Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things ...

-from "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye


April is poetry month!


This week we explore "Kindness."

click here  for full text and poem study

... When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey …

The Living in the Layers program is based on the belief that our journeys are enriched by cultivating the ability to analogize and reflect upon our lives. Curriculum questions and parallel materials (samples of which follow below) are designed as an initial platform for engaging the text of a poem in order to invite such reflection. While the samples offer a glimpse of our method on paper, Living in the Layers is a program that is most fully experienced within the womb-like shelter of a small group of fellow soul tenders.

*Please contact Kathie for more information about joining an open Poetry Circle, starting your own Circle, or bringing Living in the Layers to your existing group.


Sample Study


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 –

—Emily Dickinson

Traveling through the Layers of Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”

Entering Poetic Space

  1. Poetry is a different kind of speech than prose, a way of seeing that requires the closing of eyes to one world and the opening of them in another. So begin your encounter with this poem by literally closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths, allowing the analytic, answer-driven mind to take a nap and a softer, imaginative awareness to emerge. Then listen—not only with your mind but also with your entire body—as “I Dwell in Possibility” is read.
  2. Afterwards open your eyes and write a word or two about how listening to the poem made you feel. Jot down any words or images that captured your imagination.
  3. Next, read it once all the way through to yourself, setting aside any knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about this poem, poetry, or Emily Dickinson. Afterwards, again jot down any feelings, images, or associations that stood out.
  4. Finally, read the poem again more slowly, taking time as you read to circle words and images that stop you, cause you to wonder, or make your heart beat faster. What first question does the poem invite?

Exploring the Text

An initial reading of this poem often invites speculation about Dickinson’s unusual use of capitalization—fifteen of the poem’s sixteen nouns are capitalized. While we might wonder a long time without conclusion about her intentions, the capitalized words do provide an excellent place to begin our exploration of the text.

Each of the nouns presents a separate image, forms the base of a more complex image verse, and is also an aspect of a larger metaphorical image that is carried through the entire poem. The words and phrases are layers of the text’s structure, and by playfully engaging them we can also begin to uncover layers of meaning within the poem—and within our lives. One way of doing so is to borrow the poem’s language—walk through it as we might a house, taking in the ambiance of each room, opening windows, turning on lights, testing the locks on the doors. So let’s walk!

  1. The first noun we encounter as we enter this “house” is Possibility. What definitions and personal associations come to mind when you meet this word? List some synonyms and antonyms for Possibility. How does the capitalization of the word affect its essence?

    (*While not necessary, you may find it helpful to use a dictionary for this exercise.)

    Next, wonder about what it might be like to dwell in Possibility. What does it mean to dwell? In what ways other than in Possibility might one dwell?
  2. Now, continue your walk through the house by using the same method to examine each of the poem’s nouns—first separately, and then within the larger images of which they are a part.

    (*If this method of close reading is new to you, it may feel tedious at first. You’ll likely notice, however, that the words and phrases gradually begin to amplify one another in a way that permits awareness of new layers of meaning and adds joy to your process of discovery.)

    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 –
  3.  After working through each of these words and phrases, describe what emerges as the central image of the poem? For what layers of existence does this image seem to be a symbol or metaphor? What parallels between the layers of existence does the poem invite you to notice?
  4. Since Dickinson lived her life as a poet, we might assume that the tension she sets up in the first two lines between Possibility and Prose, at its most basic layer, is a conflict between poetry and prose—a poetic versus a prose way of seeing and being in the world. However, she also invests multiple layers of meaning in this imagery. In what other ways might you describe the central conflict or tension? Is that tension resolved? If so, how? If not, describe the tension and questions that remain.

Traveling through the Layers

  1. Describe your life—your way of dwelling in the world—with Dickinson’s metaphor. In what ways would you say you dwell in Possibility? In what other ways might you live in a House of Prose?

    What metaphorical Windows, Doors, Chambers, and Roof express your “dwelling”?

    Who are the visitors—both literal (family, friends, colleagues, animals) and metaphorical (ideas, opinions, moods, fantasies, ailments)—who enter your “dwelling”? What do they seek from you? What do they offer to you? To whom (and to what) is your “dwelling” an invitation? Against whom (and what) do you lock your doors?

    What is the “This” of your Occupation? What is it you gather? What have you left to gather at a later date or left for others to gather instead?
  2. Allow yourself to pulse between the literal and abstract layers of meaning within the poem’s imagery—first by describing the structure of your literal dwelling place, and then by reflecting upon the symbolic ways that this structure influences the manner in which you “dwell,” or live life.
  3. House is often a symbol for the human body. What reflections upon your own physical nature as a dwelling place does this poem invite? To whom is it an invitation? How might it turn others away?
  4. On an even deeper layer, House can be a symbol for the self, elucidating one’s inner structures—the moods, dreams, illnesses, and intuitions—through which Soul speaks. Describe with image, metaphor, or movement—perhaps even by the recollection of a dream—what Soul says about your “dwelling.”

    Name the poets within you, those inner figures who dwell in Possibility. Likewise, name the inner figures who live in “Houses of Prose.” Describe the Occupations of each.

    What tensions exist in their relationships—what circumstances, fears, habits, grief, old wounds, and apathy come between them, perhaps keep them from “gathering Paradise”? What renovations to the windows, doors, chambers, and roofs of your inner dwellings might mend the rifts? If, today, Possibility were to open the door to Prose, what greeting might she make? How might Prose in turn respond?

