To Annie Dillard’s Astonishment

Human life is privy to a panorama of holiness, the sight and experience of which we’ve grown immaculately skilled at obscuring. As Emerson observed: “Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods.”

Richard Linklater takes this a step further in his film, Waking Life. A scene documents a conversation between filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and poet David Jewell, in which they discuss the unnoticed ubiquity of ‘holy moments’. Not only each day, but each moment is a god:

“You know, like this moment, it’s holy. But we walk around like it’s not holy. We walk around like there’s some holy moments and there are all the other moments that are not holy, right, but this moment is holy, right? And if film can let us see that, like frame it so that we see, like, ‘Ah, this moment. Holy.’ And it’s like ‘Holy, holy, holy’, moment by moment. But, like, who can live that way? Who can go, like, ‘Wow, holy’? Because if I were to look at you and just really let you be holy, I don’t know, I would, like, stop talking…I’d be open. And then I’d look in your eyes, and I’d cry, and I’d like feel all this stuff and that’s like not polite. I mean it would make you feel uncomfortable.”

Film is one potential framing mechanism that lets us see the holiness laced through every moment. Annie Dillard’s writing — the subject of this essay — is another.

For example, Dillard once described a newborn, crippled moth hobbling down an asphalt driveway. It had not yet learned to suffer the world. The twin facts of its malformed wings were dwarfed by its lingering excitement at being alive, as it limped and crawled on down the driveway, where it may have enjoyed a few more yards before getting chewed up by a bird passing by, or some wild animal.

Her writing shows you, like clearing fogged glasses, that the situation surrounding the moth is holy in all directions. Its crumpled wings are holy. Even the bird that lunges from the sky to gorge, chew, and ultimately kill the moth is holy. And this was not one holy moment among others that are not holy. Dillard’s writing makes you see holiness everywhere, and this can be very uncomfortable. There is no contrast or respite, only total confrontation.

For example, take the bizarre situation of two praying mantises having sex. After reading the entomologist J. Henri Fabre, Dillard informs us that adult mantises “eat more or less everything that breathes and is small enough to capture.” For the female, this includes, dizzyingly, the skull of their sexual partner:

Fabre says that, at least in captivity, the female will mate with and devour up to seven males, whether she has laid her egg cases or not. The mating rites 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.”

This is an all-too-familiar skirmish between the cerebral and the instinctual, reason and desire. But the reasoning faculties of the praying mantis do not carry as much horsepower as our own, conflict-ridden selves, so:

While the male is making up what passes for his mind, the female tips the balance in her favor by eating his head. He mounts her. Fabre describes the mating, which sometimes lasts six hours, as follows: “The male, absorbed in the performance of his vital functions, holds the female in a tight embrace. But the wretch has no head; he has no neck; he has hardly a body. The other, with her muzzle turned over her shoulder continues very placidly to gnaw what remains of the gentle swain. And, all the time, that masculine stump, holding on firmly, goes on with the business!…I have seen it done with my own eyes and have not yet recovered from my astonishment.”

Dillard doesn’t let us off easy. Holiness is not always a wonderful affair that emanates love and grace, at least as we understand them. In fact, Dillard’s view of holiness is defined precisely by this inability to make sense of how the myriad things of creation cohere under some unified umbrella of holiness that is not cruel. If all moments are holy, if all days are gods, then what sorts of gods are these? What sort of undignified holiness surrounds us?

WHAT, as Dillard blurts out in Holy the Firm, “in the Sam Hill is going on here?”

Give Voice to Your Astonishment

Despite the entrancing effect she has on readers, Dillard remains obscure. Personally, yes, but intellectually too. Geoff Dyer wrote a whole essay just to work out: what kind of writer is Annie Dillard?

What I know is this: Dillard is my favorite writer. She changed me, thoroughly. As if a stranger runs up to you on the road, reaches down into your gullet and pulls back up through your throat until you’re left standing there, turned perfectly skinside-out. Then, she runs away, leaving you nothing but bewildered.

