The lockdown seemed like a good time to return to one of our most famous literary recluses (and one of my beloved goddesses): Emily Dickinson. As luck would have it, there’s a new biography just out, with an inspired structure, inspired by Emily’s own method of distillation: These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, by Martha Ackmann. Besides needing Emily’s distilling intelligence near me right now, I also bought this book because a numbered list sounded like something I could manage to work through in my current distracted state. It reminded me of another idiosyncratic and numerical biography about another of my secular saints: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer; it’s in the “bedside table” collection on my Kindle—a pool for soothing dips before drifting off. Ackman’s “pivotal moments” promised some consequential dreams, some guidance through the pandemic landscape.
Of course Dickinson’s isolation—much puzzled over and much theorized—was gradually chosen and carefully shaped, while ours has been thrust upon us, followed by a tsunami of virtual “connectings,” willed or not, welcomed or intrusive. Far from reducing social involvements, the quarantine has felt like a sky-rocketing learning curve, an increasingly deafening din of new platforms, pastimes, practices, press briefings, virtual backgrounds, virus updates, medical exhortations, mask protocols, memes, meanings. A far cry from “the soul selects her own society/then shuts the door.”
Not that there were no claims on Dickinson’s attention—her large circle of family, friends, and literary correspondents kept her deeply engaged—philosophically and emotionally—with the world. But the pace and medium of her sociality must—I imagine—have given her days a quality of containment, even control. Days like carefully prepared flower beds, ready for planting and tending. Our isolation days—or mine, at least—have often felt like bomb shelters during a blitz: incoming, incoming—how far did that one fall? What does it mean? When will the next blast come? TMI, we used to joke. Not so funny right now, this flood of bad news from everywhere, this stream(ing) of planetary suffering.
It’s a mark of privilege, I know, to be complaining about internet overload, when others spend hours on food bank lines, rush through crowded hospital wards, do demanding jobs from kitchen tables shared with listless kids, say Zoom farewells to loved ones on their deathbeds. Knowing of those levels of hardship and pain swirls strands of guilt and sorrow and helplessness into the emotional eddies of my isolation days.
Dickinson’s days, I like to believe, were spent journeying between vast abstractions and intensely close observation of her inner and outer worlds. My quarantine version of that transit is a shuttling between distracting detail and flashes of planetary consciousness. Quarantine seems to intensify the opportunity to practice one of the dicta of ecological thought, balancing “sense of place and sense of planet.” Environmental thinkers aren’t the only ones connecting the dots between this crisis and the looming, “long emergency” or climate change. Even climate deniers have to take note of the clear skies over New Delhi and Beijing. Many in the climate and social justice movements are urging that this “pause” not be wasted, but become instead a turn in the right direction, a “swerve,” as Dickinson’s descendant Ellery Akers calls it, evoking the sensations that announce change:
it’s heavy, the way the weight of letters is heavy,
arriving in sacks at the Senate;
it sounds like the click of needles
as hundreds of thousands of women knit pink hats;
it looks like a coyote, crossing the freeway to go home.
Quarantine could be a good time to invest in the idea of decisive choices and sensory heraldings. As the hours and days swirl together, as the digital din rises and falls, I’m trying to be alert to any pivotal moments and swerve sensations. I’m grateful for exercises like Bruno Latour’s “little exercise to make sure things don’t restart after the lock out just as they were before”. Most of all, I’m intrigued by the chance to see and feel what it means to be in—fully within and deeply aware of—every day.
1Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: : The Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford University Press, 2008.
2Ellery Akers, “At Any Moment, There Could be a Change in a Different Direction,” Swerve: Poems on Environmentalism, Feminism, and Resistance, Blue Light Press, 2020.