“If I believe in anything, it is in the dark night of the soul. Awe is my religion, and mystery is its church.”
- Charles Simic
“If I believe in anything, it is in the dark night of the soul. Awe is my religion, and mystery is its church.”
- Charles Simic
Annie Dillard has been one of my very favorite writers for a long, long time. A search of this blog’s archives brings up fully 2 pages of posts that reference her. It is frankly inexplicable, then, that I hadn’t read An American Childhood before. Perhaps the reason is that I was waiting for the precisely perfect moment to read it, which was last month in the Galapagos. The universe conspired so that I read this book, which is about a child awakening to the miracle of the world and of how transient it is, about moving into adolescence, about memories that we never forget, right as I watched my own near-adolescent children in open-mouthed wonder at the glorious view in front of them. I can’t count the number of times I breathlessly underlined a passage about the bittersweet awe of childhood and then looked up to marvel at my own children, willing myself to freeze them, and that experience, that moment, perfectly in my memory.
An American Childhood, Dillard’s loving, lovely memoir of her childhood in Pittsburgh, is about the central theme of my life, about the black hole around which my every thought, emotion, tear, and word revolves: time’s irrevocable, speedy passage. Pittsburgh is far from the Galapagos, and I am certainly no Annie Dillard, but it speaks to the brilliance and power of her writing that I fell into her story headfirst and related to something on every single page.
Time’s passage is the drumbeat cadence of the book, and fascination with the holiness that exists in the natural world is its soaring descant. I am familiar with how breathtakingly beautifully Dillard evokes the sacred that is inherent in nature, but this was the first time I’d been moved so by her writing about life’s ephemeral transience.
Who could ever tire of this radiant transition, this surfacing to awareness and this deliberate plunging to oblivion – the theater curtain rising and falling? Who could tire of it when the sum of those moments at the edge – the conscious life we so dread losing – is all we have, the gift at the moment of opening it?
An American Childhood is suffused with this radiance, tracing one girl’s “surfacing” from young childhood to a more aware, and more complicated adolescence. At the outset of the book, by recording a “few, floating scenes from early childhood,” Dillard brings a complete world vividly to life: her neighbor skating in the street during an ice storm, her mother addressing a phalanx of nuns, the light of a passing car across a dark wall, her barrel-chested, particular grandmother, Oma.
And then, as Dillard gets older, she describes a change that occurs around the double digit mark. She begins to understand the world and her place in it. This transition is a kind of awakening, and it brings both great appreciation for the world and a keen awareness of how short-lived our time here is. With that awareness, which is intensely familiar to me, comes a fierce, ferocious need to pay attention to the world:
Noticing and remembering everything would trap bright scenes to light and fill the blank and darkening past which was already piling up behind me. The growing size of that blank and ever-darkening past frightened me; it loomed beside me like a hole in the air and battened on scraps of my life I failed to claim. If one day I forgot to notice my life, and be damned grateful for it, the blank cave would suck me up entire.
“What does it feel like to be alive?” Dillard asks midway through An American Childhood. And this felt like a manifesto, a summary of all that she works out in her writing: what it is to be alive in this world. This question, which is also a preoccupation of mine, throbs through everything I’ve ever read by Dillard. Then she answers her own question:
It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit … knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang onto the ring….you feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember?
Dillard was clearly a hyper-aware child and probably one with a melancholy streak too. It is books and nature that bring her the most joy; she talks about scanning the shelves at the local library and about her rock collection with the same passionate nostalgia. As an adult reflecting on her child self, she realizes the fine line she walked, between observing the world and living in it: “How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend? Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live … too little noticing, though – I would risk much to avoid this – and I would miss the whole show.”
This tension is one I grapple with all the time The border between watching my life and experiencing it is both porous and shifting. I need to do one to do the other, that much is clear to me, but the balance between them that feels right changes daily, if not hourly.
An American Childhood moves forward through Dillard’s adolescence, and we see the entrance of boys, and dances, and the beginning of a new kind of drama. She talks about deeply loving two men, and she loses grandparents. She shows us the way that “loss grew as you did, without your consent,” and as the child author grows into a young woman we see her increasing familiarity with the two sides of this world, both beauty and pain. Indeed, she notes, “time itself bent you and cracked you on its wheel.”
