22 August 2015

Seeing The Belle of Amherst


Carol Smallwood

It was my good fortune recently to view The Belle of Amherst, the Tony award-winning monologue on Emily Dickinson performed by Julie Harris. Dickinson’s poem about death kindly stopping for her gave me resolve to tackle writing about aging. Our culture looks at death in a manner that Dickinson called slant: we call death, passing or gone to rest, and group the aged with names like baby boomers and golden agers.

I realized I’d joined the aging when people began opening doors for me with that smile one gives others who are up in years. Black took on a different connotation: the immensity of outer space and the realization that most of the universe is unknown black matter and energy affronted with a new, immediate impact.

What did Emily Dickinson really think of immortality? What would she say if she saw a photo of the earth from space, a perspective we take for granted? She also would have seen people dressed in black, heard the words dust to dust at funerals—but she couldn’t have been familiar with the cold statistics of actuary tables that the Internet makes so accessible.

Time remains elusive as rain in a sieve. So many sleepless nights shrouded in blackness to understand time in a room where I sleep a third of my life. The pyramids for deceased rulers are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that have lasted.

Aging is something I’d rather not think about in the hopes it will go away—that it is a finality for others and not for me; that by not looking in the mirror it won’t happen. Perhaps it is something best looked at with a Dickinsonian slant, as it is too much otherwise and aching knees are easily dismissed as though from chemo years ago.

I recall the shadows of three bent, shuffling men with canes and cups in the film credits of James Bond’s, Dr. No; they were only disguises, I just learned from the Internet, but were the incarnation of feeble, dependent, laughable, old age when I was in my twenties.

Before aging, the elderly, to me, were grouped as not needed, out of touch with the times, to be tolerated. It was a surprise seeing myself reflected in a store window recently and thought it was snowing because my hair looked white—then realized it was summer.

My doctor said motion is lotion and it is true: stiffness gets better after moving around. And rubber gloves are no longer a necessity to keep hands young when washing dishes. I’ve become more impatient, though, more intolerant of those who are late, inefficient, and unaware of ticking clocks.  Dance movies are especially enjoyable: that one could have such freedom of movement—the dancers yet unaware of what’s to come. My young cat from the local animal shelter is the first one that will most likely outlive me: it was quite an unsettling realization writing directives in my will to make her future secure.

These three Greek deities increasingly come to mind: Clotho, the one who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who determines how long one lives; and Atropos, who cuts the thread of life with shears. As a quilter I appreciate sharp shears and hope hers are; I don’t doubt she’s had practice.

The Belle of Amherst includes the recipe for Emily’s black cake: 5 pounds of raisins, 19 eggs, and other large amounts, 6-7 hours baked in a milk pan—a cake that must’ve lasted some time. The incomparable play ends with her rushing off to peel apples; it is comforting to think of the curling peels like the ribbons, one at a time, as she described the rising of the sun. Women are fortunate to have the comfort of domesticity.

Carol Smallwood's most recent books include Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences (Lamar University Press, 2014); Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Communications, 2015); and Writing After Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Carol has founded and supports humane societies.

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