Living in the Layers

  1. Take some time in silence to reflect visually on your experience with this poem by searching through magazines, art books, or even your memory for an image of a dwelling (or a way of dwelling) that attracts you.
  2. Then place the image before you and meditate upon it. What might be fairer about this dwelling than the dwelling you now have? What draws you to it?
  3. Describe its Windows. What light comes through them? What view to the outer world might they offer? Likewise, describe the Doors. Where are they located? Who are the people who come in and out? What kinds of locks are necessary? And what of the Roof? How are its Gambrels angled? How might the shape of this Roof invite the gathering of Paradise?
  4. Continue this playful reverie by asking other questions of your own. Then wonder what your answers (and your questions) say about your way of dwelling in and occupying the world. Where within this house does Possibility live? Prose? What might your “dream house” tell you about “gathering Paradise”?

Layering Color

“The Farm” by Joan Miro

  1. Which elements—images, colors, textures—in Miro’s painting speak to you? What do they say? Where within the painting do you see Possibility? Prose?
  2. What of the painting’s Windows, Doors, Chambers, and Roofs? Compare and contrast them to those of Dickinson’s poem.
  3. What does the painting suggest to you about “dwelling”? What might be the Occupations of the inhabitants in such a world? What Paradise is gathered here? How is it gathered?

Weaving Texture

House as a Mirror of Self

by Clare Cooper Marcus (excerpt from forward by James Yandell)

C. G. Jung’s late-life autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, begins with a personal statement which is then generalized: “My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as whole.”

In Jung’s view, the psyche is largely unconscious. The growth of consciousness is what mental life is chiefly about. What is not yet conscious is normally experienced “out there.” in projection on the outer world. We find ourselves in other people, things, and places, in experiences felt to come from the outside. Only secondarily, if at all, do we recognize our own participation in our experience. When we do, we have a chance to reclaim the projection, ponder it, own it, and add it to our awareness of ourselves. It is in this way that personality grows—by a continuous cycle of projecting and reclaiming psychic contents. Through this feedback loop, unconscious potential is put out into the world and then brought back in at a realized, conscious level and integrated into the expanding personality.

Whenever we create something, we foster and stimulate this sequence of expression-feedback-integration. The expressive element may be minor and secondary to some outer objective, as when we do our work or cook. It may be the whole point, as when we deliberately use paint, clay, or movement for expressive purposes. Or it may be central but part of a larger process, as when we create an environment to suit us—when we make ourselves a home to feel at home in. Nesting, homemaking is a major means of personal expression and development. We create our immediate environment and then contemplate it and are worked on by it. We find ourselves mirrored in it, see what had been not yet visible, and integrate the reflection back into our sense of self.

Clare Cooper Marcus tells us that reading Jung’s account of building his stone tower retreat on the lake at Bollingen was “the start of a new direction in my work which has absorbed me for the past twenty years.” Jung says that though his scientific writing was satisfying, something was missing. He needed to concretize the psyche: “Words and paper…did not seem real enough to me; something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone.”

He built the structure in four stages at intervals of four years, not by calculation but as the impulse to expand emerged in him. The work included, finally, his own paintings done on the walls, stone-carving, a well, kitchen, and provision for self-sufficient living. In retrospect, he could see that each addition expressed a development within himself, a step in the “self-realization” of the unconscious.”

“It is thus a concretization of the individuation process … During the building work, of course, I never considered these matters. I built the house in sections, always following the concrete needs of the moment … Only afterward did I see how all the parts fitted together and that a meaningful form had resulted: a symbol of psychic wholeness.”

Jung expresses poetically what a dwelling can be psychologically, what Clare Cooper Marcus calls “house as mirror of self”: “At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself…There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland…”

We do not usually think of our everyday residence in such grand terms, yet to the extent that they express and reflect the self the language is appropriate. “In modest harmony with nature” (the title of a Chinese woodcut) includes harmony with our own nature. A right home can do that. It can protect, heal, and restore us, express who we are now, and over time help us become who we are meant to be.


The Summer Before the Dark

(excerpt) by Doris Lessing

She walked slowly down her street. She felt as if only now she had returned home. She had left cosmopolis. Young Mrs. Hatch was in her front garden, digging around her white rosebush. The girl glanced up at Kate who was walking past her garden, looked again, and as Kate was about to greet her, lost interest in the strange female, and went on digging.

Kate stood under plane trees at the foot of her garden, looking in. the large solid place stood silent under the mid-morning sun. The sky was clear, and the garden seemed overexposed, a bit limp. Things needed watering. A dove was cooing in the tree under which they had sat on that climactic afternoon. The lawn could do with some cutting: the tenants would probably cut it, in the last-minute rush before they expected themselves, the real family, to come back. A deck chair lay on its side on the lawn, looking desolate.

Kate went on standing there, in the heavy shade. Perhaps someone would come out. But nothing happened. Mrs. Enders was cooking, perhaps? Had gone out shopping? But it was not Kate’s affair. This was how her house, her home, would look very soon when Michael and she had left it to live in a flat somewhere. One says “my house,” “my home.” Nonsense. People flow through houses, which stay the same, adapting themselves only slightly for their occupants. and Kate was not feeling anything at all about this house in which she had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. Nothing. She did feel rather vague and light, as if she might take off somewhere, through a lack of substance. Certainly it was foolish to get out of bed so abruptly, after being in it for three weeks and not eating for so long, to come halfway across London. She would go back to bed for that day. She left the shelter of the tree, and on the opposite pavement saw Mary. Mary was wearing a hat and gloves. She hated wearing both; she seldom did; what occasion could she possibly be returning from? Kate’s mouth had stretched into a smile, for the moment when Mary would look at her. But Mary’s frown did not change. Like Iris Hatch, she glanced at the woman standing there, looked again because of the creature’s eccentricity—what was a tramp doing in this respectable street?—and walked on.

 Lessing, Doris. The Summer Before the Dark. New York: Knopf, 1973. pages 163-164.