Posts Tagged ‘Annie Dillard’

Catching days

June 10, 2013

You can’t rush the dawn.

Especially not after you’ve stayed up late watching the Cards pound the Reds and then Don Draper “comfort” a draft-dodger’s mom. I enjoyed both spectacles, but they kept me up after midnight and have disrupted my morning routine.

Routine is crucial to creative success. I was reminded of this by another of Maria Popova’s endless succession of instigating brainpickings. She cited some of my favorite Annie Dillard lines, from The Writing Life .

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

And then she recites Wallace Stevens’ splendid daily routine: walk an hour to & from work (each way), plus another hour at noon. I’d love that routine, if only my work were an hour’s walk (instead of drive) from home. I’d hate the insurance selling in between walks, but we must all make our compromises.

Popova has lots more on the daily routines and daily rituals of successfully creative people. I’m especially envious of Darwin’s.  (He of course worked from home and so did not have to commute, vehicularly or otherwise.)

Darwin rose, walked, worked, took a mid-morning break in the parlor with Mrs. Darwin (who would read aloud from something diverting, typically personal correspondence and something fictional), worked some more, walked some more, declared it a good day’s work by 1 pm or so, hung out some more with Emma, read, replied to his correspondents, enjoyed his family, and in the process eventually gave us the greatest idea anyone ever had.

Really nice work, if you can get it.

An indecorous question

June 4, 2012

“Where will you be buried?”

Yesterday was Decoration Day out in the hinterlands, a dying tradition in more than one sense of the term. But it’s still observed on Memorial Day in some places, and by my mother-in-law’s clan on the first Sunday of June. The idea is for the living to gather at the cemetery and florally decorate the graves of the dear departed, then enjoy a potluck picnic and the convivial privilege of one another’s continued existence. It had superstitious origins rooted in concern for the appurtenances of the afterlife, and later became yet another patriotic holiday. But like pretty much everything, it can be taken in naturalized form.

Unspoken but undeniably in the minds of at least a few of the more reflective decorators, on this annual  occasion of feast and finitude,  is awareness of the prospect that each participant will in time, in turn, slip beneath the turf to join William Cullen Bryant’s “innumerable caravan” themselves.

…approach thy grave, Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. –Thanatopsis

So Decoration Day at its best is a stoic celebration of life and a mindful reminder that it’s not forever.

And at its worst? At its worst it’s a morbid, fear-induced, life-negating depressant. “Where will you be buried?” is the indecorous question a Country Cousin greeted Older Daughter with, almost as soon as we were out of the car.

It’s good, as I say, to remind ourselves that (as another poet said) we all spend eternity here, “tucked under.” Most of the decorators actually believe themselves to be immortal spirits who’ll spend eternity in heaven, but never mind. We’re never too young to think about that. So I don’t object to the question itself, although I deny the premise: who says you have to be buried? I’d rather be scattered, myself. Spread my dust around in all my favorite places, including this very spot out back under the glider, in Edwin and Percy Warner Parks, at Radnor Lake, at Stones River, at Greer Stadium (kinda like Steve Goodman)…

And shoot some of me into space with Leary and Roddenberry and Scotty, if you can afford the freight.

On May 22, 2012, a small urn containing some of Doohan’s remains in ash form was flown into space aboard the Dragon spacecraft as part of COTS Demo Flight 2

But if the cold cold ground appeals instead, Cousin, go for it.

I did object to the gleeful tone of eagerness we heard in his voice, as though he thought we should all be in a big hurry to reach the front of the caravan. Philosophy is about learning to die, sure, but in the version I prefer it’s more about learning what it means to live.

And so I thought Older Daughter’s response to the indecorous question was just right. She said she hadn’t really given burial plots a lot of thought yet, being focused for now on things like passing the Driver’s Test, going to college, starting a family, living her life. We all have time enough to die. Now’s time to live.

walking in Nashville in January

January 7, 2012

The Tigers lost by two points in a hard-played heartbreaker, but this time the coach provided postgame cupcakes instead of castigation. Sweet redemption.