It’s been years since my first encounter with her, but I still can’t move beyond metaphor to say what exactly she has done to me, to readers. Still, it feels like one of the most important things that’s ever happened to me, reading her, and being internally rearranged, as if I was awake during an operation on my stomach, but a sheet was drawn to prevent my seeing what was done. Dillard is a bandit — fabled among those who know of her — lurking on the outskirts of comprehension. What I propose here is to retrace her writing as I encountered it, her life as I know it — only lightly, I will not be thorough — and see if I might find some clues. Because there is something interesting in all this, there is something delightfully, enliveningly astonishing in all this, and as she writes:

“There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

This may be the closest she gets to offering advice. So, humbly, with all the fumbling clumsiness of someone who’s been astonished but cannot yet say why, I’ll begin with these pages. and see what turns up.

A Lunatic in the Woods

Dillard’s writing is transfixing because she is, herself, transfixed. Her gift (and perhaps burden) is an unrelenting sense of astonishment. The kind that we educate, consume, belittle, and generally ‘enculture’ out of ourselves. Like beating sacred dust from a rug.

Generally, if perhaps implicitly, we assume that one has successfully entered adulthood once the world no longer strikes them as an impenetrable mystery. Adulthood and astonishment are inversely related. Dillard is an exception that proves the rule:

“I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”

Dillard’s narratives do not provide the type of resolution Hollywood has trained us on. She does not give us the narrativity that promises we’ll feel good and entertained upon reaching the end. Instead, she is a lunatic that bursts through the trees you see in the distance while strolling the sidewalk towards your suburban office building. She hollers from the tree line: “HEY, YOU! Come quick, you’ve gotta see this!”, and she disappears back into the woods.

To read her is to drop your briefcase on the pavement and scurry after her into the tree line. You can hardly keep up. She leaves just enough of a trail for you to follow, to be where she’s been, to see what she sees. Eventually, you lose her, and you’re left in the woods. What you do about the things she pointed out in the wilderness — suffering, grace, pain, the vexing sexual escapades of insects — is up to you. She offers no advice, because, as she’ll remind you throughout, she has no idea what’s going on. She’s socratic in this way, showing you things that make it difficult to maintain the comforting illusion of a coherent worldview.

In a strange, fitting moment of autobiography, she writes:

“I am an explorer, then, and I am also a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself. Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees. The function of lightning marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broad-leaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.”

Beginnings

Annie’s life began in Pittsburgh. She liked playing softball, looking at bugs and puddle-water under her microscope, and reading. When she was 10, her father quit his mid-level corporate job, sold all his stocks, and planned a months-long boat trip down the Allegheny river, where he would sail all the way to New Orleans. In New Orleans, there would be Dixie jazz and dancing. He bid goodbye to his wife and three daughters, and set off. A month into the trip, nowhere near New Orleans, he got lonely and sick of eating canned beans on a rocking boat. He sold the boat and returned home.

It was right around this time that Dillard began, as she puts it, “waking up”:

“Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here…They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning…surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.”

‘Waking up’ at 10 years old is to find yourself — this newly awoken self — inhabiting a process of development already well underway. The body has already learned things about living. The mind has already formed predictive models about other people, about itself, and therefore, about how it reacts to things. You awaken to a behavioral mold already setting, like not-so-wet-anymore cement.

I imagine many of us experience this like I did: you slip into this self that’s already underway, seamlessly. Toe meets toe, and like an ethereal soul settling upon the body, the two merge, the self and the body, until there is no distinction left between them. Two become one.

It’s as though, for Dillard, there was a hitch. The self and the body merged, but the evidence of a primordial separation remained. Two did not quite become one, and so her self-consciousness was not wholly subsumed by the body that comes pre-equipped with tactics and norms for living. This “let slip a queer implication, that I myself was both observer and observable, and so a possible object of my own humming awareness.”

If the self does not slip seamlessly into the body — the vessel that has already learned to “fake it”, which consequentially tricks the smoothly merged self into adopting the same “cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place” — then this distance throws open everything. Nothing is settled. Everything is tinged with a bewildered curiosity.

