I've been eager to post some of my book musings from grad school, since I am so swamped with other kinds of work now.
I hope to write more of my encounter with Annie Dillard, beginning with a phone call I made to my physician. When I told him I could not afford the time to come to his office, I was working on deadline, he asked me to walk to a mirror. "Just tell me if the nose is straight." Blue, swollen, numb, yes-- but straight.
Ever since I accidentally sailed through The Dry Salvages, inadvertently studying mortality and loss of dignity, I’ve learned to be more superstitious about my literary life and my daily life. So I should not under any circumstances read Holy the Firm while away from my natural environs, should not be walking anywhere near falling planes or moths and open flames. Or banana peels in my pathway, or the rake resting in the grass with the tines pointing upward, waiting.
I should know. The possibility of irony is so vast, if one is foolish enough or lucky enough to read sixty-two books in two years—the possibility of overlap, of time warp linking past writing to current moment. I’ve read too much, and anything could happen.
So I pack my car with sleeping bags and stuffed animals and mud boots and farm clothes and third-graders for a three-day trip to a farm in New Hampshire, and I pack Holy the Firm. I’ve read excerpts, but not the entire book. And the forecast calls for rain. The children run off to milk cows and build a shed and dig in the garden, and I open Annie Dillard, to read about a landscape nearly like my own, watery and full of strange islands, a room full of windows, a small skull of a place to live. The dreamlike quality of the first essay tugs me in and out of tangible realities and we are talking about days and gods and I’m not sure exactly what burning thing the cat drags in at the end of the chapter, but Dillard is fearsome like that cat.
In chapter two, the plane falls from Dillard’s sky and a child is burned beyond recognition—the child, the burning god that the cat drug in. Dillard launches into questions about the nature of God and gods, about angels and fire. And she says, “The joke of the world… is the old rake in the grass, the one that you step on, foot to forehead.” Any properly superstitious reader would immediately slam the book shut and utter prayers like, “is not, is not, is not…” with squeezed-shut eyes, but did I do that? No. I went on to drive the car to the store to buy marshmallows for third-graders to roast in the woods. We found the head of a horned steer rotting on a shelf near the old cabin, and dry wood underneath the old cabin, and we started a fire even in a heavy mist of a rain. And no one’s eye was put out, even though the possibility was right there. We were playing with fire. Or as Dillard might note, we could see clearly the fire we were playing with, though we are all playing with fire every minute of our lives.
I got up the next morning and walked kids to the barn, where we learned to milk a cow, and we waved to the kittens, and I asked about the steer’s head in the woods. The farmer wanted the skull, you see, and he didn’t want coyotes or bobcats to be attracted to the barn with the scent of rotting meat. And he did want the woods creatures to eat away the flesh of the steer, leaving the bone. We listened as we brushed the milk cow and calmed her, as the barn cats lapped up the first bowl of cream.
I thought the threat of Chapter Two had passed, so I read more about Julie Norwich and fire, and prayer, and rakes. “You wake up with a piece of tree in your skull. You wake up with fruit on your hands. You wake up in a clearing and see yourself, ashamed.” With this reading I see Adam and Eve, and a Tree in the skull, the Fall. Dillard lives in a skull of a room, she writes, and the tree is right there with her. It all comes clear.
I am careful while walking on this farm, a Waldorf farm, which means anything could kill you any time because we do not over-protect children. And that is why an enormous coping saw lies out on the big stump by the volleyball net, and lengths of sodden plywood forms a ramp for bicycles in the woods. I watch for the saw, for the ramp, for the obvious, for the rake, and meander through those questions of evil and innocence, while getting muddy with third-graders. The volleyball disappears and I find seven boys inching closer to the electric fence, the ball on the other side. The ground is wet and I catch one boy reaching out a hand… I tell him there is nothing to be done, that the volleyball game is over now. The boys shrug and walk away, looking back over their shoulders at the blue volleyball in the green field, on the other side. No one is killed, again and again.
Day Three on the Farm, parents arrive and the sky clears and we hike North Pack Monadnock, eating our bag lunches at the summit. The nine-year-olds rush back down the trail. Two of us parents decide to hurry down the mountainside to catch up with the boys, since most injuries happen during descents—we talk about this. I worry about my toes—my sandals are athletic, but the toes are open, and I don’t want to be stupid. I grab a sturdy walking stick to help with the rough terrain. The stick helps more than I would suspect and I pick up speed.
Then I slip on a wet slab of granite, and as I fall my walking stick gets caught between a tree trunk and my foot and the fat stick slams me in the face: the tree, in my skull, the sudden awakening in the twinkling of an eye. You wake in a clearing with fruit on your hands. The man who’d been rushing ahead to help children hike safely, returns to say, “well, we need to find something to wipe the blood from your chin,” and a ten-year-old boy tells me the vampire look is “in” this year, as he passes me to join his younger brother below. “Is my nose broken?” The man thinks not. I stagger to find flat ground, to get my bearings. My teeth and jaw are numb. The other parents make me take caution down the last miles of the mountain trail, me hanging with the people at the back, mopping occasional blood from my swelling lip. I mutter something about rakes and enlightenment and being knocked into next week.
I feel certain the moral of the story is to never read Annie Dillard. “Teach my thy ways, O Lord,” is the kind of prayer one ought to know better than to pray, as she implies. But the temptation is far too great. Some people read crime novels, or horror stories, because they can’t help themselves. I read dangerous books about fire and angels and pieces of wood flying at skulls. I’m building a tolerance for the next whack, I suppose. I am asking the same questions, why, how, how come, and I feel fortunate it is my bloody nose and aching teeth, and not some child on fire. The parents pull me aside to tell of mishaps over the past year, a bruised hip, stitches, a broken nose. They remind me that we heal, albeit slowly. I add an ice pack, rinse with salt water, spit blood.
I should be more careful what I read. Too bad. I can’t, and I won’t. I’ll just be mindful of the tree in my skull as I read of seraphim bursting into flames for the love of God.