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Of Questions: Remembering Emily Dickinson

Updated: Jan 30

Emily Dickinson of 16 years of age, the daguerreotype was taken in the Seminary of Mount Holyoke, between December of 1846 and the beginnings of 1847. It is the only authenticated image of the poet. She will always be the icon of the adolescent woman.

This picture portrays a piece of an envelope with Emily's annotations, the beginning of a poem, which she wrote during night-time. This collection of pieces of paper, envelopes, were recently found in a trunk in a Massachusetts home and showed that she did not only do poetry with words but with forms, it was the testimony that she created, in everything. Her poetry is also art-object.

Every day, in every session of work where I find myself with someone in search of answers, I always remind them that responses are not the things that matter, but questions. Make questions, query everything, learn to question your emotions, without searching for an answer, visualizing that fear we carry in the mouth of our stomach, in front of us, and say to it: What do you want, fear? Is there something that you want to say to me? Because questioning is the act that makes us human. By asking questions and not obtaining answers, at least vague answers, not The Answers, we, human beings of time and space, of flesh and desires, learn to know ourselves human. I don't grow tired of reminding them that, if there is something that defines us, it is a total vulnerability of metaphysical dimension: Total vulnerability, implied in being human beings—the allowing ourselves to live without searching to escape from that vulnerability. Taking with us that holy fear involved in living, without knowing who we are, why we are, how it is that we are, where we come from, whether we are going somewhere, is the act of sacred celebration. That makes us—the most humble of lives—worthy of being known, recognized and valued. We are vehicles of the holy because from the space of unknowability, we are, and from it, we search for answers. Each life is an arch, a story, marked by our condition of not knowing. From that "not knowing," in its acceptance, we constitute ourselves into something new and splendid, a collection of glimpses, of glimmers that we rob from destiny.

That is why we learn to live in consciousness. This process implies realizing that we are those who do not know and who question everything. To learn is to become conscious. How is it that one woman in her quotidian patriarchal life of the Amherst Massachusetts of 1860, while she made the daily bread eaten at her house, by her father's decree, opened inside herself space from which to ask. Intuiting answers which she annotated on the little pieces of paper she kept, and in the silence of the early morning—stolen time from her time as a child whose father defined her life and activities—wrote questions that she turned into poetry? Is there an act of rebellion, of creation that is much higher than "wanting to know," of saying "no" to the destiny of unknowability, of making sense and dignity, out of it?

To learn is to come down and put our feet on the earth, every day, in steps marked by time, footprints; we are leaves swept by the wind. Every life that passes by, and which keeps in its interior its collection of glimpses, of discoveries, takes with it something that cannot be substituted, something unique, something we should preserve. The collection of this life's forms of knowing, of its certainties, a single face of the totality of the human experience, which will never be substituted—we are only that. For this reason, asking and "annotating" through acts of creation and rebellion, the answers that we get (learning), is a duty geared toward the preservation of humanity's value. I always say that what we have learned in the exploration of our lives, that we should donate it to The Trust Fund, which protects the richness of human value, our vault of knowledge. That is the senselessness that sometimes quotidian life seems to be, our losses—the injustices that surround us like a shadow that kills any form of spring. There, we should do what Emily Dickinson did: Steal time from the time of senselessness and annotate our answers, steal time to let ourselves fold that piece of paper, and hand it over to The Trust Fund, sharing our stories with others. That is the only thing we can do. Some find answers that are worthy of complete pages, kept in The Library, books, collections; others, we only write little notes in manageable pieces of paper. But each one of them counts. Each one is unique and valuable. Every answer that was born from asking questions, from the hope of asking questions, is precious and unrepeatable and sums to the value of what we are, not in particular, but as an attempt of the human effort.

By Carmen Mariscal

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