The first time I read Annie Dillard, it was aloud with my college roommate. She had read Dillard before. She asked if we could read it together. My college roommate was awkward like me, and had odd requests at times for oddly intimate experiences like reading together. This was something few other people asked from me, apart from family members. It is one of those memories I look back on and feel thankful it happened. We took it in turns to read “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” the first chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
My whole body seized when we came to the part about the frog. “And just as I looked at him, [the frog] slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent.” (p. 6) Then I heard the details of what happened to the frog and could not forget, just like Dillard, that God had created a creature as shocking as that water bug. “It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s muscles and bones and organs–all but the skin–and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim’s body, reduced to a juice.” (p.6)
For years I remembered that water bug, and recalled “Heaven and Earth in Jest” as an ironic dance between faith and doubt. I looked up the water bug on the internet and noted its resemblance to a tractor and resolved never to walk near creeks in Virginia. Having read it again, I realize I must have been upset at the time because it seems very hopeful and uplifting now. But that beetle is enough to cause anyone at least a small dark night of the soul. It would have for me but I was already in one. That dark night must have been too dark to notice when Dillard says, “Kazantzakis says that when he was young he had a canary and a globe. When he freed the canary, it would perch on the globe and sing. All his life, wandering the earth, he felt as though he had a canary on top of his mind, singing.” (p.4)
Re-reading books has not been a practice of mine since I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and thought it was fantastic. I don’t know why, except sometimes I think my taste in books is a little unexciting. I tend to like books that end well, or where I already know what is going to happen. I don’t like to be disturbed. And much of the literature that is called great is disturbing. Maybe being sensitive and liable to be triggered is a good reason that I don’t just jump into books. But I also believe stubbornly revisiting the familiar might turn me into my mother, or my grandmother.
Re-reading “Heaven and Earth In Jest” healed me of an eight year old wound. I acquired many wounds in college, and whether they were real or imagined I remember hurting every day back then. I think of it like my grandmother might have thought of living through the Spanish Civil War, or I imagine it is something like that. I feel amply sorry for myself. I’m still trying to figure out why.
Coming back to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I found that Dillard didn’t sound as depressed to me as I thought back then. In fact, she sounds more than hesitantly spiritual. She is worshipful, worshipful of and in nature. This is an incredible cliche but it must mean something that it keeps coming up, in literature, on the internet, and in my personal experience. Dillard says, “That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, ‘The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?’ It’s a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms?…If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest?” (p.7) And I, perhaps like the giant water bug, want to know: was I made in earnest? Perhaps Dillard has the answer.
Perhaps the answer is that it doesn’t matter. But that seems impossible as I read on. Nihilism is so common among young folks who stop just short of wondering and settle on knowing everything. I am one. I know old folks have their own way of avoiding wonderment, but this is mine. I desperately want it to matter that I live, not that I in particular am alive but that being alive, being this consciousness, is not in jest. “I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. Some unwonted, taut pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been set down, if we can’t learn why.” (p.12) This “taut pride” is what stops me just short of wonderment, exactly when wonderment might be the medicine I need. I feel almost as if my loneliness is being cut through by a woman who, fifty years ago, set out to answer the questions I am answering myself. I have heard that is, among other things, the purpose of books.
My favorite paragraph is on page 9: “At the time of Lewis and Clark, setting the prairies on fire was a well-known signal that meant, ‘Come down to the water.’ It was an extravagant gesture, but we can’t do less. If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look, I see fire: that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.” This paragraph, like so much of “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” marries beauty and tragedy perfectly, making a miracle: inspiration, hope, even as we understand that fire is a destructive force. In light of climate change, and the yearly fires in my home state of California, this paragraph is especially poignant.
Writing helps me look at the past, and present, as if they were orange juice, simple, easy to digest, and pleasant, instead of the chaos that they often are. “Heaven and Earth in Jest” helps me to view my life as not only a miracle, but inherently livable. This combination of what writing and reading do for me is something magical I will never be able to express enough gratitude for.