And so, she got to work studying the world to which she had awoken. Early on, she received a microscope for Christmas. On its glass pane, she took bit by bit of the world and looked. She took bits of the earth, scrapings from the inside of her cheek, pond water, corks left around the house, and drops of urine. Through the lens of her microscope, she engaged in a process regretfully absent from my own childhood: to discover, on her own terms, “where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”

Once, after seasons of looking, she finally saw an amoeba. She’d pulled a jar of puddle water she’d collected months prior to have a look, and there it was, glorious, strange, and enigmatic. A gooey, undulating mystery. Breathless, she bolted upstairs to alert her parents. Naturally, she sought to share the experience, so that they, too, could see the amoeba, “the chance of a lifetime”, she hurriedly thought:

“Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down…She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.”

Childhood experiences are overweighted in determining the predictive models our minds form of the world. The mind works with the data it has. In our younger years, that isn’t much, but it forms its models anyway. They grow deep roots that Americans then spend their adult years in therapy trying to deconstruct, hoping to put themselves back together with less tangled, knotted, biased models.

In that childhood moment, I think Dillard formed a model of the world that would shape her work and in-form the rest of her life. People have their pursuits, and Annie had found hers. They were to be held in mutual respect, but separate. Later, her non-fiction writing would be criticized for its isolation from other people. Eudora Welty writes in a New York Times review of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“Annie Dillard is the only person in her book, substantially the only one in her world; I recall no outside human speech coming to break the long soliloquy of the author. Speaking of the universe very often, she is yet self‐surrounded, and, beyond that, book‐surrounded. Her own book might have taken in more of human life without losing a bit of the wonder she was after. Might it not have gained more?”

There are some interesting critiques of Dillard, though I do not think this is one of them. Still, the ‘self-surroundedness’ of her early narrative work does convey a discomforting determinism: we are each, often more than we care to admit, echoes of the patterns learned in our early experiences. In many ways, I suspect Dillard’s writing is just an extension of her private, basement microscope. An echo of the way she learned to inspect the world.

From the moment she began waking, she did not stop reading. At least 100 books per year, going on seventy years now. When asked by John Freeman why she’s reading, what she’s seeking?

“It’s what I’m for,” Dillard says simply, putting out her cigarette. “Somebody has to read all these books.”

For the Time Being

I first encountered Dillard’s writing in college. A professor assigned her 1999 book, For the Time Being (roughly her 9th). It’s a tough book to begin with, and I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I had to call my Father, a professor of religion, and ask him to read it & explain what might be going on.

But here was my first clue that something strange was happening. At that point in my life, I had little interest in books, and especially little patience for nutty ones that didn’t make sense. Usually, if I couldn’t grok a book for class, I’d read enough about it online that come discussion, I could seem as if I knew what I was talking about. But after staring at For the Time Being long enough to know I would not penetrate it, I ditched the usual routine and called for backup. I felt a magnetism to something in there, though I could not say what.

For the Time Being is a study of ‘the bad news’:

“Do you suffer what a French paleontologist called ‘the distress that makes human wills founder daily under the crushing number of living things and stars’? For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.”

And there’s lots of it. She picks up Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation — a manual of human birth defects, and studies them. She finds newborn siblings who will suffer from an unusual condition: “bird-headed dwarf syndrome”. Their bodies will not grow beyond three feet tall. Displaced hips. Perpetually scrunched legs. Cognitive impairment.

There is gore, cruelty, and unceremonious death. Torah scholars flayed to the bone. Hurricanes and earthquakes that eviscerate families. You get the idea. One can only observe so much of the bad news before joining Dillard in an exasperated holler, asking God, the supposedly compassionate: “WHAT’s with the bird-headed dwarfs?”

My dad’s explanation helped enough to write the paper, but it would be years before I picked her up again.

Pilgrim

In 1974, Dillard published her first two books: Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, a short book of poems, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a work of narrative nonfiction that shot her, at 27 years old, to the top of the literary world.

Dillard’s late husband, Robert Richardson (author of seminal biographies on Emerson, Thoreau, and William James), tells us in a short biography that Pilgrim began as a sort of “humph” directed towards what she’d been reading. “She found herself thinking ‘I can do better than this.’ A year later, while Tickets for a Prayer Wheel was in press, Dillard had a manuscript and a title; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published in 1974 about two months after Tickets.” And according to the judges for the pulitzer prize, she was right, and was awarded the prize in general non-fiction.

She begins by placing herself in the lineage of Henry Thoreau, who went off to live sort-of-alone by Walden Pond to “front only the essential facts of life”. Pilgrim is animated by a vexing problem: life’s essence, a clear view of what’s going on here when unmediated by cultural whitewashing, euphemisms, and willful ignorance, is basically unconscionable.