And what a sweet January afternoon in middle Tennessee, nearly 70 degrees just after my quarterly haircut and just before tipoff. I was inspired, of course, to fill the interim by walking while I waited. Spotted two sunbathers on the Peabody lawn, scaled Love Circle and then the tallest parking garage on  Vandy campus while listening to David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity, and reflected again that somebody really ought to write a philosophical treatise on walking. (Or at least a song to rival “Walking in Memphis.”) Not a turgid “academic” treatise, I share young Calvin’s disdain for that kind of writing. I want to write something with legs and some motion to it.  If it advances my career in the bargain, that’d be a bonus.

Something like it’s been done before, classically by Rousseau and more recently by Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Nicholson. Annie Dillard‘s recorded some prescient thoughts on the subject. But it’s not yet been done by me. Nobody else can write that book.

And so another happy task joins the list.

Pure experience in the specious present

September 16, 2011

In our William James tutorial yesterday we tried again to grasp the point of his concept of “pure experience.” Do we really have any pure pre-verbal “percepts”  in advance of all categorical analysis? Can we toe the line of an attentive present, as Thoreau said he was forever trying to do?

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. Walden

James said we can. But he also said we can never capture the specious present.

Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts,viz. , the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three nonentities… Principles of Psychology xv

These “nonentities” are nonetheless real experiences, real and flowing percepts. James was not his own best excogitator on this point. Annie Dillard may be. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she nails it, this vivid but slippery experience of the elusive present moment:

This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station,
here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I’ve lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand.

Nothing has changed for him, much changes for us when we try to effect a translation between percepts and concepts. Conceptual life is full of opacities, so-called “pure experience” so quickly dissolves into a glimmer and twinkle of fading half-memory. But there is something there. That’s what James is saying about what finally can’t be said. Once again he’s pointing to the that, once again we must each fill out the what for ourselves.

Still, you can’t step twice into the same present moment. And still the puppy squirms.


April 20, 2010

We finish Andre Comte-Sponville today in A&S, with his big question: Can there be an atheist spirituality?

I’ve been thinking of AC-S as the French John Dewey, but there’s a Jamesian side to him too– though he’s probably not aware of it, as neither Dewey nor James turns up in the bibliography.

Recall James’s claim that even if every religious proposition is absurd, religion (he should probably have said spirituality) remains “our most important function.” AC-S writes:

Not believing in God does not prevent me from having a spirit.

The human spirit is far too important to be left to priests, mullahs or spiritualists. It is our noblest part, our highest function… Renouncing religion by no means implies renouncing spiritual life.

It does not matter whether spirit resides in the brain or in its functional effluvia the mind, or in the personal, intentional activities that signal mind’s presence. It is no substance or entity. Rather, it is a function, a capacity, an act or a disposition to act. Automata, so far at least, are not self-starters. Organic persons embodying spirit are. That marks spirit as natural, and is a big improvement on the old supernatural notion of hovering, homeless disembodied spirits.

James wrote: “The conception of spirit, as we mortals hitherto have framed it, is too gross to cover the exquisite tenuity of nature’s facts.” We ourselves are nature’s most tenuous facts. AC-S:

We are ephemeral beings who open onto eternity… This “openness” is the spirit itself. Metaphysics means thinking about these things; spirituality means experiencing them, exercising them, living them.

For this spiritual “opening,” nature suffices and our own transitory finiteness suffices. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard‘s wonderful statement: “While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.” It’s the stream we go a-fishin’ in, another great nature-poet said.

On my reading, AC-S is a global naturalist (holding that everything experienced and experienceable is real, and in precisely that sense is a part of nature). If everything is natural, then so is spirituality… Spirit is part of nature. It’s still an open question: what else is there in nature that has not yet been dreamt by our philosophers? Fortunately we’re well-equipped to chase open questions, if only we will.

AC-S’s discussion of mysticism is a challenge to the conventionally-Positivist imagination, but (like Wittgenstein) James was at home with the “inexpressible” and so should we be. “Open your eyes” (and shut your mouth) is good advice in many more instances than philosophers like to admit.

