February 23, 2015 by Jaimie Gusman
I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf
In the spirit of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Cannot Live With You,” today I am embracing life behind the shelf (the life that is over there, that life of mine that is far from me) by shelving some things I’ve done. This is a particular kind of shelving, a putting to rest.
I was going through old web entries on a personal blog I no longer write for. The blog included a mix of lesson plans, academic rants, and the occasional bout of creative dabbling. These are posts I wrote while I was teaching and taking courses toward my PhD in Literature. The entries were as random as I suppose my schedule was, trying to fit teaching in with coursework, running a reading series, and being on various departmental committees.
Sometimes I even gave myself what seems like a much needed virtual high five for whipping up a successful poetry assignment (yes, I even wrote that I “nailed it” as if someone other than me was keeping tabs on my teaching capabilities). Apparently, I even participated in NaNoWriMo a couple years ago, posting unedited ramblings, which were more like interruptions in what could have been a fairly cohesive teaching blog.
It’s strange to look at yourself this way, through the screen of a past I.
Former graduate student. Former syllabus maker. Former Poetry Editor. Former worrier that my students aren’t engaged. Former director of literary events. Former NaNoWriMo writer. Who is this person?
The last post on that blog was titled “Dear future self,” a sort of premonition that it would be my last blog entry. The post was short. I was in the midst of receiving a ton of boxes from my mother, back in Florida, who was getting rid of everything inside the house I grew up in. My parents were finalizing their divorce–my father had moved out almost a year prior at that point.
Cleaning everything out was something my mother was good at. The first time I came home from college I had to confront her for throwing my bong out in the garbage while I was away at school. I was seriously worried that she put it in the recycling bin along with the diet coke cans, which would have been worthless, until she confessed she triple bagged it and disposed of it in the dumpster behind our suburban neighborhood’s tennis courts.
At least she sent the boxes. They arrived wet, across two oceans and a continent. The cardboard edges were torn, but I was relieved.
What I didn’t say in “Dear future self,” is that there were pictures, tons, from my childhood. My parents’ wedding photos, pictures of my sister dressed as Annie in an orange mop-head wig for Halloween, the single photo I had of myself with an eyebrow ring, probably taken just a few days before I got arrested and was forced to remove the bar above my eye while getting patted down by the police. There were yearbooks with pictures of dead friends. I kept textbooks, syllabi, and certificates of achievement (there weren’t many, so I cherished them).
Instead, I focused on the box of rejection letters I had kept from years of submitting to various literary magazines. At the time I thought how cool would it be if there was a literary mag dedicated to publishing these? I think there are a few of those that actually exist now. There are some online literary magazines that publish rejected poems, too. But “Dear future self,” wasn’t about that. I wrote:
“dear present-self, please be more kind to your future-self and don’t hoard so much paper”
Why was I keeping all those standardized rejection letters? To one day publish them? As a guide for where to submit to or not submit to?
Or, maybe it was to remind myself that art’s processes are not always kind.
The present I doesn’t know the past I as well as she thought she did. Now, all my rejections are archived to a small corner in my chest.
What was interesting about this box was something other than its contents of old no’s. I apparently found a poem tucked inside a SASE that was returned to me with one of the rejections. The poem was called “So Long to the Storm,” about the wind sweeping up my mother and everything she represented: the house, the titling palms in the backyard, the songs she would sing to put me to sleep. There was nothing left but “an enormous highway / strung into beads.”
I wrote that poem when I was in grad school in Washington, years before my parent’s separated. I can’t say I know what that poem meant when I wrote it, but upon rereading it, and in the context that it was returned to me, it felt like a message from a familiar ghost.
Emily’s poem is also a familiar ghost. Her life “behind the shelf” is so beyond I‘s reach, that in the poem “The Sexton keeps the Keys to -” it.
Sometimes it does feel like you are not the key holder of your own life. Some of it is hidden, purposefully placed not on top of the shelf, but behind the shelf itself. Not to be admired. Or remembered. But like those old snippets of my former self, still there.