“Any three-year-old can see how unsatisfactory and clumsy is this whole business of reproducing and dying by the billions. We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. There is not a people in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die — does not care if it itself grinds to a halt. It is fixed and blind, a robot programmed to kill. We are free and seeing; we can only try to outwit it at every turn to save our skins.”

This is not an opinion so much as a conclusion drawn and confirmed from heaps of evidence. Much of the book is Dillard showing her work, bidding us to follow her into the woods of Tinker Creek and see what she sees. Because she’s at a loss: “Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.”

The amorality of evolution — whether divine or Darwinian — is at its most visible, most unconscionable, in the world of insects, who “do one horrible thing after another.” Insects are “an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.” You remember the example of the female mantis’ cranial snack while mating. Here’s another:

Even that devout Frenchman, J. Henri Fabre, who devoted his entire life to the study of insects, cannot restrain a feeling of unholy revulsion. He describes a bee-eating wasp, the Philanthus, who has killed a honeybee. If the bee is heavy with honey, the wasp squeezes its crop “so as to make her disgorge the delicious syrup, which she drinks by licking the tongue which her unfortunate victim, in her death-agony, sticks out of her mouth at full length…. At the moment of some such horrible banquet, I have seen the Wasp, with her prey, seized by the Mantis: the bandit was rifled by another bandit. And here is an awful detail: while the Mantis held her transfixed under the points of the double saw and was already munching her belly, the Wasp continued to lick the honey of her Bee, unable to relinquish the delicious food even amid the terrors of death.

We can see the germ of her question in For the Time Being already stirring: god, the “compassionate”, WHAT’S with the insects?

But Pilgrim is a wider study, concerned not only with the bad news, but the “possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity”. Dillard tells us: “I would like to see it all, to understand it, but I must start somewhere, so I try to deal with the giant water bug in Tinker Creek.”

“What I aim to do is not so much to learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try and impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality…And, if I try and keep my eye on quantum physics, if I try to keep up with astronomy and cosmology, and really believe it all, I might ultimately be able to make out the landscape of the universe. Why not?”

Recall Caveh saying of those who’d live in a relentless perception, a torrent of holy moments: “But, like, who can live that way?” Well, Dillard, apparently. She lives for this perception, this way of seeing that is unbearably awake to the world:

“What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

One thing I’m coming to believe is that we’ve created a social, economic, cultural environment that labors against our capacity to live this way. Life is an ongoing obscurement of the show. We are doing this to ourselves. The worst part is that this isn’t exactly anyone’s fault; there’s nobody to shoot. Society has grown so complex so quickly that it’s begun radiating side effects that no one intended. Without a simple idea of what’s being done to us, or who’s doing it, we find ourselves in a similar situation to the wasp eating the honey-soaked tongue of the bee, while the mantis chomps on the wasp’s stomach. We don’t really know what’s going on, so we just keep licking the nearby honey while unseen forces do unspeakable things to us. Eventually, we die.

Why do we want these waking, trembling, bewildering holy moments? They won’t help pay your rent. Somewhere, David Foster Wallace writes that we all spend immense amounts of mental energy erecting false images of ourselves for others to see. We maintain these fraudulent skins made of calculated bullshit because we’re terrified of anyone seeing through to the real insecure, unimpressive, insubstantial selves that we think we truly are. Or rather, most of us might admit that we don’t know who we are, and it’s this unknowing that we so meticulously hide. It’s against this unknowing that we learn, as Dillard points out, to fake it. But the irony is that we expend massive amounts of mental energy maintaining this veneer of bullshit, when what we really want most of all is someone to come around that sees right through it, that rips it all down and leaves us standing there, exposed, naked, wide-eyed, and speaks directly to that hidden, uncertain part of ourselves. We hide what we most want seen.

Holy moments do this to us. They unmask everything and leave it all exposed. Kind of like the experience astronauts report when they look out the rear of a spaceship and see the small speck of Earth from out there in the foothills of the wider Universe. The bullshit cannot help but melt away, if only temporarily. We’re revealed to ourselves as “creatures set down here, bewildered”.

