Stand ajar

Amy's open gate, a fitting symbol of her open heart.  Winnweiler, Germany, August 2005

Amy’s open gate, a fitting symbol of her open heart. Winnweiler, Germany, August 2005

“The Soul should always stand ajar
That if the Heaven inquire
He will not be obliged to wait…”  — Emily Dickinson

There has been much conjecture about Dickinson’s relatively minimal social contact, which was unusual for a woman from a prominent family.  She has been labeled a “hermit” or a “recluse,” but perhaps she was simply an introspective woman devoted to nontraditional pursuits, and she understood that staying busy with too many tasks would hinder the sort of inner and outer explorations that inspired her writing.

As with most good poetry, there are many ways to interpret the poem from which the lines quoted above have been drawn.  Regardless of how her imagery is interpreted, she clearly is urging readers to remain open and ready for whatever gifts Heaven may confer.  Perhaps one way she allowed her own soul to “stand ajar” was her habit of favoring quiet contemplation and contact with nature over an active and lively social calendar.

Just as there are many different personalities and temperaments, so there are various ways of remaining open and ready to receive blessings.  Whether one is an introvert or extrovert, it’s a pretty safe bet that being too busy, hurried or distracted might get in the way of sensitive receptivity.   What are some ways we can allow our souls to “stand ajar” and be ready to hear the music over the noise?

One year ago today:

Going to the desert


  1. bobmielke

    My dear sister, Barbara, taught me something I value in life’s journey. She said we need to be a gracious giver but that it’s equally important we learn to be a gracious receiver of gifts. So many of us rob the givers in life of blessing by turning down offering given in love. Yes we all get warm and fuzzy feelings and blessings from helping or sharing our blessings with others so allow others to share with us.

    • Bob, I think that is so true. It seems to me that some people are far more inclined to be taking than giving, but there are also those who have just the opposite tendency, and sometimes these two types end up together and reinforce each other’s one-sided approach to life. Receiving a gift gracefully and gratefully is a gift given in return. Is there any better feeling than believing you’ve made someone happy? That’s what we give when we receive in love.

      Giving can be an awkward thing, especially today when much is made of pride, independence and sensitivity to any perceived insult. I think a lot of people shrink from giving directly to others for this reason, fearing they will offend. And receiving requires a humility that is likewise out of fashion. Hence we find it more tasteful to have proxy forms of giving to people or receiving from them – through our taxes which fund government programs that keep others at a comfortable distance, or through the impersonal gifts of money that are increasingly not acknowledged with even a handwritten note of thanks. If we could somehow return at least a little bit to the personal ways of giving and receiving that existed for generations before our modern ways of distance and anonymity took over, we’d have a lot less unhappiness in this world.

      • bobmielke

        As my sister’s 4 girls were growing up they learned from their mother the gifts of giving so well that one Christmas they asked their parents to give their gifts to the less fortunate around them. That was a joyous holiday indeed.

        • That is wonderful, Bob. It’s the sort of thing you hear about but seldom see in actual practice. When Kelly (a.k.a. Boomdee) won the $50 grand prize at my one-year blog anniversary celebration, she asked me to choose a charity to donate to. I loved it! Double fun.

    • That’s so true! I had such a hard time receiving from others, until I realized how greedy I was being!

      • It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but learning to receive gracefully is one of the most unselfish things we can do. The whole issue has been confused badly by our culture’s willing conversion of the notion of giving to a scheduled, formal financial obligation. “Give me money, or if you can’t do that, at least give me something specific that I have listed.” Nothing wrong with either of those methods from the standpoint of giving, but when recipients start to expect and demand it (and complain when their orders aren’t honored) then the whole thing goes downhill quickly.

  2. HarryS

    A Morning Resolve

    I will try this day to live a simple, sincere and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.

    In particular I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.

    And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.– Forward Day by Day.

    🙂 Ah! A balanced life! 🙂

    • Wow Harry, that is beautiful. I need to print that out and read it each morning first thing. And maybe several times during the day too! I should have gotten to these comments earlier today, for example! 😀 Thanks so much for sharing this.

  3. singleseatfighterpilot
    • Eric, thanks for the reminder of that lovely old song. I haven’t heard it for years. I learned to sing it with slightly different words, but I remember it well. The image of a gate standing ajar is very appealing.

  4. Good morning, Julia! Good morning also to Julia’s dear readers – your comments are so fun and add to the great energy here at this site!
    I’ve been reading Quiet (the Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking), and Susan Cain cites many, many examples substantiating the importance of alone time, to actually increase productivity and creativity. I know that most of my “eureka moments” occur on long walks or in the shower. (Hmmm. Maybe they are long showers ….) I also turn my phone ringer to block from 9 pm to 6 am (with an override for my immediate family and uncle, for just in case).
    I do get cranky when I don’t get enough alone time, and I even get disorganized, which makes me even more exasperated. So I’m sure I’m doing everyone a favor by being unavailable at those times! 🙂

    • Thank you for acknowledging all those who contribute here, Susan. What makes blogging so special is the interaction that is possible between people all over the world — an online meeting place where we can share ideas and learn more about each other’s lives. I guarantee you I wouldn’t have done this every day for two years without the energy that is given to me by those who are so generous with me here.

      The book you mention is one that intrigues me; I think it’s the same one from which I read an excerpt in a magazine. I have found that so many ideas come to me while I am walking, and I too will get very cranky if I don’t have any time alone. I guess I was always that way to some extent, but have become more so over the years, as our circumstances often gave me huge periods of time by myself, which I never minded. I’ll have to put that book on my reading list (a.k.a. the black hole of good intentions).