I closed An American Childhood with an ache in my chest, that sensation of having read something so true it hurts. I looked over at the glow of the Galapagos sunset on the faces of my children and felt the fascination and sorrow of this life running together in my veins. I cannot recommend highly enough Dillard’s love letter to childhood, to reading, to nature, to this world in all of its myriad, multifaceted beauty. In the last pages she describes a feeling which sums up what reading An American Childhood is like: “It is the dizzying overreal sensation of noticing that you are here. You feel life wipe your face like a brush.”
In the Galapagos, life wiped my face. Reading An American Childhood, it did too. It is my belief that in those dizzying, overreal sensation, we are truly living.
We had a spectacular spring break. The trip to the Galapagos was more magical than our everyday life, of course, and Grace and Whit, sponges that they are, soaked it all up. As we headed home, on the last morning, Grace was tearful. In the airport lounge (as we embarked on what would be a full 24 hours of travel) she looked at me with mournful eyes. “I don’t want it to be over,” she said, hugging me hard. I nodded, my own eyes filling with tears.
“Why does it have to end? Why does it have to be so sad?” she asked me, her voice muffled against my shoulder. A wry smile flitted across my face, though she couldn’t see it. Why does it? This is something I ask myself every single day.
“Oh, Gracie. You can’t have one without the other,” I said. She pulled away and looked me in the eye, a question in her face. “You know, the amazing experience is part of it and then being sad it’s over is the other part.” She nodded silently, chewing her lip. We sat in silence, the huge ceiling fans in the Guayaquil airport spinning slowly overhead. I watched Grace’s knee jiggle as I thought of the two edges of this world, of the joy and the sorrow, of the beauty and the pain, of how inextricably linked they are, of how ambivalent I feel that my daughter is learning this lesson already.
The last night of break, Whit came out of his room a few minutes after I had tucked him in. I walked him back into his dark room and sat down on the edge of his bed. “What’s on your mind?” His cheeks were wet and he had clearly been crying. He shook his head and I waited.
“I want to go back to the Galapagos, Mummy. And I am just sad. Sad about everything that’s over.” I stroked his blond hair off his forehead. “I’m sad we’re not going back to Legoland.” I nodded.
“I know, Whit. It’s always sad when things are over.” I had a lump in my own throat as I spoke. Over and over again, Grace and Whit seem to go straight to the heart of all the things I find the most difficult. This is what they do: they drag me to confront the emotions with which I most struggle.
“So many things,” he hiccuped, “that didn’t seem that much fun at the time, like the hot slow bus to the turtle farm, or the long layover in Guayaquil, or the flight where we didn’t sleep…” his voice trailed off.
“Or that lunch in Puerto Ayora when you were so cranky,” I offered, and a small smile cracked his face.
“Yeah. All of those things. They didn’t seem that much fun when we were going them, but now I miss them all.”
Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember. – Oscar Levant
I read this quote the day after that bedtime conversation with Whit, and I think it’s saying what he was, too. So often things take on the sheen of joy after the fact, their memory burnished with something that wasn’t necessarily there as we lived it. I don’t think this is a bad or a sad thing, though it does make me more aware that the experiences that feel like a slog (and Whit is right, that long bus ride back and forth across Santa Cruz qualifies) often become cherished memories.
It’s all connected, all of it: the delight and the sorrow, the experience and the memory, the difficulty fading into the background as the joyful center of an experience moves to the front. You can’t have one without the other, of any of these dualities, of that I’m sure. It’s a bittersweet thing, to watch my children learn this, and they both did on our trip to the Galapagos and in its wake. And it’s something I’m still learning, too.
We have some happy days and some unhappy days, some great loves and barren spaces. We have this life, this instantaneous blossoming. Will I ever learn not to choose among its moments, will I ever learn to walk both its hollow and hilly lands?
- Ellen Gilchrist, Starcarbon
I have been blogging so long that some quotes and poems are making their second appearance here. I’m sorry if this is redundant; it’s just that I love them so much!
“Mummy!” Whit spluttered as he came up, blowing water out of his mouth, his snorkel mask askew. “Look!” He indicated below where he was treading water. Simultaneously we ducked under. I looked over and watched him gazing at the school of fish swarming along the bottom of the ocean. The wonder was palpable in his eyes.
When I broke the surface I saw Matt and Grace floating on the surface a few feet off to my left. We were in the Galapagos Islands. The clear, turquoise water was even more extraordinary than I had imagined. We had just spent 20 minutes only feet away from four baby sea lions who tumbled over each other and themselves in the shallow water at the rocky shore of an island. Grace had watched them, marveling at how close they were, gasping and exclaiming out loud over and over. Finally they had swum away and so had we.
