Exemplars of Life Series -
My Friend, Annie Dillard

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
March 4, 2001

“In the dark time, the eye begins to see.”
-Theodore Roetke

The only thing comparable I can think of that is more tiring or grindingly boring than having to write a book review is the prospect of having to listen to one. I do not propose to perform that activity here today. But many of us here today are nature-centered in our religious outlook and students of the mystical in life. Since Annie Dillard has been on the American literary scene for over twenty-five years or more and relates positively to these themes, I have the modest hope that you may become inquisitive about her writings and thoughts.

What I hope to do now is to tell you about Annie Dillard - the person behind the words - the person who prompted one author in a review in Time magazine to speak of her as “the inexhaustible mind”.

As I criss-crossed back and forth through various articles and reviews about this singular author and teacher it became increasingly clear to me what a remarkably Renaissance human being she is. Indeed, we are fortunate that the talent and the depth of perception that she possesses has not been lost to future generations. Too often history has proven that such talents in writers is ignored by the generation in which they lived and was only realized long after they were gone.

Annie Dillard was born in Pittsburgh in 1941. She now lives in the great Northwest. She is a graduate of Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia with a B.A. and an M.A. in English. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, as well. For many years she has served as a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and is a scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. She has also been named as Distinguished Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Although she has written numerous articles, short stories and volumes of poetry, the most outstanding works are ones I think many of you will find familiar. To name but a few:

What can we say about the journeys of the mind that are given us in the life and writings of Annie Dillard?

First, I think we have to understand at the outset that there was nothing particularly notable about her years growing to adulthood. Annie Dillard enjoyed a most normal early life. Many of the same things that happened are things we might remember about our childhoods. But there is also something of singular significance about her that gradually dawns upon her readers.

In this child there was, for whatever reason one can explain, a mind that was overwhelmingly curious, aggressive, daring, vulnerable, intellectually courageous and observant. This from the time she was five. She speaks often of realizing each day that she was alive and that she was given that life in order to pay attention, to observe, to know life in its deepest and most succulent meanings.

In one passage Ms. Dillard describes a summer trip that her father planned and took down the Mississippi. His quest was to listen and to participate in the creation of jazz music. New Orleans was his goal. He returned somewhat disenchanted three weeks early. Little does Annie say regarding the fact that this was thought unusual. No guilt is placed in remembering that her father had simply left home.

In the early fifties family values were not figments of some religious pundits exclamations. They were real values. I remember them, too. But Annie’s parents were just a bit different. She recalls them as being relaxed, slightly eccentric, gregarious, liberal in thought. Two figures emerge with real depth in An American Childhood. One is certainly Annie herself. The other is her incredible, funny and creative mother. It was her mother who loved to shock the world. More importantly, it was probably her mother’s tutelage that caused Annie to write the following:

To repeat the words of our text: “In the dark time, the eye begins to see.”

It has been said by various writers that a person must first deal with their own life before they will be able to be competent professional writers. That is, they must do some kind of autobiographical odyssey in writing - to “get the monkey off one’s back” as it were so as to free one’s psyche to look more dispassionately and inquiringly beyond one’s life.

This certainly was not the case with Annie Dillard. She waited over a decade and four other volumes to present us with a picture of her life. One can only assume that she was either too frightened of the ogre it might contain when she looked more closely - or that she simply wasn’t ready to delve into the richness of being alive. As a growing adult, she had other talents to hone first.

To understand the humanness within herself, she created methods of knowing the world of nature. Here is where she began to practice the most intense of close observations of the natural world. She possessed an ability to pay fierce attention to the detail of describing - and a sense of mysticism that pervaded all she experienced. In a sense, her approach was from the standpoint of an Apollonian (that is, “mechanical”) observing a Dionysian (“feeling”) world and describing it in mechanical terms. The delight comes in seeing how she draws her readers into the deepest mystical conclusions from all she describes.

