Category Archives: Annie Dillard

Sea Change

Sunday afternoon, Lake Michigan. Sitting on some rocks with Kimbo and Laura.

There is a family a few feet away. Three little ones, two boys, one girl. Their mothers in tow. Suddenly:


Her mother rapidly begins to remove the t-shirt the little girl has over her bathing suit; the little girl’s head becomes briefly entangled.

US: Man, what gives?

The mother looks at the t-shirt.


The mother looks at us, because at this point, we are openly staring; we are all but poised to flee to the lady lifeguard who keeps walking past us, doggedly surveying the water for drownings and et cetera, to beg her for sweet mercy.

MOTHER: There is a bug–

[Here she gestures with her hands, making a circle shape with her fingers the size of a buttermilk pancake]


US: Aaaaaaaaaaiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

[She has a slight accent, which makes her sound worldly-wise as she says this, like: I stormed the embassy in ’92 and the government had placed an embargo on shoe imports and on my feet I wore the leaves of a banana tree and a length of twine and in my heart I wore My People]

She walks down to the edge of the water and starts hurling the shirt into it, over and over.

MOTHER: Bug–you–water–sdfusdkihsb–

I kid you not: We see whatEVER was in that shirt landing on the sand. Yards away, we see it. A bug? You’d better hope, and I’d better hope, that it was a bug, because if it wasn’t, that means that someone has successfully bio-engineered a creature which is a cross between a stag beetle, a Gatling gun, and a bald eagle, and they put it in Lake Michigan, and it’s only a matter of time before you turn on the tap to fill the kettle with water to make your cup of Darjeeling-Oolong- what-have-you and GACK.

When the mother comes back, the shirt is a wet, ragged version of its former self.

ME: [joking, but not really.] Was it a crustacean?
MOTHER: [excitedly] Yes, perhaps a crustacean!

[She widens her eyes, bares her teeth, and curls her hands into claws to imitate what it was that she saw in the t-shirt.]

US: [reflexively recoil]

Shortly thereafter, they packed up their goods, and–with well-wishes all around–they departed.

I think we all knew that we had experienced something very special.


Bought chocolate pudding cups this weekend. Sure did.


So here’s something I haven’t really done, so much, in this blog-o’-mine. Katie sent me an e-mail, talking about what she called her

Top Five Desert Island Books

I’ve been having a few exchanges on this subject, lately; not necessarily about books of the Desert Island variety, but your general Hey! It’s Summer And Apparently That Means Book Lists For Beach Reading, For People Who Go To The Beach And Read Books Also Simultaneously Too.

I basically know what my favorite books are. My top five-ish, even.

So then I was like, “Well, why not share them?”

I mean?

I mean, when O Magazine and the New York Times both tell me what I, as a woman, should be reading this summer, what I should be pulling out of my artfully distressed straw tote, and I dutifully read the linked excerpt, NYT, and it reads like a pink-heeled lobotomy*–well, you know, uprise! I’ll make my own listy!

*Please note: Sometimes a pink-heeled lobotomy is exactly what you need

1. Bleak House–Charles Dickens








So, so, sososososososo good and many-colored and peopled with amazing peoples and funny and sad and triumphant and weird. A man spontaneously combusts. Also, smallpox! Also: Love.

2. Middlemarch–George Eliotmiddlemarch
















George Eliot may have the pseudonym of a man, but she’s all lady. She writes with sonar radar accuracy about the psychological viewpoint of women from any old era–then-era, now-era, you name it. I’m always all, “I HEAR that, Dorothea Brooke” or “Can I get a WITNESS, Maggie Tulliver” or “You keep on LOVING him, Dinah Morris”. My only problem with George Eliot is that she writes The Perfect Woman and then unerringly pairs her with a man comically unworthy of her amazing-ness.  It’s exactly like Charles Dickens, but in reverse. What’s the good word on this tendency? Can we get some equality up in here? [Sorry about saying “up in here” just then.] Anywho, “Middlemarch” wraps itself around your heart valves in a hurry. Class commentary and forbidden love. So fine.

3. The God of Small Things–Arundhati Roy 















This book heart-cracked me. It is covered in magical adjective vines. Please read it. It is too precious to say more.

4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–Mark to the Twain











Do I  really need to explain why this is one of my all time favorites? Also, I wanna be a river boat captain, circa This Book.  It is a true and cherished dream. But that would involve a time machine, and time machines are tooooo tempting!

5. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–Annie Dillard













I quoted this book to everyone I knew for six months. They hated me. “Please stop talking to me about the reproductive system of a bumblebee”, they would say, but I would not, because they needed to know. This book melted me down in a straight-up steel forge. When I start thinking about things like the circulatory systems of maple trees, I understand that, ultimately, I have this book to blame. It is beautiful and nature and God and praying mantises.

You have your honorable mentions, too, when you make your little lists; like Waiting for the Barbarians and Winter’s Tale, which have writing, both, to burst the heart, and millions of others too numerous to mention, like Claire Messud is a really good writer,  and then David Copperfield is soooo lovely and…

The Fountainhead.

Oh, shut up.


Hey, did you-all see that Farrah Fawcett and Ayn Rand were buddies, after a certain fashion, and that Ayn Rand wanted Farrah Fawcett to PLAY DAGNY TAGGART in a potential TV movie of “Atlas Shrugged ? Do you know how totally super weird that is? I’m getting the weirds just thinking about this.

Dagny Taggart should probably be played by Angelina Jolie, push comes to shove.

You’re never gonna hear me say that again.

Well, maybe.



It wasn’t the life I would have wanted,
had I known what sort of life I did want,
as if anyone ever knew; though I

did know. Everyone had her shadow life,
her should-have life, the life she should have had,
all those thoughts sharp-sharking into her soul,

all those doodles on the skin of the day.
The shame, that this had been and this had not,
could-should, kowtowing to the life of should,

the shock, let’s say, of seeing it had passed,
the chagrin, let’s say, the savage chagrin
that this was what it was, et cetera,

who did I think I was, et cetera,
the queen of Sheba in her shantytown,
or Shirley in her temple (such a doll)

or Scheherezade waking to the day–
not Sylvia, not the sylvan huntress.
The whole shebang was a shambles, hello,

shanghaiing my wishes, shout it out, shout,
those stories of what was and never was,
love, voyage, give me succor–sugar–suck–

hushing the heart and shushing the senses.
Hello, day, shake the sheets out, wake the day.
(As I said this, I was choking up.)

The challenge of cheerfulness–hello, charm–
charade and charm, chameleon, cameo.
I saw the dawn and fell into a hush.

Sarah Arvio 


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Filed under Annie Dillard, Charles Dickens, Poetry, Sarah Arvio

Could Be Said, Shan’t Be

There is a-much to say–a-much that could be said–of Colts games witheringly lost, and fall-crackle weather, and my new sewing machine, and the life story of the woman who wrote the sewing manual my grandmother gave me with the sewing machine, a woman named Ann Persons, who–according to her sewing manual’s introductory section–suffered through The Polio, and whose husband suffered financial setbacks within the logging industry. Those loggers! Mischief-makers, if Ann Persons is to be believed, and I believe she is.

There is a-much to say, but it will have to wait a bit to be said, because there’s too much going on right now for me to compose a full-blown-eagle’s-wings blog. I will come back swinging [or soaring through America’s azure skies, possum in beak, I suppose] soon, and talk about some things. Next week, I hope. Right now, all of this is full:

MIND: Full
SOUL: I’m pretty sure that’s also full

–thusly leaving me with no space. I’m mostly space-less.

But: space for one small thing. I love this lovely line [more “language in strips like pennants”, to quote Annie Dillard from an earlier blog] from a poem called “Explaining It“, by William Johnson:

“Too often a name/subverts the pang it answers for, inwit of/heart-light, the epiphanic clutch.”


See you soon.

[Seriously: 29-13? 29-13? I had the following conversation with my roommate, after I stormed into the kitchen post-fumble-stupid-something-or-other:

JESSICA: Uh…we’re going to have to figure something out here, because if you’re ever actually being murdered and screaming in the next room, I’m not going to be able to tell the difference.

ME: [heavily.] Yeah.

My Moses

Big Jack and his walking stick
live on the ridge. Navajo
orphan kids dance for him,
bobcat urine’s in the weeds,
the shotgun barrel’s up his sleeve,
a Persian coin is on the wind.
The Chinese Mountains smell the moon
and arch their backs. I tell him, Jack,
there’s times I wish I was living in
canvas France, the old west,
a picture book, the Sea of
Tranquility, or even in
the den near the hot spring.
He says, kid, to hell with

phantom limbs; spring is a verb,
a wish is a wash, a walking stick
is a gottdam wing.

Wendy Videlock

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Filed under Annie Dillard, Indianapolis Colts, Poetry, Wendy Videlock

“And you were? Where were you this hour o’ need?”