But such holy moments can reveal painful, otherwise obscured facts, too. Such an unlikely home floating in the vastest of mysteries, and we’ve designed a system that consigns huge chunks of the population to mortgage their days for just barely enough resources to maintain their condition. There is no time for holiness. And we let each other live this way not because it’s the only possible configuration of the system, but too often because we’ve decided that the poor are undeserving of much help, while the wealthy should receive hundreds of billions of dollars worth of help from the tax code every year in the form of deductions, high rates of return, and low rates of taxation on capital. We tell ourselves this is rational because the ever-industrious wealthy keep things growing and moving for the rest of us. Even if the past 40 years of empirical evidence bore out the idea that disburdening the wealthy of taxes ultimately creates jobs and provides wages and generally improves everyone’s condition more so than if we just taxed them the way Adam Smith intended (in proportion to their ability to pay) and used the money to support the less well-off — which it doesn’t — it’d be an existentially bankrupt idea.

Dillard digs up an old African proverb that puts it bluntly: the beginning of wisdom is to get a roof over your head. But we’ve made a senseless game of this. Getting a roof over one’s head, food on our tables, enough education to keep up, this game has displaced the world. There is no other game one can viably choose to play. Holiness is a threat to the requisite productivity necessary to survive. The game is almost tailor-made to sabotage the possibility of wisdom at scale.

I suppose, then, that Pilgrim is a reminder of what we’ve lost. A type of seeing of which I feel mostly incapable. It persists only on the outskirts of society, enabled by either privilege, chance, grace, and yes, diligence too.

In John Freeman’s profile of Dillard, he writes:

“One of the reasons Dillard is so beloved is that she tried just as hard to make the case that we could all do it, live this way, that all you need to do is work with a demented singularity of purpose.”

A few Dillard-quotes ago, she said we ought to line up and shake gourds at each other, to wake up. Pilgrim was itself a gourd shaken at the world. Still, it echoes.

Holy the Firm

After publishing Pilgrim, Dillard was sought after as a commodity. She tells us: “There were offers from editors, publishers, and Hollywood and network producers. They tempted me with world travel, film and TV works, big bucks.”

Here lies another clue, a tip-off that Dillard is up to something unusual. That her hollering to God the compassionate is not a literary gimmick, but a lived urgency. Not only does she duck the big bucks, she moves as far away from acclaim as possible. Amidst all the press inquiries, she — and I don’t know if this is made up, but I read it somewhere — grabbed a world atlas, closed her eyes, placed her finger on a random spot, opened them, and saw that her finger had landed on a small island in Puget Sound near the Canadian border. She moved there immediately. She would live alone, in a small cabin:

“I was then in full flight from success, from the recent fuss over a book of prose I’d published the previous year…I was there to turn from literary and commercial success and to rededicate myself to art and to God.”

It was alone in this cabin on this small island that Dillard wrote her strangest work: Holy the Firm.

Some don’t have the taste for strange — through Dillard, I learned to savor it. Strangeness is the first highway sign that you’ve left the comfort of what you know, of what makes sense to your mind as its presently configured, what fits the order of the world your consciousness represents to you. Dillard quickly taught me that any such comfortable representation is a lie, however well intended.

Dillard caught the germ of this book, as with her others, reading. She picked up Evan S. Connell’s book of poetry, Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel. She did not humph, but thought she’d like to transcribe it from poetry to prose. Connell writes:

“I am like a deaf mute with a message
of the utmost importance
addressing someone ignorant of my fantastic language,
who must resort to a frightful pantomime
of sights and gestures.
Laboriously, I am transcribing reality.

The Eskimo has twenty words
to express the conditions of snow.
The Tokelau Islander
has nine words for the ripeness of coconut.
I have not one word to express my longing.”

Richardson’s biography of Dillard reveals an unusual view. “Poetry was a flute,” she tells an interviewer, “and prose was the whole orchestra.” Dillard began with poetry, drawn to its “capacity for deep internal structures of meaning.” But she found prose more capable. “What she aimed to do in her prose was to build it on poetic structures so it could carry the same — or even a greater — burden of meaning as poetry could carry.”

