These Fevered Days Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, written by Dickinson scholar Martha Ackmann, may not be everybody’s idea of a great read, but I am in awe of Emily, her poetry and her choices, and have read many books about her. The premise of this one though got me thinking about my own “ten pivotal moments.”
When Emily was only 14, Ackmann contends, she wrote a letter to a friend—Emily was a devoted correspondent— and despite her disavowal that those words held any significance (Emily’s standards were high, even then), she wrote, “All things are ready,” knowing that her writing, her exploration of her rich inner world would sustain and, one day, distinguish her.
I’m no Emily, and I feel almost profane as I claim that when I was little, I knew writing would matter—always. While my father wanted to make sure that we all attended church, that we received the spiritual education that had comforted him, taking all six of us to actual church services wasn’t manageable. What he did do was get us to Sunday School for the hour before. Once we were stowed in our respective age-appropriate rooms, Hinson Memorial Baptist Church on Portland’s east side took over.
I was eight or nine when I noticed that the religious school’s monthly newsletter, printed on more substantial paper than the Oregonian that hit our steps each morning, featured an opportunity for kids to write in response to a prompt. A small photo was included with each winning submission, and this publication wasn’t merely local! Some of these kids came from places like Illinois—imagine that!
The invitation that moved me to write asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I knew the answer: a missionary. I wasn’t thinking about audience when I wrote my response; I wrote from my heart. I did want to become a missionary—long before Poisonwood Bible.
I’m pretty sure I waited for an immediate response and equally sure that when I didn’t hear anything for a day or two, I forgot about it. But the day came when a letter addressed to me announced that my “piece” had been chosen, to please send a small photo. The envelop also included a five dollar prize. Five dollars! That was what I got from my parents for Christmas shopping money for my siblings! Five whole dollars, a check, my first, from my writing.
Even without the money, that my words meant something to someone else, meant the world to me. One of my ten pivotal moments? Yes, I was “ready.”