One night early last week, I walked past my kitchen window. “Huh! What was that searing flash of white light in the sky?” I thought, and turned around to go back and look. Lo and behold–or “Aye and begorrah”–it was THE MOON. [“Good one, you cretin,” murmured my cerebral cortex]. Subsequently in the mood to look at lunar marias–and who among us has not been in the mood to look at lunar marias of an evening? Who, indeed?–I went into my room to get my telescope out of the closet. It wasn’t where I thought I’d left it, and I tried to recall the last time of its usage. “Pip pip,” I said at last; “it was the lunar eclipse, in February.” And I remembered how cold it had been, and how I had called my sister, and how when I got off the train that night, near-to-swooning with impatience to get home and set up shop, all the people waiting for the bus on the street-level were standing with their backs to the moon, and I wanted to tell them to look up look up look up, and to be the Paul Revere of exciting outer space moments visible to the naked eye.

A few nights after this ring-a-dingingly idiotic error, I was on the back porch, on the phone, and as I talked I watched a broad, luminous light shining through a tree in a backyard across the way. When I turned my head in a certain direction, the light transformed into a faint–but unmistakable–shade of blue. I couldn’t decide what this light was–had some well-intentioned dreamer of dreams mounted a newly-purchased lighthouse light in their window, to guide trawlers out on Lake Michigan? Had an extraterrestrial space vehicle docked on a roof?–and finally stood up to get to the bottom of things. Once again, it was THE MOON, rising behind the branches. A firm handshake to the person who can tell me why I mistook the moon for something else, not once, but TWICE in one week. Or formulate the best metaphor regarding same. That’s a thought! Man, I love metaphors. They droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, you know what I’m sayin’?


In terribly exciting poetry news, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress [I love saying “James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress” so much it gives me nosebleeds] has named our new poet laureate, Kay Ryan! La la la! Unacquainted with Kay Ryan, I set out to acquaint myself. A friend and I agreed that our initial reading forays were unsuccessful; we didn’t get her. And then–of a sudden!–we did, and we’ve been talking about her for days, up to and including this weekend in the merciless sun at Pitchfork Music Festival [another story entirely, and one that I’m too tired in the head to write]. I’ve included a Kay Ryan poem in its entirety at the end of this post, but others to read:

All Shall Be Restored


Paired Things

I look forward to you, Kay Ryan, and the things you’ll do and say! Already you have delighted me, Kay Ryan, in your e-mail exchange with a New Yorker writer on the day of your laureate appointment! The New Yorker writer wrote: “Your poem, “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”…begins with the lines “A life should leave/deep tracks.” Do you think that a poem can leave deep tracks?”

Her response: “A few poems, or a few bits of a few poems, leave tracks as deep as those of the pioneers’ covered wagon wheels crossing Utah.”



On the selfsame day that Kay Ryan was appointed the poet laureate, I discovered a poet named Brian Henry. I read his poem “Baited Sonnet” in the Boston Review, and I liked four lines of it very much, and looked for more Brian Henry poems, but they were never quite what I wanted them to be. In other words, it was not like reading Kay Ryan, where every new poem read reverberated, made good, kept getting better. But I liked those four lines, those Brian Henry lines, and they stuck in my head all day long:

And you were, where were you this hour o’ need?
By foot/by car/by bus/by train/online?
By where/what plane? Before/by whose design?
To flout us is to flout yourself, that past.

Annie Dillard writes: “I collected poems and learned them…I found Asian and Middle Eastern poetry in translation–whole heaps of lyrics, fierce or limp–which I ripped to fragments for my collection. I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.”

I like “language in strips like pennants”. And so it’s all right to collect four lines of a poem and leave it at that.

But Annie and I part ways on the first point: I do need import in my beauty. I need import. Big time.

“Big Time Import” sounds like a shipping company with two different versions of the accounting books, if you know what I mean.

The Pieces That Fall To Earth
One could
almost wish
they wouldn’t;
they are so
far apart,
so random.
One cannot
wait, cannot
abandon waiting.
The three or
four occasions
of their landing
never fade.
Should there
be more, there
will never be
enough to make
a pattern
that can equal
the commanding
way they matter.

Kay Ryan


Filed under Annie Dillard, Brian Henry, Kay Ryan, Poetry

The Bering Strait Bridge! !!!! !!!!!!! !

My parents were in town for a bit this weekend, and thanks to them, I’m newly obsessed with a little something I like to call:


Oh my HEAVENLY HOST: the sheer, unbridled gloriousness of the Bering Strait Bridge! The Bering Strait Bridge doesn’t currently exist, for the record, but wishers and dreamers the world over have devoted whole swaths of their brain stems to imagining how it could!

