For those of you who don't already know this, Emily Dickinson did not title any of her poems. They are referred to by the first line, or by numbering systems. Later I may break down the difference in the numbering systems used by Thomas Johnson & R.W. Franklin, but at the most basic level, they both numbered her poems in the chronological order of how they believe the poems were written. I own the Franklin edition, so the numbers included with each poem follow the Franklin system. For this first poem, I will later add the number.
We play at Paste--
Till qualified for Pearl--
Then, drop the Paste
And deem Ourself a fool--
The Shapes, tho', were similiar--
And our new Hands
Learned Gem Tactics
This poem was one of the very first poems that I choose, if not the first, for my master's thesis. I love Dickinson's writing because it goes straight to the heart of what it means to be in a process. I've realized that many parts of our life are cyclical, but it works like a spiral, taking us up into a higher level as we go around, or if you prefer to think of it in another way you can think of it as a spiral leading inward.
We start at a basic level, whether it's in a job or something as simple as learning to walk or write. I've worked with young children, and I know that when they start with projects it's best to start simple with things that are expendible like Elmer's glue or glue sticks and construction paper. I wouldn't give a preschooler a piece of marble or glass to make a sculpture or stained glass window. First of all, s/he doesn't possess the fine motor skills needed to use the items necessary to create. Secondly, it would be dangerous to let a child use tools that are sharp when s/he is not able to safely and responsibly handle them. And lastly, s/he would not understand the concepts needed (unless dealing with a prodigy) to create art on that level.
Does that mean that his/her art has no value or that the work was pointless? No. A preschooler must make a lot of squiggly lines and scribbles before s/he can learn to write and draw. There is value in the process. Eventually, s/he will reach the level of advancement for something --more like going from crayons to markers or drawing to clay. But the mistake that we make is in reaching the level of clay and scorning our feeble attempts to draw. Or reaching the point of using a pottery wheel and scorning the finger-molded and likely misshapen pot. Without the misshapen pot, we would not have developed to reach the use of the pottery wheel.
The tendency might be to read this poem and think that Dickinson is praising the pearl, the accomplishment. Our society rewards accomplishment but often scorns or shies away from the hard work that led up to the accomplishment. Certainly, we don't like at all to think about the mistakes that led to the refinement of the skill that finally reached the "pearl."
And while she challenges the reader to consider the entire process as valuable and of worth, she asks the next question. Maybe we should not only value what got us to the point of skill or advancement that we are at, but maybe we should also realize we are always in the process of learning and changing. We are in a new place, but this "pearl" is only the "gemtactics" and "practicing sands" that will lead us to an even greater level of achievement. It's all interwoven and a part of us, and denying one part of our experience with all the value it created in our live denies part of who we have become. Likewise, limiting ourselves to the perception that we have "arrived" robs us of the chance to look for opportunities and to be aware of our progress (whether we choose to be aware of it or not) into yet a higher or deeper level.