All our explanations are comprised of words but the real mystery is not in words. Explaining often gets us into trouble. Novelist Richard Ford gets away with saying this, without squandering his credibility and consistency, because he typically allows years to intervene between such fictional statements.

Real mystery—the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book—was to [his teaching colleagues] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble…
He definitely has a point, but at least we’re off the streets. We may not, however, be tapping what James told his Gifford audience at the turn of the last century was the vital spiritual  core of our respective personal energies.
AC-S has a Sagan-esque side too:
The universe is our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now. This moves me far more than the Bible or the Koran. It astonishes me far more than miracles (if I believed in them). Compared to the universe, walking on water is a cinch!
As Carl Sagan told his Gifford audience in 1985:
And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions… we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space… the God portrayed is too small.
Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices.
Words, however, probably do not suffice. We’re going for a feeling here. James called it, paradoxically, the sentiment of rationality. AC-S offers an apt analogy (which will betray the reason for my attraction to his book):
You are taking a walk… You feel great. It started out as an activity for recreation or exercise… and then it gradually turned into something else– a subtler, deeper, nobler pleasure. Something like an adventure, but an interior one. Or like an experience, but a spiritual one. You wish for nothing other than the step you are taking at the very moment you take it, nothing other than the landscape as it is, at this very instant, with a bird emitting its cry, another bird taking wing, the strength you feel in your calves, the lightness in your heart and the peace in your soul… This is plenitude.
And although AC-S and I have already devoted many words to its explication, it is really not something they can corral. We need to stop talking… And I’d have been content for AC-S to do precisely that, at this point in his book. He didn’t. So I’ll let WJ have the last– no, the penultimate– words:

As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking… I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves… The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience.

What, then, is spirituality? The immodest author of Springs of Delight writes:

Spirituality is the link of continuity between every human breath, every moment, and every epoch. It is what binds the personal, the social, and the philosophical. Life, as James says, is a chain: a flowing stream of succession to which we may contribute, not only through the spires of our genes but more overtly in our voluntary devotions and ideals. The living breath that measures our moments and days also marks the distance between an attentive present, coveted futures, and life’s remote denouement. Respiration, inspiration, and aspiration are entwined aspects of the vision of life as a chain.

not tucked under yet

April 18, 2010

It was Spring clean-up and planting day at Granny’s yesterday, and I have the aches and shovel-calluses to prove it. Grandpa used to do all the yard work and gardening, so this was for him as much as her. It was sacred work.

I get pressed into some yard work at home too, of course, every Spring. I admit I don’t always have the best attitude about it. I’d rather be walking the dogs or watching the ballgame (I managed to miss all 20 innings of the Cards-Mets yesterday) or hangin’ in the hammock or you name it.

But it’s good for a person to spend time scratching the ground, digging Mother Earth, laying mulch, sowing seeds, wheeling the barrow, planting the beds etc. As Annie Dillard* says so bluntly in For the Time Being, we’re really preparing our own beds.  “We spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under.” It’s a healthy exercise, the literal version of which my wife has been trying since Day One to instill in me without result: to make your bed before you lay down in it.

That’s not the main point, though. Our time above ground, a day like yesterday reminds me, is all about preparing the Earth to support new life. It’s about vitality, and it’s about the season ahead.

(*BTW, readers of Richardson’s James bio: did you know she’s the Annie he dedicated it to?)

Opening time

May 29, 2009

Ours is a planet sown in beings. Our generations overlap likefor-the-time-being shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.

Annie Dillard

Towing the line of the present moment, being wholly absorbed in experience as we face it, attending to what’s happening right now: it sounds so simple, and for simpler beings it probably is. But we’ve inherited our species’ evolved tendency to ride the wave of consciousness away from boat’s stem. As Dillard said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,

This is it, right now, the present… this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.

It’s not consciousness per se that spoils the moment, but the hyper-self-consciousness that draws you out of yourself and makes you hover over your own experience instead of inhabiting and enjoying it.  Fortunately what is lost is not forgotten. Focused attention can find it again, and savor and store it in memory.

The second I know I’ve lost [the present] I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him.

Follow the pup.