Happy Birthday to me and we are up to our eyeballs in blueberries. Geoff and I went blueberry picking last weekend and brought home three gallons. We gave away a lot but that still leaves us with enough blueberries to last us pretty much for the rest of the summer. I made blueberry waffles this morning. There will be crepes tomorrow morning with ricotta and . . . berries that are blue. I imagine a cobbler off in the distance. Muffins too. Good thing I like blueberries.
Emily sends a peculiar birthday greeting for me.
#372, ca. 1862
I know lives, I could miss
Without a Misery —
Others — whose instant’s wanting —
Would be Eternity —
The last — a scanty Number —
‘Twould scarcely fill a Two —
The first — a Gnat’s Horizon
Could easily outgrow —
Whew! Cold-hearted Emily. She begins and ends the poem with a reference to the expendable people. The center few lines describe the people (all two of them) whose lives matter to her. So the poem’s main concern is to let us know that there are lots of people around who could drop dead and Emily wouldn’t mind too terribly. Was she just in a bad mood when she wrote this? Or just a brutally honest mood? I suspect the latter.
Only in the privacy of her poem could her cold knife of a mind do its work. That means telling the unvarnished truth. Emily can’t be bothered with most people because most of them are, let’s be honest, dreadful. Dogs are better.
Her tone is not nasty or defensive. I do not get a sense of the wounded idealist huddling behind a show of toughness. No, Emily really truly can do without most people. And she did exactly that. You have to admire her consistency and conviction. The poem also makes me wonder what did a person have to do or be in order to enjoy the privilege of Emily’s care. I suspect there was no clear set of credentials. I imagine Em would just look you over, divine the content of your Soul, and then most likely put you out on the doorsill when it became clear (to her) that said Soul lacked sufficient substance. Or if your Soul emanated enough of what the poet wanted in her presence, perhaps she’d offer you a glass of sherry and gingerbread. The standard for entrance into the poet’s select society was whether she could use you. If your Soul offered the light and material grace for her to feel inspired by your presence, then you were allowed to stay.
Make no mistake: Emily stands at the doorway. She doesn’t have to explain or justify who gets in and who stays out. There is no point in cajoling or flirting with her either. She sees right through you. In fact, that is the worst thing you could do. In order to get across this threshold, you have to do the hardest things in the world. Be genuine and brave and risk everything. Good luck.
2 responses to “A Gnat’s Horizon”
Hey, was reading through your blog and found the inevitable blueberries and more in your reflections on Emily. How appropriate that the berries and the gnat collided in your entry.
The other day I had some folks picking in the field. Among the groups was a couple from the U.K. I checked in with them and helped them pick a gallon or so, and we wound up talking about how Americans need to feel accepted socially and how it created a false persona.
The man asked me, “Are you really nice? Or do you have to feel like you need to be nice to us? …Does it make you feel good about yourself? I think Americans always need to feel good about themselves even when they don’t” I hesitated and answered that I thought my actions were true, but deep down I didn’t want to answer him. What were my motivations, he asked. I thought I was being polite and nice but maybe he could see right through me. Maybe the real me didn’t want to be in the blueberry field at all. I kept pondering this as I walked off to help a young mother with three kids with a load of berries. Were my actions truly worthwhile? Or was I just insignificant. Maybe I was just doing my job. I don’t know.
Hi Amy, thanks for reading and it’s good to hear from you. My response to your story is to say that we are all of us, complicated in our various moods and motives. It’s not as though we have a simple on/off switch when it comes to our willingness to be nice or show kindness. There are layers of impulses mixed with some resistance, both conscious and unconscious. I think the man’s question to you was over-simplified. And also a little rude. Sounds to me as though you were trying to be helpful. And a good business owner. Nothing wrong with that. Sure, you may have preferred to stay in the shade somewhere and not talk to anyone, but then you balanced that against other considerations, and made the decision to mingle with your customers. That strikes me as mature and not self-indulgent, a smart decision. Maybe you wouldn’t be so helpful to the rude customers because you don’t have to be. The “niceness” decision falls on a continuum, I think, influenced by a number of factors along the way. Most of us begin by being open to the possibility that we are nice and likable—because everything is just easier if we operate that way—while holding the option to change our manner if we feel like it. See you at the market! Constance