Emily Dickinson once compared herself to being like a Robin in “humble circumstance.” Emily felt small and unknown. With only several of her poems published in her lifetime, she never achieved status, renown, or popularity.
Was this lack of status Emily’s choice? Was it her destiny? What is interesting is that captured in Emily’s poetry is the belief that the angels had something to do with her lack of status and her humble circumstance. She projected this belief to the Robins she saw in her garden when she wrote, “Angels have a modest way to screen robins (and apparently her) from renown.” Whether this is true or not, it seems that Emily felt as though the angels were screening her. Did some angel conspire with her in some manner offering to guard her from gaining popularity? Did the angel screen her from becoming a renowned poet in her lifetime? Was this the price or sacrifice asked of her, and/or that she demanded of herself, that would allow her to remain in a place of humble circumstance, and perhaps the only place she would be able deliver her deepest and most passionate poetry to the world? Certainly, Emily would not be the first gifted individual who felt the need to remain free from the limelight.
Did Emily genuinely fear that popularity would spoil her and take something away from her message? Did the angel, perhaps her guardian angel, continually warn her, screen her, protect her, and sustain her in her solitude and innermost being, so she could live an austere life writing her poems? Or, was she simply neurotic as can be true of many gifted artists?
What about us? What about us more down to earth, common folks who will most likely not leave behind a profound legacy in any form. Can an ordinary individual such as me still have a similar experience of feeling screened away from most of society to protect and enrich my unique life message? Or, am I neurotic and crazed with a special touch of vanity? Perhaps if someday I can leave a humble legacy that speaks to even only a few people, is that not of infinite value to society. Emily also said, “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain. . . or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.”
I know my humble life as a fly fishing guide is not worthy of being considered renown in any manner, yet, when I read Emily’s prose and her life story, and consider my life experiences, I wonder if in some small way, I’ve been screened from success and recognition. How could I as a child fishing alone at a pond and teaching myself to fly fish think all that highly of myself when there was no one around to validate or recognize me? There were no pictures; no handshakes or ‘high fives’ when I landed fish. And, certainly nothing was ever posted on the internet for everyone to see.
I often felt that in the few areas of life where I achieved a certain level of success; fly-fishing being one of them, the level of achievement and what I truly had to share, came about because of my lack of popularity in mainstream culture and from a feeling of remaining in humble circumstance. I rarely felt highly successful (there is always someone of greater renown and catches bigger and more fish!), and perhaps, this humble awareness was the only place I felt comfortable. So, in the end, what I have to leave others, (if I have anything to leave at all?), is the humble solitary path I once walked to the pond.
Yet, in spite of this humble path, I realize I have done my share of boasting and feeling proud of certain achievements. And I know I often tried to find paths that gave me recognition. Yet, mysteriously, there were limits, a type of screening and sometimes, things seemed even to back fire. Even while successful, there was often a sense that I would not be able to feel too highly of myself, because if I were honest with myself, I had to admit that at times I was simply lucky?
All too often, it seemed that life events tumbled down the river. While gazing off, suddenly a fish found itself on the end of my line (and I knew it was not my talent as an angler). Or, while feeling proud of how well I was fishing, the currents suddenly knocked me off my feet into a hole and I know I looked quite silly. It seemed that just when I may have thought I was the best at something such as in fly-fishing, or any number of endeavors, something would happen that would cause me to fall back into humble circumstance. Sometimes, while feeling grandiose, and stalking a fish, I lost my balance and literally fell backwards in the river. Did the angels have their way of screening me and laugh? Did the angels have a way with the fish and laugh at me? Did both fish and angel work together to keep me in humble circumstance? I doubt such falls from our hubris are posted for our fans to see.
Like many fly-fishers, sometimes I can hook fish after fish and I enjoy showing off. It is hard to feel of humble circumstance while actively successful in fly-fishing and everyone is asking, “What are you using?” Yet, I fail to tell the whole story. Often there was some other angler across the river, (who I did not want to notice), who was doing just as well; or even better than I was. Or, the next day I might return to the same spot in hope of repeating the performance only to learn the fish will not touch anything I cast. I try every fly and technique but nothing works. I try even harder but I cannot turn a fish. Something seems to “screen me” and I fall back into “humble circumstance.” I realize that on any given day, anyone, including the fish, can out fish me. Being a renowned fly fisher is only an illusion inside my own head.
If this is true, that angels, or life or what we call God, has anything to do with screening me from renown, then I ask why this might be important. Surely, God has better things to do than to keep me humble. At the very least, for me, if I am going to view myself of being of humble circumstance (which is not easy to do in this culture, since it wants to make everyone popular! ), then in that lowly place, I might learn to pay attention to some of the deeper currents of my life. If I can come down from the high place from which I often cast and learn to pay attention to the “bigger” life around me, and of others, then, I might truly learn to live in humble circumstance. Then and only then, I shall not live in vain.
If our lives are a story, song, or poem for others, then from that place of more humble circumstance I might deliver my best life poetry, offering up the best parts of my life story, and be able to make the best casts to fish and people in my life.