December 10, 1999
Today is the 169th anniversary of the birth of Emily Dickinson. Regular readers of this space already know of my devotion to the study of this poet’s work (see “Off to See the Wizard” and “Re-Turning”). This past Monday (December 6), I indulged myself in what is essentially my family’s Christmas present to me. I drove to Washington, D.C. for the Poetry Society of America’s annual birthday tribute to Emily Dickinson, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, just across the street from the Library of Congress.
I drove down early in the afternoon — it’s an easy two and a half hours, only slightly complicated by the need to navigate a very busy but unfamiliar downtown. I’d gotten “door-to-door, turn-by-turn” driving directions from some Internet site. I was a little nervous about them, because after they suggested that I turn right out of my driveway and proceed about 1000 feet to Progress Avenue (so far so good), they gave quite a circuitious route to I-83 (the highway to Baltimore).
But I found my hotel easily — one I’d chosen by requesting a list from Choice Hotels’ D.C. locations and selecting one that was 1.5 miles from the Washington Monument.
There’s something about being single and unshared in a big city that makes me think about the paths my life has not taken. I watched from my window as office lights across the street began to wink out and smartly dressed women with leather bookbags and walking shoes exited the building. My mother once told us that it had been her girlhood ambition to go to Washington and become an executive secretary to a government official — like Mrs. Landingham, the president’s factotum on West Wing. As I do during every episode of that show, this night, while watching the women walking home along 16th Street, I thought about what my mother might have become if she’d followed that dream, and of who and what I might have been instead of who I am.
Idle speculation, of course, and unproductive. I had a poetry reading to attend. The early evening air was crisp but not windy. I consulted my map, gauged the distance from the Washington Monument to the Folger as being not too far, and started off on foot.
Walking in Washington is exactly like walking in Harrisburg. The nation’s capitol dome seen from several blocks away looks a lot like Pennsylvania’s, only with a shot of Miracle-Gro. Isn’t it dangerous? Weren’t you afraid, my friends asked when I told them this story. No more dangerous than Harrisburg, I said. During my 90 minute walk (the Folger turned out to be much farther than I had figured) I saw the same features of city life I might have seen at home — one woman (not disheveled) sharing a park bench with about eight plastic garbage bags, one panhandler, several dozen joggers, and a man who asked directions to “Ben-syl-bann-ia.” I told him it was about two and a half hours, and a few minutes later realized he meant Pennsylvania Avenue, one block over.
I had this realization as I passed the gate to the White House that I remember being identified as the one where Monica Lewinsky threw a hissy fit when told the President had another guest and could not see her. It was about 6:25 when I walked by — I thought I might see someone like Claire Shipman standing outside ready to tell NBC viewers about some momentous event of the day (“Well, Tom, the President announced this afternoon. . . “). But the place was deserted. I did see a foursome in black tie and cocktail dresses exit at that gate. They fell into step behind me, but soon overtook me and then crossed the street. One of the women asked how far their destination was. She was wearing spiked heel black shoes with sequins that sparkled as she clickety-clicked past a bare tree festooned with tiny white lights.
As the evening deepened the crowd thinned — just as in Harrisburg, the business district of D.C. clears out on an ordinary Monday. I passed a lot of landmarks — the Treasury Building, the Reflecting Pool. And I discovered why they call it “Capitol Hill.” It is, indeed, on a hill. I knew that I could shave a lot of distance off my trip if I cut across the grassy area behind the Capitol — what I would have done in Harrisburg. But I didn’t know if this was allowed.
A soft rain began to fall during the last ten minutes of my walk — ten minutes necessitated by my having taken a wrong turn. I arrived at the Folger a half hour before the program was set to start — in fact, I walked in with the evening’s speaker, poet Elizabeth Spires.
Elizabeth Spires teaches creative writing at Goucher College, which is just outside Baltimore. She is married to fiction writer Madison Smartt Bell, who also teaches at Goucher.* They have a daughter, Celia, now nine, the subject of many of the poems in Spires’ most recent collection, Worldling. This summer, Spires also published a children’s story, The Mouse of Amherst, a tale told from the point of view of a poem-writing mouse who lives in Emily Dickinson’s house.
I was drawn to her work from a piece included as an example in a poetic craft textbook I use. Spires was the same age when Celia was born as I was when my daughter was born. I had brought to this event a copy of Wordling as well as two copies of The Mouse of Amherst, all of which I hoped to have signed (the second copy of Mouse for my cousin’s three-year-old). As I’ve said before, I don’t just read poetry, I buy poetry.
Before the program began I chatted with people I’d met this summer in Amherst — they were manning a table with material appealing for preservation funds for the Dickinson properties, and secured a ride back to my hotel. Inside the auditorium (built to resemble Shakespeare’s Globe), the lights dimmed, and someone introduced someone who then introduced Elizabeth Spires.
And for the next ninety minutes I was held in thrall. She gave a history of her attachment to Emily Dickinson, read a few Dickinson poems and gave commentary, and then began to read from her forthcoming collection, many of the poems about spending time with her mother during the mother’s final illness.
Over the past several months I came to a realization that I was dissatisfied with the things to which I had devoted so much effort in my first year of my retirement. I’d plunged into volunteer work and into setting myself up as a teacher of memoir writing and photo preservation classes. And while I enjoyed the work that I did, it was, in essence, more of the same as a public school career — helping others develop their potential. Noble work, but enervating. All through this autumn I was feeling an intense call to really retire from all the “getting and spending” which were, indeed, laying waste my powers, and devote my energy to my own writing.
And sometime during Elizabeth Spires’ reading, possibly during a poem about dogwood trees blooming and fading, a metaphor for a friend’s early death, I made the decision. Beginning on the Feast of Stephen (December 26), I shall actively pursue only my own development as a writer. A lot of it will be reflected here (a lot more than is currently!) so if you’re a fan of this space, rest assured it’s not going away.
After the program Spires spent a good deal of time signing books and chatting with the people who had lingered. (In my experience, the very biggest talents in literature are also the most generous of their time in this regard.) In the morning I left early, abandoning my previous plan to visit the Smithsonian (specifically, the Smithsonian shops!) in favor of getting home quickly. After all, I have a Christmas party and a writing career to get ready for.
(* Please note that if I were writing about Madison Smartt Bell I would mention that he is married to poet Elizabeth Spires. Just so you know.)
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