Poor Everybody!

Chapter 7, Part 3

As I noted in my last post for Back to Walden, I have several close friends who spend their lives metaphorically dog-paddling around Walden Pond, while its iconic squatter, disguised as a breath of fog, spies on them from behind a bush and secretly beams his pleasure at the civil disobedience and Transcendentalism of all this illegal sport.

Terry Allen and Ernie Urvater in Emily Dickinson's bedroom

Terry Allen and Ernie Urvater in Emily Dickinson's bedroom

Two of these Transcendental swimmers are Terry Allen and her spouse, Ernie Urvater, whom she routinely refers to as “My Spiritual Advisor.”

Terry has been my loyal, lovely, and loving friend for more than 30 years now, ever since she interviewed me for a job in 1978 as a staff writer on the University of Massachusetts Amherst magazine, for which she was the editor. On that day, after she’d studied my resume and we chatted for a little while, she peered across her desk at me.

“We can really use a poet around this dump,” she said. “You’re hired.”

Though she doesn’t know it, Terry is an Accidental Buddhist; someone with Buddhist sensibilities she isn’t even aware of possessing. The best example is her response, which I’ve heard her utter many times over the years, when she hears bad news about anyone we know. Her reaction is a perfect act of compassion: “Poor everybody!”

Terry, in her wisdom, has also quipped many insightful things to me over the years, one of which cut to the heart of why I became such a rabid fan of the then New York Baseball Giants as a lonely, alienated 11-year-old, cut off from his family in Texas by a harsh stepfather and suddenly transported to a foreign world called New Jersey.

“Creekmore rooted for the Giants when he had nothing else to root for,” as Terry once voiced that mytho-poetic experience.

Never has anything else ever rung so true about me. My 53 some-odd-years of rootless rooting finally came to fruition in November of 2010, when the now San Francisco Giants finally won their first World Series during my tenure in the team’s rabid rooting section of lonely, alienated desperadoes with nothing else to root for.

Terry has faced more than her fair share of life’s trials and tribulations, including a life-threatening disease that she first defeated, then stomped to death, more than 15 years ago. She survived all that to become a bike-riding, tennis-playing whirlwind and serious student of Emily Dickinson, the patron saint of Transcendental poets.

Cover of Emily Dickinson: The Poet in Her Bedroom

The Poet in Her Bedroom

A few years ago, Terry began volunteering as a docent at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, located in the Dickinson homestead, where the poet spent her life jotting down verses late into every night and earning her reputation as “the world’s most famous shy person,” in Garrison Keillor’s words. Terry not only gives tours at the museum, but attends numerous workshops, lectures, and conventions devoted to the poet.

Beyond her dedicated service to Emily Dickinson, Terry found her true calling as the guiding light behind two luminous films about Dickinson, done in collaboration with her husband, Ernie, the noted director, editor, and producer. He’s a wonderful “documentarian” with a long track record of thoughtful, evocative, beautifully elicited shows on diverse subjects ranging from a program on the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, to a study of New England Paganism.

Ernie was a so-called “red-diaper baby.” In the 1940s his family ended up in the Rockaways, on Long Island, as did Woody Allen, whose Radio Days is embedded in that time and locale. After working as a physics professor at Colorado State University, Ernie turned his Renaissance mind to making riveting documentaries about subjects that captured both his imagination and his ethical concerns.

Ernie has also come to my rescue as a knight in shining armor on more than one occasion, such as the time he leant me $10,000 so I could pay off the debts that were sucking away my spirit. Then he let me work off this loan doing writing and text editing for some of his exquisite documentaries, including a proposal for a show about Brother Bob, which PBS almost accepted.

“We came within a whisker of actually doing it,” as Ernie recalls. “I applied for some grant money from PBS. We made the short list and were assured that we would get the money. At the last minute, their funding was cut in half, and we were in the half that was cut.” And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

Terry and Ernie did their two Dickinson films for nothing more than the love of their art and their devotion to the poet. The Poet in Her Bedroom, completed in 2008, and Seeing New Englandly, finished in 2010, are part of a series named Angles on a Landscape. Both are lyrical and lilting odes to Dickinson and her quiet genius. These works of art reveal the private and cultural influences that engrossed Dickinson’s life and shaped her imagination, her philosophy, her poetry. The films are simple masterworks about this complex poet, who telescoped her complicated life of the mind into brilliant poems.

Cover Painting of Emily Dickinson (by Elizabeth Pols) for Seeing New Englandly

Cover Painting of Emily Dickinson (by Elizabeth Pols) for Seeing New Englandly

The Poet in Her Bedroom, hauntingly scripted by Terry, is an inspired, 32-minute, impressionistic portrait of Dickinson (1830-1886), who was unknown and unpublished in her lifetime. Since her death well over a century ago, nearly 1,800 of her lyric poems have been discovered, published, and translated into dozens of languages. The poet never married and eventually confined herself to her father’s house and grounds. Nonetheless, Dickinson lived a rich and creative life. The elegant Dickinson family homestead on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, has become a pilgrimage site for thousands of people from around the world trekking here to learn more about this extraordinary woman, who, as this film shows, created the great body of her work behind a closed door, at a small table, in the privacy of her upstairs bedroom.

“Lovely, lovely, lovely,” responded one viewer of the film from California. “Those were the best 32 minutes I’ve seen in a long time. I felt so peaceful sitting in my big seafoam green chair watching and listening to your creation. Now more than ever I must read some more of Emily’s poetry.”

Seeing New Englandly gets its title from the poet’s own description of herself. “I see New Englandly,” she wrote, thus summarizing her “think globally but act locally” worldview. Dickinson was “…alert to the drama of the weather, the spectacles of the northern sky, the lives and deaths of the people around her, the natural world she shared with plants and creatures, and also events far beyond the horizon of her native town,” as the film’s narration, written and spoken by poet Susan Snively, describes her.

Terry and Ernie received absolutely no financial reward for their labor of love. Instead, they found their purpose, powerfully and purposefully purposed. They have found the meaning of their lives in the life of their meaning. How fortunate they are!

Terry and Ernie also produced companion boxes of stunning Emily Dickinson greeting cards, lovingly painted, designed, and realized by local artist Elizabeth Pols, another virtuoso in my small circle of friends. In my next section, I’ll tell you something about Lizzy, yet another brilliant, unrecognized talent, cast, both literally and figuratively, in the Emily Dickinson mold.