The Silken Tent
My Letter to the World
September, 1999

September 1, 1999

Labor Day is a week away, but summer seems over here in central Pennsylvania -- the air is cooler, the children are back in school, and the neighborhood is strangely quiet. We're getting up earlier, and putting more structure back in our days. It's time to get back to the projects -- like this and No Brief Candle, my family history journal -- that were left to languish after I returned from Amherst and I turned to back-to-school shopping for my daughter, Sunday school planning (I'm teaching the fourth grade class this year), and enjoying our pond and garden now that the blistering heat has abated.

In fact, if you go to the index page of The Story Stream site, you will read much of the same paragraph you just saw, with only minor changes. It's always hard to start a project like this up again. Not long ago I came upon a  piece of wisdom regarding journal and personal narrative work that was really helpful in viewing my start-and-stop process. It suggests that we view the silences in a writing project not as failures but as fallow periods that allow the creative energy to strengthen and renew. (That idea is also expressed at The Story Stream, so I wouldn't go clicking right over there, since the family history journal has not yet been updated.)

My time in the land of Emily Dickinson had an effect on me beyond what I anticipated when I went. In some ways it was like many of the other such events (writers' conferences, personal and spiritual growth programs) that I have been frequenting over the last ten years or so. There were about 200 in attendance, about 80% women, most of them over forty (because they're the ones with the interest AND the time and money), most of them white, except for the significant contingent from Japan, where Dickinson studies is a growing field.

Unlike at a writers' conference, I had no assignments nor work to present. I was there to listen and learn. And oh what a rich climate there was for that!! There were the usual panels of papers on philology, biography, historic preservation of the sites, etc., presented by the top scholars in this field, the people who really know the score when it comes to Emily Dickinson.

Many of these people are members of one or all of three popular ED e-mail discussion groups. Each group has a slightly different focus, and most people post regularly to all three. Some of them have written 3 or 4 books on ED, published by Harvard and Holt and Scribner's. They are THE serious authorities. They know more about Emily Dickinson than Emily Dickinson did.

I have been on these lists since 1996, posting periodically. Occasionally I offer a reading of a poem, sometimes I jump in to defend "the way ED is taught in schools these days," often I "talk turkey" to some hapless student who "can't find anything about that train poem."

I was ASTONISHED when, from the very first day, people kept coming up to me and saying they had so wanted to meet me -- they enjoyed my posts, thought they were "witty, practical, and illuminating." These were people who sought me out to say this, not people who just found themselves sitting next to me. They took me seriously, and listened to the modest contributions I made at mealtime conversations and Q&A after a panel. I got offers of help with my research into 19th century domestic life, encouragement of my fiction writing, invitations to visit at their campuses.

These are people who know what they're talking about, and they wanted to talk to me.

For a year now I've had lingering doubts about myself, born of the way in which my teaching career ended. I was very wounded by the events of those last two years, something I wrote a little about back in May (using carefully-worded references to "changes in the administration, in the way power was distributed and used, in the way ethical standards and common sense were applied in making educational decisions" and leaving out words like "shallow, vindictive, and incompetent persons of status").

My confidence in myself was shaken, so much so that my physical state began to deteriorate and I spent most of the last academic year sulking. My trip to the Emily Dickinson soiree was undertaken with some trepidation, both for the intellectual challenges and the physical challenges of driving myself up there and doing a lot of walking.

My experiences there helped me remember that I am not a dim-witted obese has-been, and I found myself feeling more like my old self than I had in a long time. I came away with my confidence in myself almost fully restored now.

One of the most famous lines in the Emily Dickinson canon is "I dwell in possibility . . ." The trip to Amherst and the new season about to begin have opened up new possibilities to me. Over the next few days I'll talk about them, and how I plan to to turn them into accomplishments.

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