FORESTS, TREES AND PURPLE COWS:
AN EMILY DICKINSON CONVERSION OF THE MIND
by Wendy Barker
Page 2During those years in Tucson I used to try to convince my mother and father to move us all Back East, where we had come from in the late '40s. You couldn't fool me--I knew that no real writers lived in suburban tract houses built since WWII, in neighborhoods of uncracked sidewalks and six-foot mulberry trees struggling to take root under patchy bermuda lawns. No real writers lived in Arizona, I was sure of it; they all lived east of the Hudson River, probably in glamorous places like Brooklyn, or Harlem, with fascinating real people growing as thick as the berries that brightened our pyracantha bushes in drab winter. The worst of it was, that even if my parents ever agreed to move Back East, I probably could never qualify as a writer because I seemed to lack key ingredients: I'd never be able to grow a beard, my tendency to asthma precluded my ever becoming a chain-smoker, and I couldn't imagine ever drinking large quantities of scotch and writing at the same time. Everything was all wrong. Because I did write, obsessively.
I was almost 30--in my sixth year of high school teaching and by that time living in Berkeley--when the volcano began rumbling uncontrollably, refused to lie "still" under the grass. I actually loved the teaching, the energy and spontaneity of the kids. But during passing period, I'd jot down lines for a poem on those little green pads for listing absences. While we showed the film of Julius Caesar, I'd jot down lines for a poem on one of the little pink pads for hall passes. While the kids were writing in class I'd write poems on the blue pads for library passes. And I had begun to collect them, to pile them in the two drawers of the table in the bedroom. It had gotten so I couldn't close the drawers.
So I finally resigned, even though friends thought I was crazy to give up a tenured teaching job in the Berkeley Public Schools, a district that had more bright kids littering cafeteria tables at lunch than most school districts in the country had chairs. Pay was good, medical and dental coverage were 100 percent, I was out of my mind to resign. Just take a leave, I was told. I didn't know then that I could have retorted, "Much madness is divinest sense" (P 435). But I did know what I was doing. It was time to admit who I was, to let this bomb out in the open, to dance abroad.
That was the first time in my life that I had uttered, loudly and openly, what Dickinson calls the "wildest word in the English language" (L 562). I said "No." "No" to kids whose energy was sapping mine, "No" to administrators who talked about community needs, "No" to worries about supporting myself without a regular teaching salary. I said "No" to everything that had been keeping me from the "Society" of my own "Soul" (P 303). At the time, no one understood. But for the first time in my life I knew what I was doing. And by saying "No," by closing that door, a great space opened. I began to remember where I had forgotten I was going. I began to reclaim myself.
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