Holy the Firm was unlike any prose I’d read, but neither was it poetry. It showed me something more that could be done between the two. But to situate her prose as a halfway point between poetry and prose would be misleading. Hegel’s dialectic suggests that history progresses from thesis, to antithesis, and culminates into a synthesis (the synthesis then serves as a new thesis to kick off a new cycle). The synthesis is not a balance of the thesis and antithesis, but a qualitatively new form that has taken the best of each, melted them down, and fashioned something altogether transformed. This is the sort of alchemy Holy the Firm attempts.

Two of Dillard’s most memorable passages involve moths. In Holy the Firm, there is an ordeal involving a moth and a burning candle. The moth edges towards the flame, catches, erupts, and melts. But then, its skeletal carcass remains lit, held vertically by the wax like a second wick. It burns for hours, and Dillard stares, transfixed.

Afterwards, when all that remained “was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool”, Dillard wonders: “Had she done her work?”

The question has never left me. It lodged in my mind like water after the pool. What is the work? What is the work that we hope a dead body managed to complete during its time? What is the work that, were you to erupt in flames and have only four or five infernal seconds of consciousness before your life extinguishes, you might feel glad for having done? What is the work that is worthy of all that we are capable of?

Karl Marx called “labor” humankind’s natural and eternal metabolism with nature. Rarely is this labor the work. Whether tilling fields for food or stapling papers for a paycheck, there is work cyclical work, “labor”, that must be done to maintain the necessary circulation of resources for life. It’s on this basis that Hannah Arendt carves a distinction between “labor” and “work”. One could spend their entire life laboring, never starting upon what might be considered work. If I were to put it pithily: labor is how we survive, but work is how we live.

The poet Mary Oliver warns us that to live without working, to merely survive, is a recipe for regret:

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

But the work Dillard has in mind when gazing at the moth’s shriveled body is not restricted to the artistic or creative (and it certainly isn’t synonymous with gainful employment). Oliver knows this too, writing that in each of us, there is a “third self…this self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.” For Arendt, too, work is something outside the ordinary, cyclical temporality of labor. I’m reminded of the poet Gary Snyder, who’s poetry invokes what he calls “the real work”. In true poet form, he does not give us a direct answer as to what that real work is. The closest I’ve found is when he says “the real work is what we really do. And what our lives are. And if we can live the work we have to do, knowing that we are real, and it’s real, and that the world is real, then it becomes right.” Later he is more direct, but the directness shaves off much of what he might intend to be included: “To check the destruction of the interesting and necessary diversity of life on the planet so that the dance can go on a little better for a little longer.”

But this ambiguity surrounding the question — what is the work? — is telling, especially when contrasted against the spiritual malaise and existential sputtering that plagues post-industrial societies. More and more of us are realizing that we do not know what the work, our work is, while simultaneously growing more painfully aware that whatever it is, we aren’t doing it.

We crave devotion, but have no idea what we might devote ourselves to.

We’re laboring, we’re keeping our metabolism with nature, but for what? Why, as citizens of the most powerful, technologically equipped, and advanced civilization in history, are the majority of us spending most of our waking lives working jobs we do not particularly like to sustain lives that we do not particularly enjoy?

Again: Why, as citizens of the most powerful, technologically equipped, and advanced civilization in history, are the majority of us spending most of our waking lives working jobs we do not particularly like to sustain lives that we do not particularly enjoy?

Dillard did not intend the situation between the moth and candle as I’d interpreted it. The question I’m stuck with — had she done her work? — was a bit of flair she added in once the basic piece was already written. In a short article — How I Wrote the Moth Essay — And Why — she gives her side of things.

Here’s the gist: artists, like the moth, must empty themselves so that they may become a channel for their real work.

The self is an impediment. The moth’s wings, fur, legs, antennas, and all other flammable components had to be literally burned away before the moth’s sturdy carcass could stand as a second wick, burning for hours. She writes:

“I live alone. So the writer is like the moth, and like a religious contemplative: emptying himself so he can be a channel for his work.”

In her notes for the piece, she connects the moth in the candle to the mystic who sees not through reason, but emptiness:

Dillard takes a firm stance towards the self:

“You may hold the popular view that art is self-expression, or a way of understanding the self — in which case the artist need do nothing more than babble uncontrolledly about the self and then congratulate himself that, in addition to all his other wonderfully interesting attributes, he is also an artist. I don’t (evidently) hold this view.”

