“Escape from Circumstances”: Dickinson in Quarantine

Take It from the Woman Who Self-Sequestered for Over Fifty Years

Duo Dickinson / 3.17.20

For Death – or rather
For the Things ’twould buy –
This – put away
Life’s Opportunity –

The Things that Death will
Are Room –
Escape from Circumstances –
And a Name –

With Gifts of Life
How Death’s Gifts may compare –
We know not –
For the Rates – lie Here –

(644B Franklin Variorum)

Escape from Circumstances – / And a Name” was Emily Dickinson’s base state. She lived in a room, in a home, with her family. She self-sequestered for over 50 years.

A kind of purgatory between life in the whole world and being without the world, this sequestration from hubbub is now facing millions, maybe billions, because we might get sick, sick because of life together.

Millions, perhaps billions, are already sick of life, living life joined to the other millions, perhaps billions, who scream daily on the Interweb. These mornings in Lent that I spend in silence typing these things are also self-sequestration, but a cheat.

Unlike Emily, I know that, as I live them, I need to leave and will. I want to leave. Like I leave a comfy bed every morning to crank at level 28 for 90 minutes to vitiate my mildly morbid obesity. And take my 4 pills. And think, then write these things.

There is a bed, for some, of intermittent sequestration to “put away / Life’s Opportunity.” Like yoga or meditating or prayer or, well, lying in bed. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. Thoreau only spent part of each week in Walden. He emerged to be part of the world he longed to escape.

Both Thoreau and Dickinson had the luxury of self-sequestration because they had money, made by others, to absent themselves from the hubbub. Now millions, maybe billions, may be forced to detach from necessities for a higher necessity — staying alive.

The Things that Death will
Are Room –

Emily was in a permanent state of detachment between life on earth and life after death. She lived it. In Lent, if you follow the schedule of liturgical seasons, this is our time of living in the contemplation of not living.

It is a Christian’s Walden to be in Lent. We visit Emily’s isolation. We hopefully hit the OFF button just a bit. But then, like a sentence, we re-emerge, like a mammal in spring, to each day’s mishegas.

Even when things get put away, “the Rates – lie here” — these wages of life are not just needed, they validate. Emily laughed at that, or perhaps envied it, but Thoreau, and Jesus, returned to it. As do I.

This week I signed contracts to help in the making of two of the most public, most rewarding things I could do as an architect. I may be able to pay down my credit line and card, and not think about the intermittent terror of payroll every two weeks for a season. Or not.

The annual self-sequestration of Lent is, in fact, a luxury. We choose to go without some things for a time. Coronavirus is not a choice. Neither is death a choice, for most of us, but it is our life’s wage. And we hope, in this transaction, to give our life to something greater, though we do not know.

Emily’s sequestration was a gift to me. It is a gift every morning. Those contracts I signed could also offer a wage, but compel a promissory gift from me to those who I will never know.

But Emily and Jesus knew it was all a gift. I know because they say so to me, every day. I wish I heard them clearer, but I am trying.


Image credits: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

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3 responses to ““Escape from Circumstances”: Dickinson in Quarantine”

  1. Alix says:

    Food for thought, Duo.
    How long have you been writing your blog? When and where do you write? How do you find the time?

    • Duo says:

      The blog about a decade for MB about 3 years:,these 47 things in Lent are from 5AM to 8AM on my recumbent – I would be crushing it for 90 minutes watching jackasses on cable scream, this is a nice break, tho terrifying…

  2. Phyllida says:

    Beautiful, Duo! Very philosophical & poetic

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