I think the news might be bad for my health.
The pain always begins with my neck: the other day, I slumped on the couch, computer cradled in my lap, chin resting uncomfortably on my chest, a sharp line of pain tracing the faint outlines of my contorted vertebrae. From this position, my gaze swam dizzily in the stormy sea of headlines that convulsed across the BBC homepage. I read, “Ugandans Die in School Collapse,” and felt a tiny stab of anxiety twist my gut. As I swept on—pollution in China, shrinking icecaps, a credit crunch (“Like the cereal?” I muse soundlessly)—my heart began to flutter and chirp, rattling the bars of its rib cage. I swallowed hard, and forced myself to click on an article about the impending crisis in the Balkans. I read about Russian aggression, religious animosity, the foundering international effort, and that centuries’-old problem, residing at the intersection of world war and genocide, settled its great weight on my brain, leaving me a dull ache against my skull that mingled with my eye-soreness, and blurred my vision momentarily.
The various policy-induced pains plaguing my body suddenly spiked sharply; I slammed my laptop shut, and tossed to the side as I sat up, rubbing my eyes wearily. Looking up, I noticed a tan paperback nestled shyly beneath a stack of papers on the table before me. The book was worn and creased and leathery, as inviting as a grandmother’s hug. I leaned forward and picked it up, wincing as my joints groaned in protest, but smiling despite the stiffness upon reading the title: Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Opening the yellowed pages, the first two lines I read swept through my soul like a fall breeze off the Hudson, driving before them all thoughts of policy and death:
“The murmur of a bee
A witchcraft yieldeth me.”
In many ways, Emily Dickinson has always represented to me the antithesis of the American Dream: a recluse, misunderstood and scorned even within her family; she disdained social and material conquest, instead making her friends among daffodils, and her fortunes collecting sunsets. I imagined her strolling through her father’s garden, bending down to peer at a primrose, solemnly observing a bee buzzing among the petals, feeling a thrill of wonder at the magic and mystery of things flying, growing, living.
I contemplated a life solely occupied with simple beauty and daily frustration, utterly detached from the great march of societies, from the cosmic spectacle of war and peace, of disease and famine and science clashing across distant lands with fanciful names. “Who was this woman?” I wondered, marveling at 1700 poems written solely about a garden, the hills behind it, the streams that watered it, and the sunsets that touched it. “An expert in the immediate, this poet”—I answered my own question, setting the book down quietly. After a moment, I glanced at the clock, and leaped up frantically, late, as always, for work.
Perhaps an hour later, I arrived at the restaurant, and set about preparing the space for the night’s crowd of socialites, tourists, and alcoholics. I, with a few other bussers, sat at a table in the back, folding coarse napkins into neat squares, and building them into narrow towers, slowly walling ourselves off into fragile linen ghettoes. As I fell into an easy rhythm of folding, my mind wandered back to Balkans, first glancing in at the paralyzed deliberations of the UN, then flitting across the Atlantic to hover over Belgrade and Moscow, weighing the fate of men I had never met, wondering at the decisions of men I did not understand.
When my mind roams, my body seems to power down: my eyes glaze over, my mouth hangs slack. As my own napkin-stack threatened to rise above my eye level, I suddenly felt another’s questioning stare—I snapped back to reality, to find Milan, sitting directly across from me, paused in his folding to look at me with puzzlement. “Sam—Ees ok?” Concern seeped, thick as syrup, through his Slavic accent and broken English.
I started to reply, but then I saw him, truly saw him. Milan, the forty-something lawyer, newly arrived from Uzice, Serbia. I remembered his recalling the atrocities carried out against Muslims in his town, the terror of hearing NATO bombs blast apart his neighbor’s house. I remembered him tenderly describing his wife, taken from him three years before by cancer. I studied his pale florid features, his gleaming bald pate, his inquisitive eyes surrounded by the creases and furrows etched by life’s cares. Perhaps for the first time, I truly saw him, and I realized that I did in fact have a Serbian problem, but that it lay, not in the Balkans, but just across a few feet of wood.
As an idiotic grin split my features, Milan’s expression grew more concerned. Rising partway from his seat, he pressed: “Sam, vat ees matter?” I could only shake my head and laugh. Tearing down that linen wall into two stacks, I leaned across the table and grabbed some of Milan’s unfolded napkins. He gave his own, guttural Slavic-giggle, and urged: “Vell?”
I smiled still broader, and waved dismissively. “It’s nothing, Milan. I just heard the murmur of a bee.”