statures that touch the skies

Posted by on June 23, 2010

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies–

The heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a king–

by Emily Dickinson

* * *
Jeff got his hair cut yesterday from The Barber on campus, whose name is Frank. He told an interesting story of how he came to cut hair for a living. His father had been a barber, so in his youth he had worked in his father’s barber shop, but went on to become a chemical engineer. His father told him to never let his barber’s license expire because he might need to fall back on it someday. Then, after years of working as a chemical engineer, the company he worked for started suffering financial setbacks and he was laid off. He thought about looking for a job cutting hair but knew he had let his barber’s license lapse. When he looked into renewing it he discovered that his father had been renewing it for him every year already. Then, as he lay in bed one night he heard a voice say: “Frank, get your ass up to Notre Dame. You’re going to cut hair.” So, he went up to Notre Dame, where he was told that they already had a barber, but would introduce him. Frank and the barber hit it off, and the barber shared a secret with him that no one else yet knew: he would be retiring in one month. And so, that was how Frank became the barber at Notre Dame, and has been cutting hair for the last twenty years. “Talk about a still small voice,” said Frank.

I thought that was a great story. And then there was this NPR story that really delighted me this week about a fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Neurosurgery researchers at Johns Hopkins are saying that Michelangelo drew an anatomically correct brain in God’s neck. It is subtle, but there, hidden, but clearly visible.

I adore the fact that Michelangelo hid a brain in God’s neck and I adore the fact that it took until 2010 for his audience to find it. I want to go back in time and tell Michelangelo about this. I think it would tickle him, even though I feel sure that he put the brain there to please himself, not a present or future audience. It was not socially or theologically acceptable in his lifetime to be passionately interested in human anatomy, but he was, and he found a way to incorporate it into his art for his own pleasure, without waiting for a green light from others which he knew he would never receive. I think that, in art, this is called sublimation. I wonder if all artistic courage involves something of this: sniffing out the latent space between the sphere of total isolation and the sphere of what is socially acceptable and then expressing something into that space, creating something suitable for it. And the only thing suitable for that space is brilliant subtlety. Emily Dickinson was a master at this.

My third anecdote for today involves dust jackets. Apparently children’s book publishers think that it is a great idea to include a dust jacket with nice hardback children’s books. It seems obvious enough to me without any explanation that an easily removable piece of paper, intended to be kept smooth and intact, is not a good idea for anything which will be used and handled by children. For some time now I’ve fantasized about throwing away these dust jackets into the recycling bin because of their uselessness and the fact that they take up space and make the shelf in my child’s room look cluttered. When I worked in an antiquarian bookstore in college, I learned that dust jackets are worth 30% of the total value of a book. This fact in my head, and the thought that one day these books might pass into other hands, and then they will need their dust jackets back, has kept me holding on.

But what really prevents me from making certain decisions, from big to little, is a fundamental fear of responsibility. It’s as if I am waiting for the voice of God–or Random House, or a friend– to give me permission to act before I can act, even when I already know what it is I want to do. But sometimes I am so in the habit of taking my cues from external sources that I do not know what I want to do. In certain areas I am so out of touch with what I want I cannot even access it when I try. I have obscured it to myself because the responsibility for acting on it is potentially terrifying.

I think that this is what Emily Dickinson is writing about here. I warp the cubits of my own potential when I choose not to be self-determining, when I forfeit myself to external forces, both real and imagined, and then resent them for yanking me around. It is time for me to begin changing this pattern of behavior.

I believe in the veracity of Frank’s story. God may speak to us with a literal voice if a situation calls for it. I just have to wonder if God only speaks this way when the person in question is already self-determining enough to receive it responsibly. More often, I imagine, there is a still small voice within each person, a bundle of functioning parts made in God’s image. It is both beautiful and terrifying to be like God, to have a brain, and to completely own our own decisions, knowing that decisions will also involve mistakes, because we actually are not gods. But it is also perfectly fine to make mistakes. Finally I see that all of this uncramping of human stature is far more beautiful than it is terrifying.

Poetry Wednesday

  1. Jenny Schroedel
    June 23, 2010


    I love the humility in Frank, and his sense of that still small voice…and the brain in the neck! And the way that this voice comes to us in such subtle and gentle ways sometimes…I agree, we must live from that choosing part of ourselves and allow ourselves to make many, many mistakes. It's only natural!

  2. Kris Livovich
    June 23, 2010

    Speaking as a person who has already recycled, thrown away and used the dust jackets for craft projects, I like making my own decisions, for better, and a lot of times for worse. All those anecdotes are so interesting.

    Do you ever listen to "The Story" on NPR? It's one of my favorite shows. Amazing the fascinating stories that are hidden behind peoples seemingly boring lives.

  3. annajouj
    June 23, 2010

    Oh I love this, Julia . . . and you have just given me the most delightful memory of long-forgotten days assisting the book processor when I was a librarian: we had files full of the dust jackets, not being able to keep them on the library-use books. So one of my favorite jobs ended up being my "New Title" bulletin board, on which I used my favorites of those jackets to create a rotating sort of collage . . .
    Thanks for the ever-delightful glimpse into your brain 🙂

  4. Marigold
    June 24, 2010

    I love that poem but I can't for the life of me see the brain in God's neck! I looked really hard! 🙁

  5. Julia
    June 24, 2010

    If it helps any, I think it is more technically a brain stem, not an entire brain, and is supposed to look the way a man's brain would look if his skin were translucent and you could catch a glimpse of his brain through his neck at that angle. Wow, that was hard to articulate.