I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us -don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
When Emily Dickinson died in1886, nobody, not even closest family, dreamed that they would find 1775 poems sewn loosely into tiny handmade books, or half completed on loose leaves and unedited amongst her person effects, in journals and folios they gave voice to a six year period of intense productivity and a life of writing. And no one could have been less interested in the words of this magnificently loquacious woman who wrote so much. She had lived as a recluse, but the poems in top draws and slipped amongst layers of tissue between carefully folded garments, petticoats, stockings and her famous white lawn gowns, gave her away. During her life time a mere six examples published in journals and magazines but edited beyond recognition. Male hands clumsily and brutally forcing her finely charged syntax and idiosyncratic punctuation into a form more acceptable to a respectable nineteenth century audience who had a very decided ideas on poetry; and on women and on women’s poetry in particular.
By the time Emily wrote the nobody poem I believe she had made her peace with the part of herself that had been given this name. There’s a kind of mischievous delight in her opening lines as she calls out her nothing-ness for what it is (lies) and invites us to join her as co-conspirators against the influences that seek to silence us and condemn us to anonymity.
Last week I wrote that our voice is valid even when others don’t validate it. I said,
I have no photos or pithy quotes from the nobodies, their daughters or their mothers. I have no record of the things they said or the things they did, at home, at the end of a phone or stuck in the office. They celebrated their own small victories and failures in their own quiet ways with out the consolation of an audience. But I know that they are there.
I had no idea this mattered so much to me, that I am so angry that ordinary powerless people get such a small slice of the say and the silly unrelenting voices of the powerful fill the airwaves and the Internet day after day as if no young person ever lived a life worth speaking, as no wife and mother ever knew a few home truths worth telling.
Flannnery O’Connor said
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
And this was true for me, I had no idea I had felt so badly about the nobodies, me and you, until I wrote it down. This is why I write, and we must all tell our stories, one to another and find the time and the space in our hearts to listen without the need to interrupt, reinterpret or correct.
So, as one nobody to another, I am asking you to be courageous in how you live and how you speak. I’m asking you to be generous towards the voice of another, whether it is a voice you love to hear or one that is difficult to listen to. Trust in your own voice, in its every nuance, tone and dialect. Let your idiosyncrasies come forth for what they are so that they can seasons and distinguish the story you have to tell. And excel in your listening that you would really hear every word of the story being told by other people. Trust in their story too.
I have a small Sunday habit. I look around my church, somewhere between taking in the notices and passing round the offering basket, or over coffee then getting the kids and the coats and the bags into the car. I count up the women and the men and all their ordinary stories. I name them in prayer and call out the greatness that is hidden in each.
This one has a chronic illness, this one raised four fine kids, this one struggles with a grief to which there is no answer and this one still looks for work. This one stands with a son or daughter in their depression or addiction, this one recently widowed faces retirement alone, another has recently become engaged, another is now a grandparent again and another I only just met.
Their story is waiting to be told.