My favorite part of this beautiful afternoon was the way the sunlight slanted through the water. The tangible beams reminded me of the way you could see light coming through the windows of one of the big lecture halls at college, somehow solid, real, floating with dust motes and years and years of memories. This light was similarly visible, and I watched Grace, Whit, and Matt kick their way through the slanting skeins. The bubbles that our kicking created sparkled like tiny diamonds in the water.
I hung back, watching my family swim. Sometimes, though rarely, I am aware even as I live a moment that it will be one that swells and takes on shape and solidity in memory, something I return to, a touchstone of a season in time. I have come to think of this sensation as the closest thing I know to grace. It came over me then, in the empty Galapagos ocean. (note: this is different, though related to, the sensation that I’m living, alongside my children, a Life Lesson, like in the hockey rink)
Grace looked like a long, lean mermaid as, her courage growing, she dove down below the surface, the silvery fish parting as she neared. Whit’s seersucker swim trunks ballooned around his pale legs as he bicycled in the water. I kept my head down, watching them swim, the only sound my own breathing through the snorkel. Suddenly William Styron’s seminal, powerful book, Darkness Visible, came to mind and I thought: this is lightness visible. In every sense of the word. The light streaking through the water, the silver fish glinting as they glided over the ocean floor, the glittering bubbles, my children learning something new in a place so far from home I’d described it before we left as the dark side of the moon.
I kept watching, head down, my own breathing loud in my ears, for another long while. And then we all swam back to the dinghy, climbed in, and headed home to the boat for the evening.
Photo credit: William Rice
This is Childhood – Last year, I joined 9 other writers in a series called This is Childhood which celebrated each age between 1 and 10. I’m happy to say that the series, along with significant additional material (including a foreword by Lisa Belkin), is being sold as a book by Brain, Child. I am biased but I think it would make a terrific Mother’s Day gift! You can find out more and purchase the collection here.
What Would Gwyneth Do - Raluca’s blog, which combines serious with fun in a way I love, is one of my must-reads. She has terrific style, great menu ideas, and a tremendously thoughtful series on working motherhood that was a major inspiration for me when I started my own.
Writing Memories – This poignant essay by Lauren Apfel about how she wrote to capture the “slippery fish” of early childhood moments and about her effort to make the earliest years of her childrens’ lives hold still rang very true for me. She says, perfectly, that “in between the task of chronicling life is the business of living it,” and describes how her writing about her children has changed as they get older. Beautiful, powerful, thought-provoking: this is wonderful writing.
I Refuse to be Busy - While I love all of KJ Dell’Antonia’s writing on Motherlode, this post struck a particular chord. I’m grateful for the reminder of something I believe deeply, that all of life is a choice. Being busy or frantic or not is in large part about our mindset, and the choices we make about our time reflect that which we value. Let’s all be deliberate about how we spend our only zero-sum resource, our time.
Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen
- I’ve been meal planning. I KNOW. It feels awfully grown up, and only a small step past flossing, which I’ve also begun doing regularly. I must be getting ready to turn 40. Anyway, this is my new favorite cookbook. I adore it!
What are you reading, thinking about, and loving lately?
I share these Things I Love Lately posts approximately monthly. The others are all found here.
“So this is reality, I thought. It’s hot and bare and permanent, it’s broken and chipped and huge, it will last forever, even in ruins, it will make you speechless.”
- Susanna Kaysen, Cambridge
I write all the time about the confounding, mysterious nature of memory, and of how it is the smallest, most minute moments that often endure the most sturdily for me. Once in a while, though, there is an experience that trumpets its power even as I live it.
Whit’s championship hockey finals were one such moment. His team (Mite AAA) made it to the finals in their league. I can’t speak for the other parents, but I know that this team came together in a way that I never imagined back in September. The playoffs occurred over the middle weeks of March, and lots of kids were out on spring break. Whit missed the two semifinal games, in fact, because we were in the Galapagos. But he was back for the championship game, albeit basically fresh off a 24 hour trip home and a redeye flight.
