I’m sort of particular about spaces. I’m prone to endlessly rearranging, reorganizing, and decluttering. I like spaces to be neat but not unlived-in, clean but not sterile, coordinated but not matching. I tend to lose things not because they’ve disappeared in mess, but because I found the perfect place to store them in my last tidy-up.
I don’t think I’m alone in this fastidiousness about space. Everyone has his or her own style, own preference about how things should look and feel. There are those creative types who use the “pile method” of organization, people who find beauty in the mess and don’t mind a little grime on the counters. There are germaphobes who vacuum daily and wash their curtains. Some people like big space that feels airy and modern with clean lines, while others prefer cozy, smaller hovels with rag rugs and “Bless this house” plaques.
Whatever our space inclinations, I think what we’re looking for is a place to be comfortable and a place to belong.
Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts is painted yellow, and a wide porch wraps around the whole front half. It’s so welcoming you almost can’t help but crunch up the gravel drive.
I like to think Emily and I share a penchant for bright, neat spaces. Her room in the house is simple and sunny, just a desk, a bed, and a bureau where she stashed away her little booklets of poems. On the wall in another hallway, museum staff have printed one of her most well-known poems:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
She’s writing about poetry, using “possibility” as a stand-in. She dwells in a world of endless word choice and interpretation. But I think Emily’s use of a house as a metaphor in this poem is also important. Living as a recluse and homebody for much of her life, Emily Dickinson knew something about spaces and about being comfortable. Hemmed in the yellow house in Amherst, Emily used poetry as a way to expand her world and bring in “visitors—the fairest” to her restricted space. Dwelling in possibility is a much more pleasant prospect than dwelling in loneliness.
There is one space that makes me nervous. It’s not a space we hear a lot about or a space we have pictures of. I can’t rearrange it or make sure it’s painted my favorite colors. I’m just asked to trust that it will be perfect, with no weeping or sorrow or pain.
Heaven can be a scary concept. My grandpa died last week, and it reminded me that death is a bittersweet pill. Those cliché but true sentiments of someone being “in a better place” are meant to be comforting, but they’re hard to believe. They’re hard to believe because we have so little concept of what heaven or eternal life will be like.
Many of the descriptions we do have come from poetry. The Bible’s greatest poet, David, makes an appearance in times of trouble and death because his poems give us an idea of what God’s space might look like. Green pastures and still waters and paths of righteousness are comforting places that I can imagine.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
On one of the last days of grandpa’s earthly life, just before Easter, his pastor came to sit with him. He read David’s psalm, and at the end of it he asked my grandpa, “where are you going to dwell?” Surfacing out of the haze of medication and last-days confusion, grandpa replied with vigor: “In the house of the Lord.”
The house of possibility lets Emily Dickinson glimpse heaven. It gives her a way to expand narrow hands and gather Paradise. David’s psalm does the same for me. Though green pastures and still waters don’t tell me whether everyone will hang up their coats in heaven, they help me peek into the comforting house of the Lord. And they remind me that someday we’ll all dwell in that mishmash, perfect-for-us house of the Lord of possibility together.