“Despite her rarely leaving her (okay, New England) house, there is a spiritual homelessness in Dickinson that I loved even as a youth. She writes of an imaginary spider that is “so much more at Home than I / …I felt myself a visitor.” She refers to countless things, inanimate and animate, as “Souvenirs,” as if she were just passing through this world on her way to somewhere else, which is ironic when one considers how much of her life she spent at home. Much is made of her sense of place, which seems like a no-brainer for such a stationary individual, but I don’t think she’d disagree with Samuel Beckett’s idea that the true artist comes from nowhere.
I had coped with many of the events in my childhood by pretending that my home wasn’t my home and that its people weren’t my people. One practices this for a while, and before one knows it, one suffers from a perpetual disassociation, or Chronic Tourism. One becomes an unscientific anthropologist, absent-mindedly cataloging the ways of the natives. An unfortunate side effect of this syndrome is that one occasionally fails to consider the feelings of one’s subjects. Once, I used the answer blanks of a test—for which I was unprepared—to write a malicious analysis of Miss Crosswell (her fears, her righteousness, her lonely motivation). The assistant principal threatened me with expulsion, saying that my attack had made Miss Crosswell cry, that it had hurt her more than any other blustery teen cruelty she’d weathered. She informed me that Miss Crosswell was one of the few teachers who honestly loved her job, who wasn’t here by some career default. It was decided that I would have to “attend” Miss Crosswell’s class sitting out in the hall until she could accept my apology and allow me to return. Which she never did. Suited me fine; I could be even more of an impartial observer from my desk in the hall. But there was a long-term punishment brewing, one as ironic and tragicomic as that of Tantalus or Sisyphus. I would grow up to be an English teacher freighted with spiritual complications and personal investment in my work, standing in front of an adolescent powder keg, teaching, among other things, the work of Emily frigging Dickinson.”
No lie, this is one of my all time favorite Rumpus essays. It was originally printed in a 2003 issue of Oxford America and was discovered, and reprinted online, by our very own Kyle Minor.