Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flights and Compulsions

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Today's post is a response to the GBE2 topic "Pick a Line from a Book and Write from There." This particular first line appears on p.108 of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

I abandon myself to flights and compulsions; I veer into various states of physical disarray. I dress my cats in frilly doll's garments. I organize my books by genre. I spend hours composing year-end summaries of what I have learned about each child I've taught which I then toss into an endless void. I curate, collate, decoupage and scatter knowledge widely about the house, first in chronological piles, then in alphabetical piles and finally in loose, untidy heaps that shift with the breezes. Last I recycle everything.

There is a bulletin board on the inside of my front door. Pinned to it are fragments of admonition. Lab orders, school schedules, and travel itineraries surround the photograph of a field of sunflowers, like the image of a long-lost love. My desk is a carefully restrained madness–a frenzied, lunatic giggle stifled by a quick hand across the mouth. Permaculture magazines, lists, poems, coupons, paper clips, and cat hair are bounded within a single paper tray, which is impersonating an inbox. It is full of things that come across my consciousness, and I am alleging to handle them. As well place a live squirrel on the calendar. After a time, I set all of it on the floor and parse through it, separating dead notions from live. The live ones go back into the box. The dead are buried without ceremony. I call this "accomplishing things."

I wander aimlessly about, chasing motes of thought and am distracted by the sounds of ducks quacking. I am obsessed with email. I check social media as often as the vital signs of a patient on life support and with as little interest. I run a flea circus that has no fleas in it. I am always ready for them. I am researching their needs. I am preparing tiny shoes for them to wear and delicate tightropes, trampolines and juggling pins. The fleas themselves are immaterial. Once they come, I will be bored with them. I will scratch my arms and apply itch cream and curse my flea circus and my lack of discipline in training fleas.

I am self-taught and I have learned all of my subjects backwards, starting with the essence and walking in reverse to fill in details. After I am done, all the intricate pixels of facts I committed to memory fall like scales from the wings of dead butterflies, leaving a shape without any particulars. Absent the dates, names, classifications and arguments I learned, I still have all my conclusions but no justifications. I naturally expect everyone to listen to me anyway.

I stare stricken at the world, gaping in wonder, soaking up my environment. And yet the location of a building, a tree, a mountain peak escape me. I wonder what it is that I am absorbing like this, pulling into the fibers of my consciousness, that cannot organize itself spatially or chronologically but wants to wrap everything up in words like a mummy until nothing can move an inch. What is the specific purpose of this unbraided, twisting consciousness that I have been given?

For my eldest son, the world is a textbook to be memorized, a series of definite and irrefutable truths without ambiguity. For my husband it is a sermon, a call to action, a challenge to grow larger than we are. For me, though, it is a strangely narcissistic Nature guide, filled with playful prose and philosophy, an amused and gasping poem about God as evidenced in a praying mantis.

For me, the world is Tinker Creek and I–I suppose–am its pilgrim.


Note: If you have not read Annie Dillard's work, you should. If you like my serious writing or you like Tangled Lou's writing, you are probably going to like Annie Dillard. She is different than both of us, but she is to my mind the master of the completely dissected moment, the sentence that is so light that it takes flight. Here, in most sincere tribute to my favorite author, is a whole paragraph from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

"Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We're played on a pipe; our breath is not our own. James Houston describes two young Eskimo girls sitting cross-legged on the ground, mouth on mouth, blowing by turns each other's throat cords, making a low, unearthly music. When I cross again the bridge that is really the steers' fence, the wind has thinned to the delicate air of twilight; it crumples the water's skin. I watch the running sheets of light raised on the creek's surface. The sight has the appeal of the purely passive, like the racing of light under clouds on a field, the beautiful dream at the moment of being dreamed. The breeze is the merest puff, but you yourself sail headlong and breathless under the gale force of the spirit."


17 comments:

  1. "My desk is a carefully restrained madness–a frenzied, lunatic giggle stifled by a quick hand across the mouth."

    That's my desk and sometimes, my life.

    I haven't read Annie Dillard, but now I will. You and TL are THE two writers who leave me breathless with wonder, sure that the fluff I pour out onto paper is lazy, seventh grade prose. Your writing is brave. Fearless, really. And capital P Pure. Honest. Raw. Beautiful. True. And I'm often more than a little jealous.

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    1. I definitely don't think your writing is lazy seventh grade prose, but I can relate to the feeling you describe. And 90% of my writing affects me that way. Authors I really admire also affect me that way by contrast with their brilliance. And I do get jealous of the beauty of their prose. So I appreciate the compliment very much.

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  2. Just beautiful. Beautiful.

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    1. Thanks. It is nice to have an excuse to gush. I normally restrain my gushing somewhat.

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  3. "..but wants to wrap everything up in words like a mummy until nothing can move an inch. What is the specific purpose of this unbraided, twisting consciousness that I have been given?" Please let me know when you find out?

    This was gorgeous.

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    1. Thanks, Larissa. I will definitely let you know, but I think you may find out before I do.

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  4. "I check social media as often as the vital signs of a patient on life support and with as little interest."
    Oh dear, I might see me in this one. Some days, more interest, but most days just checking to check.
    This is beautifully written and reads like a book synopsis, leaving us wanting a bit more. ♥

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    1. Thanks, Jo. That's a lovely compliment. I'm not sure what I think will happen if I fail to check my social media every way too often, but so far, I can't define a purpose for my spending so much time doing so. It's like taking a pregnancy test every week of the month.

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  5. I see myself! I will check out Ms. Dillard's work. Thank you.

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    1. I love Annie Dillard. She gets ecstatic about the same kind of bizarre minutiae that excites me and describes it 10 times as well. And she is known for her mastery of the personal narrative. I think she irritates some people with her gushing, but I tend to think that they wouldn't be reading me.

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  6. Lovely. I love Anne Dillard and I was enraptured by the images your words brought forth. :-)

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    1. Thanks. I had a lot of fun with the flea circus image.

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  7. You were born to write. I always look forward to your posts, but I also find myself a little disappointed when I see that you have something new for me to read. It only means you are not working on something that would certainly get you published.

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    1. Thanks, Nellie. That's kind of an amazing compliment. I do actually have the skeleton of a book lined out and a schedule to start writing it this summer, so never give up hope. My intention is to keep posting as well, but I might just do one or two fewer a week.

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  8. Beautiful and crazy. Loved this! Definitely gonna check out Annie Dillard. Thanks for Introducing me to her.

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