–you have to have a special kind of hearing to recognize when a plant is asking to be watered, fed, taken outside, or transplanted.)

      1. How wonderful! I think that is such a special gift to pass on to generations! Hopefully one of your granddaughters will have the knack for plants – Lord knows I try but I do not have a green thumb! However, I have been able to keep a plant alive since my grandmother passed away 10 years ago…every other plant I’ve owned has long perished. My my grandma ‘helps’ me keep it alive somehow! 🙂

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