  5. Interesting Julia,. I think we have to believe that there is music before we can be open to it. I for one try to keep my soul to “stand ajar.” Contemplation is key for me, and believing that there is something bigger than life here on earth. I also think fear and greed keeps people from being receptive or able to feel the graces bestowed upon them. The world would be a better place if we all kept our soul’s to ” stand ajar.” :o)

    • Thank you Patricia. I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it, but fear and greed would definitely be obstacles to leaving the heart open. Fear that someone will hurt us, or take some part of ourselves that we don’t want to give up; greed in keeping everything to ourselves lest someone else disrupt our plans, or want part of what we feel is ours alone. Our society is becoming more and more closed to outsiders, literally and figuratively; in some ways this cannot be helped, but we do need to be open to each other, and ready to know people. I’m reminded of the generosity of your family in Italy who welcomed you into their homes and hearts with such joy and obvious delight. Maybe we all need a bit of “the Italian thing!”

  6. raynard

    Julia I’m reminded of my oldest brother today. After my mom died in 1990, he became more of a recluse. My first cousin’s wife use to work with him. She said on the job they called him” Herman the hermit”.. He just beginning to text people. He’s had alot of losses in his life and compensated by ” becoming a workaholic and now’s he’s retired after 44 years on the same job. A blog I wrote to honor him several years ago Hope you enjoy it. be blessed

    Named after his dad and went by his middle name, but the family called him”pat’ cause he was born on st Patrick’s day. at 13, his dad told him “you are now the man of the house..from that moment on, work is all he did.. he told me this, when our mom passed away..this is the same man who would sit in a room with you for hours and only say 3 or 4 words..growing up in NYC, i remember he worked in the neighborhood drug store on the corner of our block. he owned a ten speed bike which i seen in his room but never saw him ride. he enjoyed “mike&Ike and “hot tamale” candies..his room door was always open, and from a distance, i admired his cuff links in his jewelry box. always wore nice suits and shirts were always coming back from the Chinese laundry starched and pressed. we use to play basketball from a hoop made from a old milk crate. he knew my nickname “clyde’from one of my favorite basketball players. every birthday and Christmas, he gave all of us cards only mine had more money in it that my younger sisters..after meeting his future stepdaughter, she became the family”tattletale lol her mom after marrying into the family, had “religious reason to refuse medical treatment and passed away…i would years later be the first to meet his 2Nd wife.we would spend time in my teen years going to annual auto shows but he never had a driver’s license.(in nyc the subway takes you everywhere).he has a daughter who always felt like “the black sheep of our family and now the only way she wants to talk is on the computer..he would come by the house everyday and drop off a newspaper and a music was a sight to see, his 2x girlfriends and his x wife all sitting together on the same couch and not knowing who was who..Sep.t, 11Th, he was working in the second tower and god was answering prayers when he got out and i got a phone call from him days later..last time we seen each other was at our younger cousin’s wife and i, send him Christmas cards and he responds with very little words.his name is Herman Victor Shellow and he is my oldest and only brother. god willing he will be 62 this year. thank you lord for watching over him. may all who read this be blessed.

    • Raynard, thanks for sharing these wonderful stories about your brother. Has he read this essay? I hope so. I can’t imagine being 44 years on the same job; I am impressed when I meet someone who has spent 20 or 30 years at one position! I hope he will find ways to enjoy retirement – I always worry about these workaholic types when retirement rolls around. I think it would be even harder for those who are not big talkers. You probably realize I’m thinking of someone I know quite well when I say that! 🙂 BTW the ballplayer you mentioned was not Clyde Lee, was it? I met him once. He went to the high school that was affiliated with my college, and I think he would come there sometimes after retirement maybe. But it might have been in Atlanta where I met him. I don’t remember the exact occasion I met him, but I was with my older sister at the time, and I remember being amazed that she had the nerve to call him “Clyde” when speaking to him, as if they were friends or something, which seemed just fine with him. I DIGRESS! Back to the story of your brother – I appreciate your sharing your memories of him here. I am so thankful that he was able to get out of the tower on 9/11 and I pray you will grow ever closer to him through the years that remain to you both.

  7. Simply: “Be Still.” Make time, for quiet time; then the soul will be receptive to a communicating God.
    On the all too seldom ocassions that I have put aside quiet time; I go so far, as to place a chair next to mine, for God to sit with me.

    • Alan, you wouldn’t happen to know Clint Eastwood, would you? I was thinking maybe he got that idea from you…JUST KIDDING!!!! In all seriousness, we do need visual prompts sometimes, and that might be a powerful way to remind ourselves that we are NOT alone, however much we may feel so. Being still is hard for me. I almost feel guilty when I do it, as if I ought to be up doing something all my waking hours. Maybe the chair is also a reminder that we are not idle when we take the time to be still; we are doing something in our stillness.

  8. Carol

    Julia, I think sometimes introverts struggle with their alone time with God because they feel Him right there, so close- not exactly the comfort zone for an introvert. This sensitivity is a blessing. I feel guilty sometimes because of the discomfort I feel – I thought it would all come easier by now. Alas, I am so thankful He lives within me. It is enough. I don’t have to be the trophy Christian.

    • Carol, thanks so much for this honest and insightful comment. It had never ocurred to me that the feeling of a close connection with God could be uncomfortable, but thinking about those I know who are true introverts, I can see where this might be true, and in fact, might explain many of the ways that people’s personal worship differs. It could be that the systematic, predictable patterns of liturgy, ritual or even rigidly defined personal devotions (all of which are the chosen practice[s] of some of the introverts I know) are ways of mitigating this discomfort; do you think that could be true? I appreciate your helping me understand this in a new light. Meanwhile, I can assure you that pretty much all of us, whether introverts or extroverts, can identify with your statement, “I thought it would all come easier by now.” There is almost no area of my life where I could not say that. Perhaps that’s the result of too much optimism! Thanks for being here.

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