“I used to be somebody, but since I left my work I feel like a nobody,” a recently retired attorney said to me. His struggle was not fleeting. Suicidal thoughts had been intruding for months on what he thought would be the most enjoyable part of his life. “You’re making me think of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems,” I told him. We looked it up on my office computer:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise — you know!
How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!
“Wow, this poem is a depth charge!” my client exclaimed. I find it fascinating how a reclusive woman from the nineteenth century, who died with no idea how far and wide her poems would travel, was able to revitalize a man nearly 150 years after her death.
My wife and I and our daughter and son-in-law recently visited Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. I felt a sense of awe to stand in the second-floor bedroom where she wrote the 1800 poems that make up her gift to the world. When the tour guide moved on to the next part of the house, I wanted to just sit in that bedroom and pray for a while. After the tour, we visited the nearby West Cemetery where she is buried. The woman who wrote “I’m Nobody” was the biggest somebody in the graveyard!
My client’s excitement about Emily Dickinson’s words reminded me of a few lines of another poet, William Carlos Williams, a physician who wrote many of his poems on prescription pads between patients:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
If you’re someone who never quite recovered from the struggle to decipher a poem’s language in high school, consider giving what Bill Moyers called “the language of the soul” another chance. Look up Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems. Don’t worry if the whole poem doesn’t grab you. All we need is one line to crack us open!
I love the recently deceased Mary Oliver’s work. You might start with “The Summer Day” and see if you’re drawn to explore her more. If you’ve never spent time with Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi or Daniel Landinsky’s translations of Hafiz, you’re just one google session away from some delights and insights! This line from Hafiz makes me laugh every time I read it: First the fish needs to say, “Something ain’t right about this camel ride—and I’m feeling so damn thirsty.”
Sometimes when I’m talking with people feeling overburdened by the speed of life I bring Walt Whitman’s words from Song of Myself into our conversation: “I loaf and invite my soul.” One man recently asked me, “How do you know if you’re loafing and inviting your soul or just loafing?” Maybe another meaning of “loaf” can help us with his question. “Man does not live by bread alone,” said Jesus. Our souls need nourishment as much as our bodies.
After the tour of her home, I visited the gift shop and bought a T-shirt silkscreened with I’m Nobody, who are you? Are you Nobody too? In my family, the phrase “Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt” is often used to joke about someone bringing up old news. But Emily Dickinson’s words were not old news to my retired patient and they’re not old news to me. In this fast-paced culture, we die a little every day for lack of what she found there.
Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and speaker who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area. His latest book Now is Where God Lives: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul is available at Amazon or thewingedlife.com