In a rare weekend Dillard spent with a New York Times reporter, Mary Cantwell, Dillard doubles down. She tells why, after writing seven non-fiction books, moving into fiction was so delightful:

“Then to switch to fiction was really wonderful because you get rid of the daggone increasingly empty narrative eyeball, the ‘I’ person whose voice I was getting truly sick of. I’m sick of it now. I have to do some readings, and I don’t have anything to read that I’m not ashamed of. So I love that in fiction, that you can lose yourself completely in all those characters.”

It was here that I began to wonder: maybe Dillard isn’t running frantically towards God so much as she’s running away from her-self. Her self is, after all, troubled by an unending list of deformities, cruelties, and irresolute questions. God lies in any and all directions that lead beyond the self. Anything, anywhere that escapes this “I person”.

Like it or not, the self is all we’ve got. You can take a brief vacation, whether in deep meditation or on lots of acid, but you always settle back into the self, like a yo-yo. Even the emptiness of the artist is a variety of self-consciousness. A contortion of consciousness peculiar to the individual. Even enlightenment, the philosopher of cognitive science and big-time meditator Evan Thompson tells us, does not consist of dismantling the self altogether, but changing our relationship to it.

Later in the weekend, Cantwell asked Dillard about God and faith. A natural question, given it’s almost all Dillard writes about. Cantwell reports:

The next morning, after a rather silent breakfast, Dillard asks if I heard her during the night.

“No,” I say. “Did you have a nightmare or something?”

“I was crying uncontrollably,” she replies. “Those questions you were asking me about faith…”

“But how could I not?” I protest. “It threads through all your books.”

“Just because I’m religious doesn’t mean I’m insane,” she replies, and cries some more.

If we take an Oxford definition of insane: “…a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction”, Dillard’s writing instilled a sort of insanity in me. What I’d grown used to as my “normal” way of perceiving things was ruptured by images of the female praying mantis gnawing on its sexual partner’s head while he keeps pumping. By questions of scale and depth that unsteadied the sense I’d made of the world.

A vitalizing dose of insanity is precisely what appears to me as the animating force behind Dillard’s work. Sanity, as the pioneer of improv theater Keith Johnstone tells us, is a learned pretense:

“Sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretence up because we don’t want to be rejected by other people — and being classified insane is to be shut out of the group in a very complete way. Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they’re a little crazier than the average person. People understand the energy necessary to maintain their own shields, but not the energy expended by other people. They understand that their own sanity is a performance, but when confronted by other people they confuse the person with the role. Sanity has nothing directly to do with the way you think. It’s a matter of presenting yourself as safe.”

This kind of sanity is exactly what Dillard never had (I say that as if I know). Her self did not seamlessly slip into the body that already learned how to behave. Her self was not transparent, but always a possible object of her own “humming awareness”. Instead, as soon as she awoke, she began to investigate, for herself, what exactly is going on here, and the implications for how one might live.

I wonder if there’s an inverse relationship between sanity and one’s relationship to eternity. The degree to which one learns the pretenses of sanity marks the density of their buffer against the bewildering prospect of eternity.

If so, I hold out hope. Sanity is a social construct, and is thus liable to change. I can imagine a society where the composition of sanity is changed, where infants don’t learn to “fake it”, but retain a healthy sense of unknowing. I can imagine a society that devotes its resources towards the democratic vistas of waking. I can imagine an astronaut looking back at the earth, and feeling proud, feeling that we’ve built a society worthy of the impossible odds we’ve overcome and the immeasurable potential we hold.

Why not?

Rebirth

Have I learned anything in this exercise? Clearly, I’m drawn to Dillard’s durable sense of astonishment. We’re alive and we know it — any moment not tinged with bewilderment is an opportunity missed.

She reminds me of a way in which I’d like to see the world. She reminds me that not all writing is commodity, that writing can also be a real, urgent, excruciating, record of one human’s reckoning with the inscrutable facts of where we find ourselves. I like (and about this I feel strange) that she cries if you ask her about faith. I like that she retreats to an isolated cabin if you try and coax her with big bucks. I like that she has no apparent interest in the pretenses of sanity.

One thing I hope to give you is the full import of the moth with which I began, the one crawling down the asphalt driveway. At this point, I’ll risk it all by giving you the full, multi-paragraph thing:

“At school I saw a searing sight. It turned me to books; it turned me to jelly; it turned me much later, I suppose, into an early version of a runaway, a scapegrace. It was only a freshly hatched Polyphemus moth crippled because its mason jar was too small.

The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.

There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. When it spread those wings — those beautiful wings — blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon. A smaller moth could have spread its wings to their utmost in that mason jar, but the Polyphemus moth was big. Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse. Its brown, yellow, pink, and blue wings would have extended six inches from tip to tip, if there had been no mason jar. It would have been big as a wren.

The teacher let the deformed creature go. We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp and circumstance. She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway. The moth set out walking. It could only heave the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs. The moth crawled down the driveway toward the rest of Shadyside, an area of fine houses, expensive apartments, and fashionable shops. It crawled down the driveway because its shriveled wings were glued shut. It crawled down the driveway toward Shadyside, one of the several sections of town where people like me were expected to settle after college, renting an apartment until they married one of the boys and bought a house. I watched it go.

I knew that this particular moth, the big walking moth, could not travel more than a few more yards before a bird or a cat began to eat it, or a car ran over it. Nevertheless, it was crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born. I watched it go till the bell rang and I had to go in. I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth’s ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave.”

About 10,260 babies are born in the U.S. daily; many will suffer the same fate as the moth. Over the course of their development, their searching wings will encounter transparent limits. A mason jar of our own making. Their growth will grow crooked, and contort into a form that fits the socially constructed jars we inhabit. For some, the lingering excitement from being born may overshadow their stunted growth. For others, they will grow painfully aware of their crippled potential. They will see others, who will appear to have been born under roomier circumstances, and able to unfurl more of their great wingspan. They will not develop a zest for life, but a resigned tolerance.

The existence of such jars are natural and inevitable. To live requires sustenance, and sustenance demands certain things from us. But the size and shape of our containers are neither fixed, natural, nor inevitable. They are made of what the French historian Fernand Braudel calls the border dividing the possible from the impossible. He offers the term in his history of civilization and capitalism, because it is largely the economic organization of society that establishes these limits:

“Can it not be said that there is a limit, a ceiling which restricts all human life, containing it within a frontier of varying outline, one which is hard to reach and harder still to cross? This is the border which in every age, even our own, separates the possible from the impossible, what can be done with a little effort from what cannot be done at all.”

As a society evolves, so do the possible ways it might design its economy, and through it, construct the border between the possible and the impossible, the mason jars that constrain our lives. Things have changed so fast over the past 200 years that we’ve hardly been able to keep up. There is a lag between the possibilities and our reality. This lag manifests as an undersized mason jar that avoidably cripples far too many of us. We have outgrown our containers. There is broad consensus that we must build new containers tuned to the times, but mostly discord as to what that actually means.

Every day that we do not reconfigure the economy is a day that sends another 10,260 babies down the asphalt with needlessly crippled wings. Most will forget their excitement from being born before reaching the expensive apartments and respectable jobs that await them (should they prove their value on the uneven battlegrounds of meritocracy, otherwise its run-down apartments and minimum wage). Most will learn to fake it. To fake the pretense that everything is alright, that this world is sensible. Most will have enough on their plate just holding things together, so that if a 10 year-old girl runs up to them in a frenzy, wide-eyed and breathless, beckoning that they come and look at the amoeba she has discovered under her microscope, the girl will be shooed away like a mosquito. She will learn that bewilderment is not a shared experience, but a private and inward affair. There, unless you’re a mutation like Annie Dillard, it will grow dim like a star going out of business.

I don’t know what’s worse: to have your sense of wonder dimmed until you join the rest of the world in a sputtering half-life, or to retain a blinding sense of astonishment, rendering you mostly incapable of relating to others. I imagine Dillard still wanders the valleys where mind and world collide, sucking down cigarettes and coffee, transfixed by bugs.

We must rekindle our astonishment using the full force of the tax code, or we will continue crippling ourselves to a fate worse than death.

This essay was originally published on my website, MusingMind.org. You can find it here.

Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More: www.MusingMind.org.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store