Helen Hunt Jackson was born Helen Maria Fiske in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was a Unitarian minister and a professor at Amherst College. But she was orphaned in her teens and sent to live with an aunt, where she attended private school and began a lifelong friendship with the writer, Emily Dickinson.
Following the loss of her husband and two sons, she turned to writing, publishing her work anonymously under the initials “H.H.” After marrying her second husband, the banker and railroad executive, William Sharpless Jackson, she heard a speech by Chief Standing Bear describing the forced relocation of the Ponca tribe to the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma. Horrified by their mistreatment, Jackson became a passionate advocate for Native American rights, and began writing and advocating on their behalf. Her book, A Century of Dishonor, exposed a litany of crimes against Native Americans and led to the formation of the Indian Rights Association in 1882.
Our inspiration for today comes from a piece Jackson wrote about hope and the seemingly impossible dream of freedom. It’s a poem titled, “Opportunity.”
By Helen Hunt Jackson
I do not know if, climbing some steep hill,
Through fragrant wooded pass, this glimpse I bought,
Or whether in some mid-day I was caught
To upper air, where visions of God’s will
In pictures to our quickened sense fulfil
His word. But this I saw.
A path I sought
Through wall of rock. No human fingers wrought
The golden gates which opened sudden, still,
And wide. My fear was hushed by my delight.
Surpassing fair the lands; my path lay plain;
Alas, so spell-bound, feasting on the sight,
I paused, that I but reached the threshold bright,
When, swinging swift, the golden gates again
Were rocky wall, by which I wept in vain.
FOR ADDITIONAL READING: See A Century of Dishonor by Helen Hunt Jackson
Some more inspirational nuggets for today:
- As the nation struggles to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, it seems appropriate for us to mark the death of the man who created the world’s first vaccine, Edward Jenner, on this day in 1823. Although he grew up a preacher’s kid, the eighth son of the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, England, Jenner was a physician by trade. In his medical practice, he noticed milkmaids were, for the most part, immune from smallpox, and he hypothesized their immunity came from acquiring cowpox, a mild disease that passed from cattle to humans. So, in 1796, he made the risky decision to inoculate the eight-year-old son of his gardener with cowpox. The cowpox virus came from pus scraped off the hand of a milkmaid who had been infected by a Gloucester cow named Blossom. Jenner then exposed the boy to the smallpox virus on multiple occasions, but the boy remained immune — proving his theory. He named the cowpox disease, Variolae vaccinae, the term from which we get the word “vaccine.” Today, Blossom’s hide hangs on the wall of St. George’s Medical School in London as a tribute to Jenner’s work.
- Today is also the birthday of the real-life heroine of The Sound of Music, Maria von Trapp, in 1905. An orphan, she was raised an atheist by an abusive uncle who was later declared mentally ill. As a young woman, she accidentally attended a Palm Sunday service and it overwhelmed her, leading her to enter the Benedictine Abbey of Nonnberg as a novice nun. When Georg von Trapp approached the Abbey to find a teacher for his sick daughter, the Reverend Mother chose Maria. She was supposed to remain with the von Trapps for 10 months, and then formally enter the convent. But she ended up developing close relationships with all 10 of von Trapp’s kids and elicited a proposal of marriage from von Trapp himself. Unlike the movie, she wasn’t in love with von Trapp at the time. But she agreed to the marriage based on her love for his kids. Over time, she grew to love their father, too, and the pair had three kids of their own after they fled Austria and settled in Stowe, Vermont. Looking back on her life, Maria later said:
“It will be very interesting one day to follow the pattern of our life as it is spread out like a beautiful tapestry. As long as we live here, we see only the reverse side of the weaving, and very often the pattern, with its threads running wildly, doesn’t seem to make sense. Someday, however, we shall understand. In looking back over the years, we can discover how a red thread goes through the pattern of our life: the will of God.”
And that’s today’s Spiritual Almanac.
Be kind, take good care and we’ll see you soon.