#12: Emily Dickinson and Building a Life

#12: Emily Dickinson and Building a Life


28 April, 2019

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing." -Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I fulfilled a childhood dream this morning and visited Emily Dickinson's house. Growing up, my parents tried rather hard to make us New Englanders, so I had Barbara Cooney's illustrated picture book about a neighborhood child that strikes up a relationship with a reclusive Emily, and Tasha Tudor's gorgeously watercolored collection of Emily Dickinson poems for children. The Emily I grew up with was one that, much like I did, rambled on her own across a very particular kind of Massachusetts half-wilderness, and knew the names of plants and animals and curled up in corners with books also. I grew up, largely before the house became a museum, about an hour away, and have spent nearly the last two years an hour and a half away. And now, two months from now, I'll be moving away. 

Next week, I finish my coursework for my masters degree, and the week after that, I'll be in Chicago, looking for a new place in which to build our lives. I've been wildly happy in my masters degree. The past two years, and definitely in the last six months, it has felt like I've figured out so much about how I want to live: how to make time to write and read and also, the blurriest outlines of a way to live in the world not only responsibly but beautifully. I have cultivated a whole host of beautiful and motivated and motivating relationships that make all of this work easier and more communal, have made friends and found mentors. The house (apartment, really) I live in now is the first one I have lived in together with my partner and our dog, our first home, with its splintery uneven floorboards and our thrifted kitchen table and our bafflingly purple bathroom and the couch where we drink our coffee in the mornings with the dog stretched out between us. All this to say: I like my life very much right now, and am dreading its changing. 

But change it must, because of the nature of masters degrees and commitments to the people I love. I'm suspended right now in that spot where I know what's ending but I still can't quite see what is going to start up yet. I know there will be something, that my life will feel as full as it does now, but I'm still a little scared. 

Very close to the end of Middlemarch, George Eliot describes the (spoiler!) Largely happy marriages of the romance(s) she has spent hundreds of pages tracing as "the beginnings of the home epic." I love this phrase, "the home epic." It gives our quiet lives the grandeur we feel when we are inside them, and makes central to our stories so much of what happens with those we love the most. I also want to argue Dickinson, famously unwed, mythically lonely, as the protagonist of a different kind of home epic. Dickinson once said that "home is the definition of God," and if you think about it this way, it makes a great deal of sense that she wouldn't leave her home. If I had found God's embrace on earth, I would coop myself up in it too. But I think, critically, home also had all of the things that Dickinson needed--her books, her small desk, wide windows out onto the world. She built up a life both dreaming about what came next (I was surprised by how often the tour guide talked about our assumption of Emily as someone who was obsessed with death), and paying keen and close attention to everything around her. Her poems on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes, her letters to her brother's wife across the way, her little desk the size of a bedside table under portraits of both Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her bright and sunlit bedroom, all of this leads me to the idea of a life built and shaped around poetry. 

There's a new movie about her life that is largely based on a supposed affair between her and her sister in law, (which, I won't speculate too much on but will say that Susan's edits were some of the only ones Emily accepted to her poems, and Susan was the largest recipient of her poetry,) but the woman who directed the movie pushes back against a great deal of Dickinson scholarship in a way I find deeply meaningful: "Davies's fixed idea about Emily is that she was writing out of lack. The record shows that she was writing out of abundance." 

The record shows that she was writing out of abundance. 

So here I am, in the middle part of an arc of change, wanting to think and write and live out of abundance, even when it feels like my resources are if not mutable then mutating. I want to live a life that's bigger than its container, and for this, Emily Dickinson is a guiding star.