Emily Dickinson in the 21st Century

I have a busy and unfulfilling life…what else is new? (This is not a complaint, just a statement of fact). One becomes older, and things seem less impressive. Books, movies, food…all of them ok, nothing special. That’s an inevitable result of growing older. (On the other hand, when something seems out-of-the-extraordinary, you take notice).image

At work today I repeated a pronouncement I made in a poetry class I taught in Ukraine 10 years ago. I was talking about Emily Dickinson to a barely interested class. “Nature,” I said, “was Emily Dickinson’s television.”  Dickinson couldn’t help but make the natural world the subject of intense scrutiny…what other distractions were  around? Yes, books….let’s not forget books. But books are quiet and passive beasts; they are loathe to disturb their surroundings, content to stay asleep until some rude interloper ruffles through them.  In her neighborhood, according to Wikipedia, Emily was known less as a poet than a gardener. If that is your everyday world, of course you’re bound to find fascinating things to say about it. My mother works in the mortgage industry and talks about her days at work incessantly. Most might find the subject boring — it is boring   except to those whose entire world is the mortgage industry.   In my technical writing job, I constantly face verbal conundrums which I must simplify and  simplify again. I spent a few hours rewording labels and instructions on an application dialog.  It took a while to get exactly right. Software can be hopelessly complicated, and often a simple instruction can prevent the user from wandering  down a wrong path.  The process can be best compared to writing poetry. How do you distill the essence of what the user should do–without needlessly complicating things? Here is an instruction I produced after several prolix attempts.

To finish this step, you need the name & password of a domain user different from the one currently installing this program. (Note: if your website will not be associated with a Windows domain, simply choose the option to create a new local user).

Ok, maybe uninteresting to most people, but believe me, when I hit upon this exact phrasing, I was ecstatic.

Back to Emily Dickinson. Dickinson noticed all kinds of things –and imputed all sorts of cosmic significance to things she saw in her garden. But power of description was not Dickinson’s primary gift.  She was not a word painter. Dickinson managed to find  quirky and hilarious ways to describe  daily subjects in the garden. She never ceased to find new things to say about a patch of weeds.

What if Emily Dickinson were around today? Undoubtedly, she’d be working at a library or some quiet hidden place. Regardless of where  she lived or worked, her surroundings would fascinate her just as much as it did in 19th century Amherst.  Bus stops, parking lots, trash dumpsters. Modern life, I’m afraid, insulates us from natural surroundings. We live in cars and air-conditioned offices. The music or radio is always playing, and billboards and jingles are happily dancing about everywhere. Commercialism saturates our world. This week, if you’ve had any mass media turned on, you’ve no doubt been pelted with BUY messages about the new Sex in the City or Indiana Jones movie. They are like mayflies that momentarily appear, fly deliriously around and disappear without leaving a  mark.

I have never seen a mayfly. That was a metaphor, and I had to check wikipedia to make sure of my facts. In my region there are june bugs, little brownish bullet-sized creatures that suddenly overwhelm Houston for two or three weeks and  disappear. They are annoying and slightly disgusting, and you can hear the noise of them banging against the window. Also, if you swim in a swimming pool, you have to shoo a few aside during certain weeks of the year.


You’ve had a great day if you notice something remarkable about the external world. I’d like to think I have that talent.  I do not.  Most of the time I am busy plotting my day and  listening to news headlines and eating  kiwi slices in my car.  The Internet makes it easy to discover great photographers who are  busy capturing small evanescent  moments. I’ve discovered a few: Cybertoad, Vanita, lightpainter.  Artists do the same thing of course with considerable skill.

These days it is almost an accident to encounter the natural world outside. In this air-conditioned paradise, it is rare even to breathe the semi-polluted air. Nonetheless, it is great to stumble upon a new bird song; it doesn’t happen often (certainly not often enough), but it still happens…and only at the most random of moments. A year ago at my door I found a lizard resting peacefully… but alert enough to dart away at a moment’s notice. It totally caught me offguard. Why, what was a lizard doing here of all places? Two days ago I stopped at the supermarket for snacks. I brought a case of strawberries and brought them to work.  Later, while toiling over some technical document, I realized I had totally forgotten to open the case of strawberries. So I tasted one. The taste was intense and sweet. Immediately I popped another into my mouth. Another perfect strawberry! My boss and a coworker came over to talk about some software dilemma (one of several that plague my days).  I was gushing with the sensations of strawberries in my mouth. It was as if I had never tasted a strawberry until that moment. Honestly, I had never suspected that strawberries could taste so good. By pure happenstance, I must have picked up a strawberry pack at precisely the time of maximum ripeness right before it became mushy and cloying. I insisted my work colleagues take a strawberry. Only one accepted the offer, thinking me half-crazy. “Wasn’t that a kickass strawberry?” I asked. My boss nodded with half-enthusiasm.

Later that day in the swimming pool  a couple was with their 2 or 3 year old daughter in the swimming pool. She was holding onto her mother for dear life and crying.  Waaah! Waah! She was a total crybaby and seemed to hate the cold water she was floating in. Her mother was trying to acclimate her, but the baby continued crying…only to suddenly laugh when her father did something to distract her. Laughter–then sobs—then laughter again—then sobs. For a few minutes I stood watching, enjoying the mercurial nature of her emotions..all the time aware that she would cry again when her mother told  her it was time to go home.  What I heard was not the cry of melancholy (do sad people really cry?) but the cry of the unfamiliar, the cry of someone not yet attuned to the social meanings of crying.

The next day I was in the pool again. It was late; maybe 8:00 or 8:30. The sun had been lingering outside longer.  It is surreal to see the sun when you leave work at 7 or so.  I was eager to get in the pool and work off the pounds I must have gained from a day of sedentary work and snacks. I looked into the sky and saw something bizarre. (Can I describe it? I’ll try).  The sky was  dark purple, and the clouds were a blurry white —  but still easily visible. The clouds in the sky were moving rapidly.  On the ground came  a gentle wind, but in the sky,  clouds  were rushing by. I understand the illusions of proximity–those clouds were actually high up, but the clouds seemed to gallop from one end of the sky to the other  in 20  seconds. Everything was rushing by– like those time-lapse photography things you see in  movies.  It was frightening; had I missed some ominous weather report? Was my swimming to be interrupted by a serious downpour? Not really. The heavens were swirling, but the earth was unimpressed (or oblivious–take your pick).

I stared at the wild skies for at least five minutes before concluding that the weather down here would probably change. I went back to swimming laps. But before I did,  I noticed a single star up above, high above the rushing clouds. Not a single star in the sky was visible except this one, and yet the  hole in the sky it poked through was less fuzzy than anywhere else. It was a tiny patch of clarity in this darkening  rambunctious world.




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