This is the Bering Strait, conveniently indicated by a humorous arrow:

Long story short: the Bridge would connect Cape Dezhnev in Russia [the farthest point east on the Asian continent] and Cape Prince of Wales in Alaska [the farthest point west on the North American continent]. [Alaska really got the short end of the name stick on this one, or “the fuzzy end of the lollipop”, as they say. Which do you think sounds cooler? Dezhnev, right? “Cape Prince of Wales”? Bor-ing!] Quoth my father, if this bridge existed, one could get in one’s car in Paris, and conceivably alight in South America. It would change the world. It would broaden the scope of human experience. Also, it would be totally awesome.


1. Ice ice ice ice ice ice ice
2. It’s immediately south of the Arctic Circle
3. Cape Dezhnev is in Siberia proper
4. And let’s just say that there’s a reason Stalin put the gulag in Siberia
5. It’s not because it was nice there
6. 100 billion+ dollars
7. Just your basic wild impracticality on every conceivable level

You’d also have to get to the Strait to begin with, which means the taking of trains and what-all through the nigh-impassable Canadian-Alaskan-Siberian wild.


My fancy is captured, is the thing. And once my fancy is captured…well, it’s all over but the shouting. Do not be surprised, when next you see me, if I speak to you immediately of the Bering Strait, and ask if you have any ideas about building it. Do not be surprised if I say: “Who cares if you have a degree in art history? Shoulders to the wheel!”


Last summer, I was introduced to the writer Annie Dillard via her lovely book “The Maytrees”. “More more more,” I said, after reading “The Maytrees”, but more Annie Dillard was not on the horizon for me until I read her beautiful book of essays, “Teaching A Stone to Talk”, some time thereafter. I’m currently reading “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, which garnered her the Pulitzer back in the 70s, and it’s k.i.l.l.i.n.g m.e.  I’m trying to figure out how I was a whole person before I read Annie Dillard, who once wrote an essay about wanting to become a weasel because they “[live] as they are meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity”. I dunno.

Anyways, Annie Dillard writes a-much of nature, and the meaning of life, and nature+the meaning of life. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is essentially a paean to both of these things. I can’t describe how consumingly wonderful this book is. Over the weekend, I came to a stopping point in my reading as she was beginning to go into detail on the subject of praying mantises. Yesterday morning, waiting for the train, I re-opened the book, and began from there. Seriously, it’s fascinating, or she makes it so, and then I came to the following paragraph and laughed aloud, laughed and laughed and laughed until–I am quite certain–my fellow travelers thought that I must surely be a crazy girl, a girl they should take special care to avoid, when we all eventually boarded:

“The mating rituals of mantises are well known: a chemical produced in the head of the male insect says, in effect: “No, don’t go near her, you fool, she’ll eat you alive.” At the same time a chemical in his abdomen says: “Yes, by all means, now and forever yes.”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA       aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aa  

a a a a            

It’s not all praying mantis inner monologues, however; oh no, oh no. Another of my favorite Dillard passages, from her essay “An Expedition to the Pole” [and in partial keeping with today’s sub-zero theme]:

“The Pole of Relative Inaccessibility is “that imaginary point on the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction.” It is a navigator’s paper point contrived to console Arctic explorers who, after Peary and Henson reached the North Pole in 1909, had nowhere special to go. There is a Pole of Relative Inaccessibility on the Antarctic continent, also; it is that point of land farthest from salt water in any direction.

The Absolute is the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility located in metaphysics. After all, one of the few things we know about the Absolute is that it is relatively inaccessible. It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions. Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble. It is also–I take this as a given–the pole of great price.”

She makes me want to be good.


This morning I decided that I would emulate Annie Dillard, and Observe Nature. I noticed that the precious lilacs outside my building had, almost overnight, faded from their pale purple to an almost-white. I will find out why, and report back.

Their delicious scent could still level an ox at thirty paces, though.

Atlantis–A Lost Sonnet

How on earth did it happen, I used to wonder
that a whole city–arches, pillars, colonnades,
not to mention vehicles and animals–had all
one fine day gone under?

I mean, I said to myself, the world was small then.
Surely a great city must have been missed?
I miss our old city–

white pepper, white pudding, you and I meeting
under fanlights and low skies to go home in it. Maybe
what really happened is

this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word
to convey that what is gone is gone forever and
never found it. And so, in the best traditions of

where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name
and drowned it.

Eavan Boland

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Filed under Annie Dillard, Eavan Boland, Poetry