background_fid.png
Inform, Entertain, Inspire
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Commentary
Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

The Brain is Wider Than the Sky

IMG_2466_0.jpg
Ken Smith
/

It was likely the harshest six-word movie review I will ever hear, and it came from the slender, grandfatherly gentleman who walked out of the theater ahead of me. Behind us in the dim cavern the credits were still scrolling up the front wall, but here in the westward-facing lobby the evening sun glared in our faces. His white-haired friend pushed through the doors into the summery air, saying, “That was pretty good,” but I heard a question in her voice. As he followed her out I caught his matter-of-fact, but crushing six-word reply. “She took too long to die.”

“She took too long to die!” Take that, screenwriter and director. Take that, respected actress who played the lead role. Out of his earshot, I told my friends the gentleman’s review, “She took too long to die,” and we all agreed that he was right. (Spoiler alert.) For maybe twenty minutes, which felt like forty, we film-goers saw her body failing in a painful and frightening way. The acting couldn’t have been more vivid. It was so well done. So how can we say that the character took too long to die?

The movie was a costume drama, with mid-nineteenth century dresses and suits, flowery gardens, and evenings necessarily filled with witty conversation because it was so hard to get basic cable installed during the Civil War. The hero and victim was Emily Dickinson, who in real life nosed out Walt Whitman in a photo finish to become America’s best 19th century poet. She was a word person. She worked out the philosophy of her life with sentences, not with oil paintings or business plans or stolen bases. She met the world through language.

But in those last twenty minutes—or was it two hours?—the movie didn’t let her speak. In bed, attended by her sister, she shuddered in pain, and then later, in bed, attended by the whole family, more shuddering in pain. Plainly it was very bad to get certain diseases back in the day. But that’s old news, isn’t it? Emily took too long to die because the movie stopped letting her say what was on her mind, that is, stopped letting her live.

People I have known have used their final days to keep working on the meanings of their lives. When a nurse asked one friend, “How ya doing?” he replied, “I don’t know how I’m doing. I never had to die before, so I don’t know if I’m doing it right.” My grandfather in his final week said that since he had been able to take care of his wife to her last day, and all their children were launched in their lives, he felt that going now would be okay.

If the body allows, the spirit presses on, steering a sea-worthy craft by stars of our own choosing. We’re in it for the meaning. The real Emily Dickinson knew that. The brain is wider than the sky, she wrote. The brain is wider than the sky, for put them side by side, the one the other will contain with ease and you beside. For the real Emily, our expansive brain was where the action is. A movie that forgets that about its flickering characters has run off the rails. The old gentleman in the sunset-filled theater lobby was right. A person can take too long to die if the spirit has gone out. But that’s the last thing real flesh and blood people must ever let happen.

Related Content
  • It’s curious, isn’t it, to remember a moment of silence in a college classroom nearly forty years later? To recall what took place during that silence,…
  • “Liar, Liar, pants on fire!” Certainly you never shouted that as a child. You just heard other, naughty, less-well-brought-up children sing-songing it.…
  • So what exactly happens when you donate your car to Public Radio? Like you, I had heard the heart-warming promo spots during Morning Edition and All…
  • My family went to war this week with a neighboring house. We planned and prepared and plotted the attack. We are civilized people and we warned them, we…
  • My dream came true this summer when I got to attend a Japanese baseball game in Tokyo on a student “free day” during an overseas study program I…
  • I’m turning 64 next week. It’s an age I’ve given more thought to than most, because of the Beatle song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” You know, “When I get older…