When I was nine or 10, I read a book about two girls with psychic powers. The main character was a lonely, pudgy scholarship student at a New York prep school. She’s thrilled when the wealthy, quirky new girl befriends her. The two discover they share a gift for psychic lucid dreaming or time travel or visiting alternate universes or something. The details are hazy.
I’ve been thinking about this book recently, though I couldn’t initially recall the title or the author. I could, however, remember every word of the poem the girls quoted in the story. It was the first poem I ever memorized just because I wanted to know it.
I’m Nobody! Who Are You?
by Emily Dickinson
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you Nobody, too?
There’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
As it turns out, the book about the psychic girls shares the title of the poem, and the author is Mary Anderson. (Thanks, Google!) It was first published in 1974, about six years before I discovered it on the shelf of our local library.
When I first read this book, the nation had just elected an actor as president. My father couldn’t get over the fact that so many self-proclaimed good Christians voted for the twice-married, quasi-religious, reportedly neglectful father from California, instead of the devoted family man and Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher from Georgia. Daddy didn’t give a hoot about religion, but he hated hypocrisy. We were one of the few families in Jackson, Mississippi, that supported the other guy that year. It wasn’t the only reason I often seemed out of place in the world, but it underscored a certain otherness that left me feeling like I was standing on the wrong side of a glass wall. I could see the other kids and they could see me, but we didn’t connect in any real way.
It’s no mystery why I was drawn to a book about two girls with a powerful connection. I wished I had psychic powers. I would lie in bed in the mornings and try to straddle the edge of consciousness. The book told me this was the magic state of being—the place where every possibility existed, the place where a pudgy bookworm might get revenge on her enemies, the place where an outcast might be a hero, the place where a Nobody could find a true friend.
I told one girl at school about the book, thinking she might like it as much as I did. Her family supported the other guy too. I explained the whole story and recited the poem. I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of spoilers. “You have to read it,” I said. She promised she would. A few weeks passed. I pressed her, and she admitted she just couldn’t get into it. She said she liked the story better when I told it. “You should just read books and tell me about them,” she said. I was both crushed and flattered. I’d hoped she would love the book as much as I did. Secretly, I’d hoped we could close our eyes and try to traverse time together, but she was a sensible girl. Still, I’d told a good story, even if it wasn’t my own. That felt amazing.
This year, we elected another celebrity to the presidency. Good Christians chose the public frog, the man who delights in telling his name all the livelong day, over the woman who lives her life by the Methodist creed to “do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.” It is so dreary. And it is so familiar. I don’t give a hoot about religion, but I hate the hypocrisy. Once again, I’m on the other side of the glass, and those kids I knew at the age of 10 are huddled together on the far side where I can’t quite reach them.
I moved away from the bog many years ago, but I’m still in touch with a few frog worshippers. I’m still yearning for the powerful connection, but nowadays I don’t crave psychic abilities. Instead, I chase the feeling I got when I told my friend a good story. It’s harder now. I get lost sometimes in the telling, and the plots are more complicated, but stories still possess the power to transport me to the place where all things are possible, where the pudgy bookworm takes revenge, and where the outcast becomes the hero.
I’m still standing behind this glass wall, but I’m not alone anymore. I don’t feel banished. All of the Nobodies are here with me. We’re connected by the stories we read and the stories we tell. And no psychic connection could be more powerful than the connection created by the stories we share. We’re Nobody! Are you Nobody, too?
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Lighthouse instructor Tiffany Quay Tyson is the author of the novel Three Rivers, finalist for the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction and the Mississippi Institute for Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and The Past is Never, forthcoming from Skyhorse in Spring 2018. She’s teaching Advanced Narrative: The Novel, starting January 12.