In her book, Holy the Firm, for instance, she relates an event that occurred while camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains:

As one reads her works one might be caught by her ability to relate the poetic and the religious in prose - images so simple, contrasting and improbable, that one could be in the unlikely position of imagining a Henry David Thoreau of one century looking at the world of a Buckminster Fuller in another century.

Annie Dillard apparently has taken quite seriously the solemn challenge to put things together in order to keep things from falling apart. Otherwise, as the poet, T.S. Eliot suggested, “things fall apart...the center does not hold”.

Read Teaching a Stone to Talk and you will find more than mere nature studies. Annie Dillard grapples with the problem of pain and of dying. She might look into the neutral seeming cruelty of the natural world and make deductions about it - but in the looking, she is engaging us in an adventure of the human spirit.

One of her deepest conclusions through all this is that modern living robs us as human beings of the ability to really know that Good and Evil exist. Nevertheless, she is able to celebrate life even though it is rational and chaotic, ugly and beautiful. She watches the world of nature and reflects upon the incredible complexity of the human experience. She nearly shouts at us to “Look, it’s there - Life - and it’s awful - and awe-filled - and filled with pain as well as meaning.”

As you read Dillard you are apt to begin to breathe easier. Ambiguity - that two-sided sword that lives within each of us through each day becomes more acceptable. The senseless way of nature and of humankind are there if we just pay attention.

Remember the film, “A Clockwork Orange”? In it the protagonist undergoes a forced servitude issued by the government to change his behavior. He is strapped into a movie seat with his eyes taped open and is forced to look upon human suffering and pain for hours on end until he finally screams in submission. His violent nature is changed and he is left shaking in penance.

We, too, have the creative capacity to see with new eyes and discover a world with new meaning. For Dillard, worship - or celebration, if you will - lies not in saying Psalms without rhyme or reason, but with seeing with eyes that transfigure the life that seemed dull before.

Let us look at yet another dimension of this remarkable Renaissance woman. In her reveries about growing up she shares the following:

Boys welcomed me at baseball, too, for I had, through enthusiastic practice, what was weirdly known as a boy’s arm.” (An American Childhood, p. 37)

Her matter-of-fact stating of the obvious about the difference in a child’s world between boys and girls is a sensitive ability to look at the future and know what was coming.

(What a difference nowadays owing to the gifts of feminism. In fact, I was delighted and inspired to read in yesterday’s Boston Globe of Jane Fonda’s gift of $12.5 million dollars to Harvard University to establish a Professorship in Gender Research.)

There is a part of Annie’s life that I would mention before concluding this brief odyssey.
There was a family known to her parents who invited her on one occasion to their farm in Paw Paw, Pennsylvania. It was in that farm that her thirst for more knowledge of the natural world came alive. That family friends were among those members of the oldest and best-educated ranks of Pittsburgh society. Listen to this anachronism of her mind and heart in expressing her feelings about them and the farm:

Such liberalism was not enough to undo a lasting devotion for her to the Presbyterian Church. And to mystical Christianity in general. She had steadfastly refused to give it the promptings of life that would have her become bitter or satirical or angry. But she raged against any religion that asked only blind and innocent faith. Instead she insisted on asking ultimate and troubling questions about pain in the midst of pleasure in life.

Annie Dillard is remarkably prepared to discuss semantics, science, ecology, church theology, metaphysics or whatever. It is that “space in between” that says so much about the person behind the name. In fact, quite recently I heard someone on National Public Radio comment that when Annie Dillard writes, she writes using three or four senses in her descriptions.

It is good to know that we’ve not heard the last of her. I, for one, look forward to encountering her again and again and hope some of you will do the same.

I therefore commend to you the name and the words of a spiritual sister in kind - of Annie Dillard. I am so glad to have received her first book years back that made today a possibility. Perhaps, after all, the text by Theodore Roethke is true. “In the dark time, the eye begins to see.” Dillard believes it. Otherwise she would never have written the following: