And we the people are so vulnerable. Our bodies are shot with mortality. Our legs are fear and our arms are time. These chill humors seep through our capillaries, weighting each cell with an icy dab of nonbeing, and that dab grows and swells and sucks the cell dry. That is why physical courage is important–-it fills, as it were, the holes–-and why it is so invigorating. The least brave act, chance taken and passage won, makes you feel loud as a child.
But it gets harder. The courage of children and beasts is a function of innocence. We let our bodies go the way of our fears…Why do we lose interest in physical mastery? If I feel like turning cartwheels–-and I do–-why don’t I learn to turn cartwheels, instead of regretting that I never learned as a child? We could all be aerialists like squirrels, divers like seals; we could be purely patient, perfectly fleet, walking on our hands even, if our living or stature required it. We can’t even sit straight, or support our weary heads.
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pg. 91.
No child on earth was ever meant to be ordinary, and you can see it in them, and they know it, too, but then the times get to them, and they wear out their brains learning what folks expect, and spend their strength trying to rise over those same folks.”
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 78
Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people—the novelist’s world, not the poet’s. I’ve lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year… I’ll start living; next year…I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world.
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time…It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit’s good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine…What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.
If you wish to tell me that the city offers galleries, I’ll pour you a drink and enjoy your company while it lasts; but I’ll bear with me to my grave those pure moments at the Tate (was it the Tate?) where I stood planted, open-mouthed, born, before that one particular canvas, that river, up to my neck, gasping, lost, receding into watercolor depth and depth to the vanishing point, buoyant, awed, and had to be literally hauled away. These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.
–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 82
We tune in and out. But moments are not lost. Time out of mind is time nevertheless, cumulative, informing the present. From even the deepest slumber you wake with a jolt—older, closer to death, and wiser, grateful for breath. You quit your seat in a darkened movie theater, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you’ve forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you’d been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you. Yes, you say, as if you’d been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms—not the dry orange dust from horses’ hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke—but this solid air, the blood pumping up your thighs again, your fingers alive. And on the way home you drive exhilarated, energized, under scented, silhouetted trees.
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 86
I have tried to show muskrats to other people, but it rarely works. No matter how quiet we are, the muskrats stay hidden. Maybe they sense the tense hum of consciousness, the buzz from two human beings who in silence cannot help but be aware of each other, and so of themselves. Then to, the other people invariably suffer from a self-consciousness the prevents their stalking well. It used to bother me, too: I just could not bear to lose so much dignity that would completely alter my whole way of being for a muskrat. So I would move or look around or scratch my nose, and no muskrats would show, leaving me alone with my dignity for days on end, until I decided that it was worth my while to learn – from muskrats themselves – how to stalk.
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 201
I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down. Simone Weil says simply, “Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.”
–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 245
Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.
— Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk, p. 14
Or at twenty-nine years old did you still try to stand on your dignity?
— Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone To Talk, p. 30