Monday, January 11, 2010

Dear Annie Dillard:

My first English class in college was taught by Ms. Brookhart. She was neither a professor nor a doctor, but was quite effective nonetheless. Brookhart was a small woman with a rootsy (not hippie) vibe to her, always cloaked in the faint smell of's funny how that smell can actually be endearing on some people. She didn't really dress to impress because she didn't have to. She was just that cool.

A wise and pragmatic woman, she handed my first assignment back to me ungraded - quietly saying something to the effect of, "Mr. Stoner, don't be cute, just do the assignment." I thought it would be "creative" to write the first part of the story from the third person, then switch to first person at a clutch, pivotal moment in the plot line. Brookhart didn't. Regardless, I really grew to love Brookhart and ended up taking my next English class with her as well.

I know we read at least four or five books in her class that first semester, but I don't remember any of them except the one we never actually got to read in class. It's a book called "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard. For ten years now, I've been trying to read this book, but it ends up making me think so much, I've never actually gotten much past the beginning of chapter two because of these two sentences (but particularly the second one):
"It is still the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing."
This makes my mind spin every time I read it. When I finally was able to get past those sentences, I read Dillard's brilliant descriptions of blind people LITERALLY seeing for the first time. She also made some irresistible allusions to the wonderment with which the innocent, beautifully naive eyes and minds of children perceive the world.

I've gone to see the movie "Avatar" thrice already at the local 3D IMAX theatre. Particularly when sitting close to the screen, which I'm starting to believe is the best way to view an IMAX movie, I found myself getting a bit seasick due to the 3D view. I quickly found that if I stop focusing on only a small portion (the main character/action) of the screen and broaden my view to take the whole thing in, the queasiness subsides. What a telling metaphor.

So much in our modern day culture hinges on us keeping our eye on the ball, that we miss the fact that there are 17 other people on the baseball diamond...hundreds more in the stands. When did we lose or dismiss the wonderment we experienced as children?

I was at Lowe's just before Christmas picking up something arbitrary for a job when the guy in line next to me tapped me on the arm, smiled, and pointed across the store saying, "Remember those days?" He was pointing at a little boy with what looked like his grandmother. The little boy was staring wide-eyed at all the huge inflatable Christmas decorations, laughing with wonder, and Grandma was eating it up. My eyes fixed on the boy and his grandmother, through a faint smile laced with melancholy, I quietly replied, "I sure wish I could," never actually meeting my line-mate's eyes.

The sentence that follows Dillard's first two loaded sentences is this: "There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises." She is so very right.

I will have owned my house for five years this March. This is my land and nobody else's, except maybe the bank's if I stop paying my mortgage...but they've got too many houses already...I think they want me to keep it. Regularly, I've groomed my lawn and cleaned up my house, covering every inch of my property countless times, but I'm not sure if I've ever really stopped to look at it. How am I ever to appreciate what I have if I never stop to look at it?

This makes me think of the other people in my life as well. How often do I really stop to look in their eyes, to truly connect with them? And we've got four other primary senses that we may be neglecting as well. When the native tribe in "Avatar" greet each other, they do so by looking deep into the others' eyes and saying, "I see you" but only after they actually "see" the other person. I want to know what that feels like.

The bad news: Who can tell how much we've missed by not seeing, etc.?
The good news: What's to stop us from doing so today? Childlike wonderment in our dull adult bodies sounds like a vibrant adventure waiting to happen.

* * *
Dear Annie Dillard:

It's the second week of January and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing too.



p.s. I'm finally on chapter four of your book, and I promise to finish it this month.
p.p.s. I see you.


  1. Annie Dillard is one of my favorite writers EVER. When I was a senior in college, I took a creative non-fiction class - just because I needed a writing credit - and it wound up being my favorite class of all college. We read Dillard's "Living Like Weasels," and it changed the way that I look at writing forever.

    Also, Grahamer! Our mutual love of both Annie Dillard AND eastmountainsouth will make this right up your alley...

  2. of course you read Dillard. It all makes sense now.

    "Living Like Weasels" is also one of my favorite passages ever. Also, "Total Eclipse"... the first chapter in "Teaching A Stone To Talk"... completely undoes me as a writer. Simultaneously I'm compelled to grab a pen and start furiously writing... and packing it all up and never write again.

    My first writing muse was Mrs. Avril. 10th grade. She was a sub who became permanent and I took anything she taught. She cried the first time I read something I wrote aloud. Not because it was great - but she heard the heart behind it. I'll never forget her. She sounds a lot like Ms. Brookhart.

  3. The last couple of weeks I've tried to meet new people at church, but they are busy checking their phones, avoiding eye contact. What is the proper etiquette there? Do I say "excuse me" to the phone?
    Try "An American Childhood" if you haven't already. Dillard is an amazing writer, but I always have to have a dictionary in one hand.
    (This is Debbie Ferguson from Trinity M'boro)