Annie Dillard is one of my literary heroes and that is the reason I pushed through Parts 1 and 2 of Living by Fiction (Harper Colophon, 1982) while reading it last weekend in a park under a blue sky. I knew if I did it would be worth it in the end. She would not disappoint. And let me say here, I do not place the blame for the necessity of "pushing" through the book's first two thirds at Annie’s feet. That portion of the book was about literary theory and critique, which somehow I missed in college while busying myself in biology and chemistry labs and have never quite caught up with since.
Part 3, in contrast, posits one of the biggest of all questions in its title, “Does the world have meaning?”, and as we approached those final sixty or so pages we were off on the kind of mind-expanding, soul-soaring stretches of prose that made her my hero in the first place back in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
“But what is knowledge if we cannot state it? If art objects quit the bounds of the known and make blurry feints at the unknown, can they truly add to knowledge or understanding? I think they can; for although we may never exhaust or locate precisely the phenomena they signify, we may nevertheless approximate them--and this, of course, is our position in relation to all knowledge and understanding. All our knowledge is partial and approximate; if we are to know electrons and chimpanzees less than perfectly, and call it good enough, we may as well understand phenomena like love and death, or art and freedom, imperfectly also."
Sunday mornings driving to church usually overlaps with the last half of Krista Tippett’s NPR radio show “On Being” (formerly, “Speaking of Faith,” a much finer name in my humble opinion), and we usually listen. So it did and we did last Sunday when she was interviewing Sarah Kaye, a 23-year-old spoken word poet and founder of Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression). Honestly, I hadn’t heard her before but loved the force of her voice and words, a force was that was all the stronger due to her humility. She talked about her work as not a set of answers but as a way of exploring and she invites her readers/listeners to join her in exploring.
Here’s an excerpt. I really resonated with what she says here because it speaks to the kind of writing I like to read. In fact, I may just have to borrow this defense for my own style in the book proposal for my current work in progress.
“I write a poem when there's something I cannot navigate without poetry. And in doing so, when I put that poem out into the world, what I'm saying is, hey, look at me trying to figure this thing out, which I haven't yet, but this is me trying. If you're trying to figure this out too, maybe this can help you or maybe you can help me. And then maybe together we can make something make more sense than it does right now. I think that that's what it means to be human is to volunteer your experience in an effort to say, hey, this is what I've got. What do you have over there? Can we make something work here?”
Of course you have to trust the person with whom you’re walking beside in the figuring-out process, but so you also have to trust the person, even more so, who is telling you what to do in bulleted check lists. There are books I pick up because I want to learn something specific, to find out how to do something; there are other books I pick up because I want to walk alongside someone for awhile who is walking a path I’m either interested in or find myself on, and we can then think together for those 250 pages or so.
She read her stunning poem “Hiroshima,” which ends with: “These aren't the last words I'll share, but just in case, I am trying my hardest to get it right this time around.”
I recently rode a train somewhere, instead of driving, instead of flying. The train in the picture above is not the one I took but the train on the track outside my window. This picture doesn't do it justice but what a beauty it was. I love traveling by train because you have hours and hours to read, look out the window, walk around, sit in the observation car, sleep, think, dream. No worries about weather or traffic. You have time to switch gears before you arrive at your destination, time to leave busyness behind; you have time to switch gears again before you arrive back home, back at work. I think I've posted this quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh on this blog years ago but stepping on to a train pulls it up from my memory yet again.
“It is strange, but the minute I got on the train and left I felt utterly different. I think one’s feelings and thoughts, the real true deep ones, are better focused when you get away because they are detached from their stale associations: one’s desk and room and bed and mirror. They become clear and just themselves, the way colors of a sunset or a birch grove seen upside down become clearer, because the colors are disassociated from their familiar forms. Do you see what I mean?”
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead
When I was in first grade, a boy in my class--whose name I remember but will withhold out of courtesy--threw up. He was sitting at his desk and out it came, all over the floor with a splash. The teacher managed the episode calmly and professionally, directing all of us, except the boy, to go out into the hallway, with half the class on either side, and sit single-file along the brick wall. The uniformed janitor then arrived and we all knew why. We next saw our teacher walk the sick boy down the hall toward the office, presumably to his waiting mother.
It seemed a long while until the janitor emerged again. He walked through the middle of our group, pushing his industrial-sized metal bucket and mop. For some reason, his walk out of that room and down the hall, is one of my most vivid memories of grade school. I watched him and wondered if he had pictures of anyone in his wallet. I wondered if he was lonely. I wondered if when he left school at the end of the day whether anyone listened to what he had to say. I remember wondering those three things about him. That janitor, his walk and those questions, have continued to nudge themselves into my mind from time to time in all the years since.
This week I watched a documentary that caught my eye because it was about the inner lives of janitors. "The Philosopher Kings," released in 2009, films and interviews eight janitors who work in some of the most elite colleges and universities in America, including Stanford, Caltech, Princeton, Cornish College of the Arts, Cornell, University of Florida, Duke, and University of California Berkeley. It's a fascinating and moving documentary that reveals the challenges these eight have overcome in their lives, the dreams and goals they are pursuing, the sacrifices they make for others, what they learn from the institutions at which they work, and their significant inner wisdom.
The film is punctuated with a number of great quotes, including this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? The walls of their minds are scrawled all over with thoughts.
They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions.
Three years ago I wrote a post about the poem "The Gate of the Year" by Minnie Louise Haskins. Interestingly, that post continually generates many hits, no matter the time of year; lots of people apparently are googling for bits and pieces of this poem. Here's the link.
One of the advantages of having unsorted stacks of papers around is that when you finally do go through them it is nearly like a treasure hunt. Who knows what might emerge from between an old magazine and a page of unclipped coupons?
Here is a recent find. A great quote from St. Basil:
So we must consider that a contest, the greatest of all contests, lies before us, for which we must do all things, and, in preparation for it, must strive to the best of our powers, and must associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul.