28 July 2012

dinner alone with annie dillard {part 2}

And who wouldn't want to learn about writing from Annie Dillard?

In other words: what I gleaned about writing from the book Holy the Firm—and then put into a book report for my summer writing class.

Read the beginning here.


Write in the Voice that Works for You (Syntax Can Go by the Wayside)
I get the sense reading Holy the Firm that I’m reading Annie Dillard’s journal.  She’s writing in spurts; she’s writing in half-sentences and quarter-sentences, and she’s writing, at times, like she’s praying.

Holy the Firm has the feel of Virginia Woolf’s or James Joyce’s best stream of consciousness:  there is the feeling that these thoughts are tumbling out of Annie Dillard’s brain, and this propels you to keep reading, to keep going, to tumble with her until she ends up making a beautifully profound point.  And you feel that the only way you could’ve gotten there is through her breaking-all-the-rules syntax.

Now, normally, I’m all for rules, but in a book as personal, reflective, and spiritual as Holy the Firm, breaking the “rules of good writing” is perfectly appropriate. It gives it a raw quality that is part of what drew me in so deeply in that Argentinean restaurant in Houston:  who cares about steak when there are words like this to read?

For outside it is bright.  The surface of things outside the drops has fused.  Christ himself and the others, and the brown warm wind, and hair, sky, the beach, the shattered water—all this has fused.  It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable.  There is no speech nor language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time.  There is only this everything.  There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise. (pp 67-68)

Or what about this?

Hoopla!  All that I see arches, and light arches around it.  The air churns out forces and lashes the marveling land.  A hundred times through the fields and along the deep roads I’ve cried Holy.  I see a hundred insects moving across the air, rising and falling.  Chipped notes of birdsong descend from the trees, tuneful and broken; the notes pile about me like leaves.  Why do these molded clouds make themselves overhead innocently changing, trailing their flat blue shadows up and down everything, and passing, and gone?  Ladies and gentlemen!  You are given insects, and birdsong, and a replenishing series of clouds. The air is buoyant and wholly transparent, scoured by grasses. (pp 72-73)

Following these phrases can be dizzying, but by letting the thoughts twirl, Annie Dillard invites us in.

I have so much underlined in Holy the Firm—words and phrases that stuck out to me—but as I went back to find examples of her free-flowing, unstructured voice, I discovered that often to get to the root of why I underlined a word or phrase, I had to read back a few paragraphs.  I had to start the journey again to remember why the ending place was so significant, and I like feeling that I’m along for a wordy adventure with a writer.

The Routine of Writing
I don’t have specific excerpts from Holy the Firm for this lesson; it’s more a lesson from Annie Dillard’s life.  I have yet to read her book The Writing Life, but from her works that I have read, I know that she is a routine writer:  she writes whether she feels like it or not.

Getting across your message—those nebulous thoughts in your head—is not always an easy task.  In fact, it rarely is, and the writing advice that seems the most useful and most mundane is:  write every day.  Be in the practice of writing—even when you despise every word coming out of you.  You sometimes have to write ugliness to get to the prettiness underneath; you sometimes need to start down one path to realize that the story you need to tell is actually a path taking off from that first one.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard talks about taking the same walk every day—to the point that she is so in tune with nature and the changing world around her that it almost seems like an extension of her.

This is how, in part, we should see writing:  as something we do every day so that we can feel more connected to the world around us.  Annie Dillard teaches me this, just in the way she writes.  It’s as if she’s saying:  pay attention to the world, and you will have things to say.

In Short, I Wish I Were Friends with Annie Dillard
I felt like, in a way, I had dinner with Annie Dillard in Houston.  Reading Holy the Firm while sitting at my table for one—fending off the waiter who asked if I’d like to stay after close and open up a bottle of Malbec with him—I forgot that I was in a strange city.  I forgot that I’d been gone from home for five days.  I forgot that my head was spinning from all the meetings I’d gone to.

I was in Annie Dillard’s world—seeing the moth, smelling the air on Puget Sound, looking for God in the small things.  And that, for me, is good writing:  when it takes you away from where you are, and when you close the book, you start to see the world around you in a new light.

26 July 2012

dinner alone with annie dillard {part 1}

In my summer writing class, I get to write a book report. This is, in fact, the third time I've taken this class, so for the past three summers, I've been able to delve back into that particularly primary school-sounding "book report."

Two years ago, I wrote about the book Nothing Remains the Same.

And last year, it was Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask.

Don't get the wrong idea here: these are not five paragraph essays about character, setting, and dialogue. We're supposed to choose books in genres that we write in, so I choose personal essay books, and then use the book report to work out my aggression toward the author.

About how they're funnier than me.

Or sharper than me.

Or had a book published by the time they were 30.

Or say things that I have most definitely thought before—but they have said it better.

My book reports are really more about catharsis and working through my issues, so when it came time to do this year's report, I thought—why change that approach? It's working so well!

My target this year: Annie Dillard. Darn her and her Pulitzer Prize.

I've written about Annie before—I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while vacationing out West with my parents a few years ago, and it's hard to be surrounded by so much expansive nature, be reading Annie Dillard, and not write these reflective, searching for meaning essays.

Hiking in Zion National Park and reading Annie is basically the perfect set-up for a nature essay about seeing beauty everywhere {you can see me attempting this here}.

Earlier this summer, I picked up another Annie Dillard book at a Friends of the Library sale: a quarter for Annie? Oh, yes.

And look what I got from my quarter: a book report and a chance to work out my envy of Annie Dillard. Money well spent, I tell you, money well spent.

What I Read This Summer: Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

I was in an Argentinean restaurant near the Galleria in Houston, but that’s not where my mind and heart were.  I had come in from the heat, the oppressive, pushing heat, into this cool, dark place with red accents to catch the eye.  Come in to the hostess asking, “Just you tonight?

A table for one, please, and I held my held my head high and my Annie Dillard book tightly as the hostess—a tall girl made taller by her black heels; she should be dancing a tango in the streets of Buenos Aires—took me to a tucked away table in the back.

I chose to sit not facing the wall as the hostess had offered, the chair pulled out for me so I could easily sit down and then avoid eye contact with anyone who might look with pity on the girl eating alone.

Instead, I told her I’d rather sit facing out, facing everyone, facing the eyes.  I am not bothered to be eating alone, I wanted to convey.  This is what happens when you go on business trips alone, but I’m not lonely.

The waiter made a show of removing the other setting at the table, and I made a show out of opening Holy the Firm after asking the waiter to recommend a good glass of Malbec.

And then.

With that first crack of Holy the Firm, my mind and heart were elsewhere.  I was no longer worrying about projecting the careless, independent air of the nonchalant solo diner—I was on Puget Sound with Annie Dillard, rejoicing in how the act of stringing together words can bring meaning, beauty, reflection, and the ability, for just a short space of time, to be elsewhere.

Annie Dillard’s writing is transcendent; that’s the best way I can describe it.  When I read her, time slows, my breathing deepens, and that thin veil between us and the eternal is pulled up just enough to make me aware that this side of the veil is the temporary one, a mere blip in time, a shadow of the other side.

How does Annie Dillard do it?  I’ve been wondering this since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while in Zion National Park and wanted to award her, if I could, a million more Pulitzer Prizes for it.  Holy the Firm is shorter—but not less dense yet ethereal in true Annie Dillard style—so it gave me a chance to study her craft (over a glass of a good Malbec in Houston).

I’ve come up with three lessons on writing from Annie Dillard that I hope to apply to my more reflective pieces.  When I write about nature and really taking notice of it, I’m invariably thinking of Annie Dillard.

Notice Small Things
This lesson reminds me of that gift/self-help/encouragement book you often find in the checkout line at Barnes & Noble:  Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff.

This is:  Notice Small Things…and it’s all small things that make up big things.  By paying attention to the little things in her day, Annie Dillard is really saying something about the bigger things, about that thin veil, about how every tiny created creature is just that:  a creation.

For example, she writes about a moth.  An ugly, drawn-to-the-flames moth.  More specifically, she writes about the death of a moth she once witnessed while camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held.  I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all.  A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke.  At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. […]

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick.  She kept burning. […]

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled […]. (pp 16-17)

Reading this, I am watching the moth’s death with Annie Dillard.  I am drawn in like (forgive me) a moth to the flame, and in two short pages, she conveys the fragility of life and the beauty and dignity possible in death without saying:  Now, here, I will talk about death.

She’s just writing about a moth.  She’s just opening her eyes to the small things that make up the big things, and she’s writing.


There are two more lessons from Annie Dillard that I learned by reading this very thin book.

If you're eager to learn from Annie, too, you can jump ahead to the lessons here.

25 July 2012

in which i eat a dime and have a grand adventure {part 4}

The last part of a four-part story on the time I swallowed a dime.

You can start with Part 1, or skip around to Part 2 or Part 3, if you want.


My parents now call the dime that I swallowed "The $1,000 Dime," since that's how much it cost to have it removed. This makes it sound like it belongs in a museum, perhaps a very exciting and educational one dedicated to the National Mint. People would line up for hours to see the $1,000 Dime, and then, when someone was desperate for a Dr. Pepper from the vending machines, it would be stolen and create one of those scandals that the 24-hour news cycle is so grateful for: one that seems inane at first, but the more you talk about it, the more weight and significance it takes on {much like Bane Capital in this election}.

Or "The $1,000 Dime" could be a documentary of how we got to a national debt of such monumental size. The answer would be: because it costs $1,000 to make every dime.

There would be a national outcry against dimes {who can even remember which president is on it, anyway? Get rid of it! And maybe the presidency, too, while we're at it!}.

The 24-hour news cycle would cover it for 23.5 hours every day {the other 30 minutes would be devoted to a segment called "Oh, Yeah, There Are Other Countries in the World"}.

But the dime is not in a museum, nor is it featured in a documentary {although, really, doesn't that sound like a plausible documentary idea? It would be beloved by people who also loved King Corn, that documentary that finally explains corn subsidies and features fields upon fields of Iowa corn that will be fed to cattle. Those are two things that needed to be in a documentary}.

The dime, instead is in my parents' house in Iowa {which was not featured in the King Corn documentary}. They don't even have it in a museum-quality case, which I've seen in that SkyMall catalog on flights, so I know it exists; if my parents cared enough, they could buy one, even at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.

But no, they keep the dime, along with my hospital bracelet from the Mason City hospital, in something that looks like a little white Tupperware container but is really what my dad was handed when I came out of surgery. The dime was in it, and how odd that some of the trappings of the medical community—where we put such faith in doctors and their high-tech tools and abilities—should look as ordinary as what we store leftovers in.

I'm getting ahead of myself, what with this talk of documentaries and Tupperware, when what you really need to know is this: I have three very vivid memories from the hospital after I swallowed a dime.

19 July 2012

summer at the city pool {a poem}

Under a cloudless July sky
a flat, faded blue that holds no possibility for dreams
a sterile slate that pushes us down,
pinning us to one place on this dry earth

under an overdone sun
a little boy stands at the edge of the high dive at the City Pool.

From up there—

high on the diving board,
his bright orange swimtrunks dripping
the hundreds of feet (it must be that far!)
down to the aqua, manmade oasis

from up there, he can see the possibility for fun.

Over there,
the World War I tank by the playground,
guarding the monkey bars.

And past the Little League fields,
the path that slides down the river bluff—
a route made when the Indians still called this place Shoquoquon.

Beyond that,
the fountain that lights up blue, green, and yellow,
dancing along with the Municipal Band
playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,”
strains of high-note patriotism floating out over the Mississippi.

From up there, high on the diving board,
all the little boy has to do is spread his arms to touch
all the possibilities under the sun

and then jump
flying above all he’s ever known
wishing for the first time
that he could stop time
and stay in this eternal summer of the sun.

18 July 2012

on the fallibility of childhood memories

What is your earliest memory? Can you trust it, or do you think—as so often happens—it's been altered over the years and it's just based on a family story?

I realize that's somewhat of a leading question, but I have an agenda and that's when leading questions are most useful.

This is my agenda: proving to my family that I have two very vivid memories before age 4 and that this is not the youngest's wild plea for attention or attempt to have a part in those family stories from the early 80s.

Okay, maybe it is a wild plea for attention, but if my parents had not done such memorable things before I was 4—such as taking all of us to the 1984 Olympic Games in LA or allowing me to swallow a dime while biking across Iowa—we would not be having this conversation.

If we had done nothing more than normal things, I wouldn't be so determined to prove that I have things to say about the early 80s, too.

Had we just

gone to gymnastics lessons,
taken naps,
eaten corn on the cob,
played accountant and tax client at my dad's accounting firm {not a normal childhood game? Oh. Just pretend I said "play school."},
and gotten Blizzards from the Dairy Queen,

I wouldn't care as much about remembering those, cherished memories of a typical Iowa childhood though they are.

But when everyone else starts talking about being on RAGBRAI in 1985, I want to say: You know what I remember from that year? The doctor at the Mason City Hospital, where I'd been rushed after swallowing a dime, asking me if I liked to wear masks.

Take that, family: You may remember biking over big hills and funny conversations with each other, but I remember being asked about a mask.

And I remember thinking—Uh, who doesn't like wearing masks? We are talking about Barbie masks that come with the cheap Halloween costumes from Wal-Mart, aren't we?

For the record, the doctor was not talking about that kind of mask.


More to come soon on how the mask I ended up wearing was not at all like Barbie's face. It wasn't even like a GI Joe's face. I was a very disappointed 3-year-old.

17 July 2012

the summer light

Trying to come up with a new way to talk about summer feels like trying to be Shakespeare: a fruitless endeavor that reminds you that someone, somewhere, has already said what you meant to say.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? No, that's been done.

I had a midsummer night's dream about you, brought on by the heat and perhaps too much wine. No, that concept has been done.

But to be in a world with so much light! Every day is a challenge to find the words, just the right words of thankfulness and light.

I wake up to a song about kissing the break of day, but that moment is gone. The day has already broken: the gentlest light of the day comes after the break, seeping through the cracks in the sky created by humidity.

In this light, even the brown grass is inviting, just the spot for a picnic.

A family quilt made in the early 1900s by four unmarried women—small, even stitches as they talked about everything but their desire to be married—this could be spread on the brown grass and there could be a picnic of strawberries and cream.

Hours later, at bedtime, darkness has just barely come as I turn on my bedside lamp to read for a few minutes before going to sleep. I think of how childlike it feels to go to bed with the sun just set, but it feels late to me and there is no one here to read me a bedtime story.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live: hasn't that one been said before, too?

In the summer, there is so much light, and there are so many stories waiting to be told. This is what I can say about summer right now that doesn't feel worn out.

13 July 2012

summer storm {a poem, not by me}

I had already planned on posting this poem today—and then a summer storm just rolled in. All afternoon, even the air in this office felt charged, expectant, wanting.

We all wanted rain: the brown grass, the dying trees, people I ran past this morning at 6:00 {all of us sweating more than could be healthy}.

And here it is, just when I wanted it most and just when I had the right poem to post: "Summer Storm" by Dana Gioia.

One line in this poem is almost always with me—the last one. It hits on, in so few words, the what ifs we can torture ourselves with.

Or the what ifs that can come when we don't ask them to, and we convince ourselves that if only there had been a different decision back at that decision point—why life would have a whole different feel.

And it would be different, but different doesn't equal better. Or worse, for that matter. It just equals different, and what is it about a summer storm that reminds me of this idea?

It's the changeability of it all: what began as a sunny, sweaty day is now turning into a night when I want to do nothing more than curl up on the couch. How quickly things can change; how can we expect to keep up with all the possibilities?

And that's what this poem is saying to me today.

Summer Storm

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm—
A gesture you didn't explain—
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn't speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening's memory
Return with this night's storm—
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won't stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.

10 July 2012

in which i eat a dime and have a grand adventure {part 3}

Part 3 of a story about the time I ate a dime while my family was on RAGBRAI.

Don't know what RAGBRAI is? You should probably read Part 2, which explains it.

Want to hear the beginning? You should probably read Part 1, which is, obviously, the beginning.


It was late July, and my sister Oesa and I needed a purpose.

On RAGBRAI, everyone else in our family had a purpose: either bike 60ish miles a day through the cornfields, or drive the car to the next town and set up camp so that when the rest of the family got in town—hot, sweaty, unable to feel their legs—the tents were already up for them to lay down in after showering.

But since Oesa and I were only 5 and 3, there wasn't much expected of us. Oh, I'm sure we helped choose our campsite {proximity to a playground is worth 10 points on the Campsite Selection Scale}, and maybe we even helped pitch the tents. Perhaps my chubby toddler fingers were put to work grasping a chubby toddler hammer to drive the stakes in.

Mostly, though, Oesa and I were along for the ride. Literally, on some days; our mom would pull us in a buggy behind her bike.

Being a demanding and ornery child, I spent my time in the buggy in two ways: telling my mom to go faster up those rolling Iowa hills, and pinching my sister.

It was hot and sticky in that buggy, and why admire scenes of the heartland {or, as they are called in Iowa's slogan, Fields of Opportunity} when you can annoy your sister?

A couple of days into RAGBRAI, a plan formed to give Oesa and me a purpose: we would run a Kool-Aid stand.

I don't know who came up with this plan.

Was it my mom, eager to be away from a 3-year-old who thought she was a Roman centurion riding in a chariot?
This is how I envisioned myself when I was riding in the buggy behind my mom's bike. Please note: I don't think my mom is a horse. Mostly, I just thought I was in charge.

Was it my dad, eager to get his daughters interested in business early?

Or was it my sister and me, eager to contribute to the family's bottom line, thereby enabling us to buy more pork tenderloin sandwiches? {You can read more about those pork tenderloin sandwiches here.}

Whoever came up with this Kool-Aid plan, it was genius.

Who, on a hot day in the midst of a bike ride across Iowa, wouldn't want to stop to get a refreshing glass of Kool-Aid being hawked by a chubby Roman centurion 3-year-old and her big sister who didn't like to be pinched?

People who hate the first flowers of spring and Bambi: those are the only people who would be able to resist this Kool-Aid.

I mean, this was quality Kool-Aid. I probably mixed it up by swishing my fingers in it—fingers that until two seconds before had been, most likely, grabbing handfuls of dirt to eat.

I loved dirt, by the way. I even once ate some red rock out in Utah because I liked how, if you sucked on a piece long enough, it would crumble in your mouth, much like an Everlasting Gobstopper but tasting of dirt.

{And by once, I mean many, many times. What? I went to Utah a lot as a kid. You have to find some way to entertain yourself out in the desert, and there's only so long you and your sister can play "Create Your Own Steeplechase Course and Pretend to Be Horses."}

Oesa and I set up our Kool-Aid stand on the edge of the campground and began our attempt to drain all the money from all the riders on RAGBRAI, one nickel at a time.

Yes, our Kool-Aid was a nickel. It was 1985; things were a lot cheaper back then. In the good ol' days, you know.

{I think I might've just become the blog equivalent of an old-timey person sitting on the porch in her rocking chair, gray hair uncombed, chin hairs untweezed, looking caustically out at the drought-plagued fields and cackling out, "Back in my day..."}

Here in Glen Ellyn, by the way, I went by a lemonade stand the other day where the little girl was selling one glass for a dollar. I almost balked at buying it until I remembered that it's a dollar, and I spend that on approximately 1.27 sips of a double espresso.

That day on RAGBRAI, Oesa and I made, in 3-year-old interpretation of money, a bazillion dollars.

In reality, it was probably just enough to cover the cost of the Kool-Aid packets {a business cost underwritten by our dad}, and we had no real sense of "overhead" costs. But we were in business, and learned important lessons such as:
  • Charge more than a nickel.
  • Yelling at people to come drink your Kool-Aid is not considered an effective form of advertising.
  • When you lose interest in the Kool-Aid stand after about seven minutes because you're 3 years old, you'll still have to stick around and work. And then help clean up. This is all so you can learn "responsibility" and so that many years in the future when you have a real job and it's really pretty out but you're stuck behind a computer, you'll remember the lesson of the Kool-Aid stand: stick with it, and you can have as much sugary drink as you want.

The most important lesson of the Kool-Aid stand didn't come until the next day, and this lesson was aimed directly at my sister. It's not a universal lesson at all, so don't expect to pick up any life tips here.

The Most Important Kool-Aid Lesson: Do not come between a 3-year-old and the Kool-Aid profits she deserves.

The next morning, Oesa and I were in the back seat of the family car, divvying up our proceeds while our dad ran into a gas station to buy us candy so that we'd be well-behaved that day.

Oh, there's a universal lesson for you: candy bribery does work for small children, and it should be used in extreme situations, such as halfway through RAGBRAI when you're not sure you and the children will make it all the way across the state of Iowa without you throwing them into a corn field to become children of the corn.

"A nickel for you, a nickel for me. A nickel for you, a nickel for me." Oesa, being the big sister, was in charge of profit disbursement. I watched her hands fly over those nickels and dreamed of the My Little Ponies I could buy with all that money.

"Oh, there's just a dime left," Oesa said, looking up at me and then sliding the dime to her side. "I'll take that because I'm older."

Okay, I may have thought that my $1.25 of nickels could buy me Starshine or Fairy Rainbow Princess, or whatever My Little Ponies were named back in the early 80s.

I may have been slightly confused about how far money would go, but I was not confused on this point: a dime is worth more than a nickel, and "It's mine because I'm older" is an illogical argument big sisters have been trying to pull on little sisters for millennia.

She wasn't going to get away with this one.

My little hands may have been chubby, but I had quick movements, honed by minutes of stirring Kool-Aid with my fingers. While Oesa was still looking at me, I reached across the seat, scooped up the dime, and swallowed it.

Victory was mine!

I had beaten my big sister!

I was rich and could now buy all the My Little Ponies!

Except: I couldn't talk.

I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong, but when my dad, having just returned to the car with his candy bribes of M&Ms and Twizzlers, put his finger down my throat to get me to—to put it politely—bring that dime back up, I knew that my plan had not gone well and that I wasn't going to be eating any of that candy any time soon.

With that dime firmly lodged above my voice box—keeping me silent for once—we rushed to the hospital.


Coming soon: Do I still have a dime somewhere in my body, or did the doctors get it out?


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