At full strength, our team has 12 players. The day of the finals, we had 8. One was a goalie, which left 7. That means only two subs. The other team had fully three times as many subs as we did. They were favored. We lost to them the last time we faced them. I admit I watched our boys – who seem simultaneously so little and so big when they are on the ice – with a vague sense of trepidation. This might be ugly, I thought to myself.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Those boys – and I say boys because our female member was not there – skated with more grit and heart than I have ever, ever seen. They were absolutely exhausted; the lack of subs took a major toll. But the other team never led and with 5 minutes to go we were up 5-3. When the third period ended we were tied 5-5. This led to a 5 minute sudden death playoff, and somehow, with determination I’ve never seen before, the boys kept it tied. Nobody scored. We screamed ourselves hoarse, and a wild hope – we could actually win this – galloped in my chest.
Next came a shoot-out. I’ve never seen a shoot-out before, but basically the teams take turns skating from the middle of the ice and shooting on the other goalie. The first round is 5 players each. We were down one goal by the time it was Whit’s turn. I knew – and he knew – that it came down to this. It was up to him. He had to score or the entire game was lost. I can’t imagine the pressure that he felt on his tiny shoulders, and my eyes filled with tears as I watched.
He did not score. 36 minutes of regular play, 5 minutes of overtime, and 4 rounds of shoot-outs came to an end and the other team flooded the ice, jubilant. I could see from my perch in the stands, through Whit’s mask, that he was crying. By the time they came off the ice I saw that most of the team was.
Whit was irate and upset all the way home and we let him rant. But by the time he went to bed, he was sorrowful. “I let my team down, Mum,” he told me in a whisper. I lay next to him in his bed and talked about how proud I was of him and his whole team. I told him I had rarely seem him dig deep like that. I told him he had been tenacious and brave and strong in the face of long odds and deep exhaustion. I told him that sometimes things don’t go our way, and this one didn’t. I told him I understood that it felt like it was his fault, though of course it was not that simple. I told him I was wildly, incredibly impressed with how his team played and held off the #1 seed who so outnumbered them. They had been the underdogs and while they didn’t win, I’m pretty sure everybody in that rink was impressed by their play.
Matt came in to tuck Whit in and offered that it was way better to have gotten to the finals, and to face that disappointment, than not to have gotten there at all. Right? Whit thought about this for a moment before grudgingly agreeing. I considered it too: not making the championship and not having lived through that white-knuckle game would have hurt less. But what an achievement that game was. Just before bed we’d gotten an email from Whit’s coach sharing the image of Whit lying on the ice after being checked into the boards, with 3 minutes of time left, doing everything in his power to keep the puck from going down towards our goal. ”What else could a coach ask for?” he has asked, and reading that, I cried. All eight of those boys gave it everything they had.
Matt left and I lay with Whit for a few more minutes. ”It was a really great season, Whit, and an absolutely remarkable game today,” I told him in the hushed darkness. He sighed and I felt him nod on the robot-print pillow next to me. He rolled on his side, pulling his monkey, Beloved closer to his neck. “I’m really, really proud of you. And I think you’ll remember this day for the rest of your life.”
And so will I.
What am I working on?
I write, therefore, to record, to capture, and to honor, but I also write to understand. Didion said “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” and that is true for me. The truth is I often sit down at the page – the screen – without really knowing what I am going to say, and when the words flow I begin to explore what it is that I can learn from my experience.
How can one person be more real than any other? Well, some people do hide and others seek. Maybe those who are in hiding – escaping encounters, avoiding surprises, protecting their property, ignoring their fantasies, restricting their feelings, sitting out the pan-pipe hootchy-kootch of experience – maybe those people, people who won’t talk to rednecks, or if they’re rednecks won’t talk to intellectuals, people who’re afraid to get their shoes muddy or their noses wet, afraid to eat what they crave, afraid to drink Mexican water, afraid to bet a long shot to win, afraid to hitch-hike, jaywalk, honkey-tonk, cogitate, osculate, levitate, rock it, bop it, sock it, or bark at the moon, maybe such people are simply inauthentic, and maybe the jackleg humanist who says differently is due to have his tongue fried on the hot slabs of Liar’s Hell. Some folks hide, and some folks seek, and seeking, when it’s mindless, neurotic, desperate or pusillanimous can be a form of hiding. But there are folks who want to know and aren’t afraid to look and won’t turn tail should they find it – and if they never do, they’ll have a good time anyway, because nothing, neither the terrible truth nor the absence of it, is going to cheat them out of one honest breath of earth’s sweet gas.
- Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker
Thank you to my friend Connie who first introduced me to this quote in a book she gave me for my birthday in 1994!