On Annie Dillard and Lifting Through Literature
February 26, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Nathan Strobel
Exactly three months after my wife told me that she wanted a divorce, I sat on the floor of what used to be our bedroom and watched the dull flash of Roanoke’s Fifth of July fireworks through the window. The show had been rained out the night before. Our four-year-old daughter was asleep across the hall and my wife, who by that time was paying me rent to live in the basement, was, I could only presume, out with someone else. A thick volume containing all of Jane Austen’s novels was on my bedside table. I was halfway through Sense and Sensibility.
The day after our separation that April, I did only what had to be done, which seemed outsized in its cruelty: listen for the morning rustlings of my daughter; brush her hair and teeth and give her a waffle and strawberries for breakfast; tell her that we were going to visit her grandma, my mother, for a week but that she would see mommy when we got back. My efforts at normalcy felt like a lie that would widen into a chasm and swallow everything I thought my life had been. Words like “custody,” “visitation,” and “attorneys” were already rising out of this breach and choking me with anxiety as I shoved my daughter’s Elsa suitcase into the back of the minivan.
We left for the four-hour drive across Virginia to my hometown. During a stop at Bojangles’, I texted my brother that it seemed like I should be taking notes on this day for posterity. If one is lucky enough to live the fairly insulated middle-class life that I do, there are only a handful of such ruptures in a lifetime. So, I remember the man in the blue shirt in the restaurant who handed me a straw when he saw me standing behind him, and the minimum-wage cashier who carried our tray to a table for us because she saw that I had my daughter on my hip. They were kindnesses that would normally be noticed in the moment but quickly forgotten. But in the darkness of personal tragedy, they felt like pricks of light, and I wanted to ask, “Do you know?” But they couldn’t have.
When I finally reached my family and hugged my mother on the doorstep of my childhood home, the kindnesses widened: offers for dinner or coffee from old friends, unsolicited nuggets of calming wisdom, phone numbers of divorce lawyers. But most of the advice consisted of encouragement to pursue what I loved and from which I’d been restricted by the toxicity of the relationship that had been the dominant feature of my entire adult life to that point.
I decided that I needed to start reading again, really reading. In the preceding months, as I had felt my marriage dying, my books had become nothing more than a frame around the IKEA shelf on which the TV sat. They gathered dust as my wife and I sat down for another desultory night of Netflix surfing.
In what was now my bedroom, I started Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. I was embarrassed to be reading it because it had a sunrise on the cover and looked like a self-help book. But she described the last stage of post-divorce grief not as “acceptance” but as “lifting,” a sense that one deserves better than a plain peace with the facts, that life after loss can be a work of art rather than a newspaper article.
So, I picked up Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which, when I read it as a college student, had filled me with a sense of inestimable possibility. Now I was picking it up as a 32-year-old soon-to-be divorcee looking back on a decade crisscrossed with decisions and events that served as a mesh preventing me from going back and recapturing that fire for the written word with which I had been so wholly consumed. When I’d first read Dillard, it was like a lightning strike, and I’d spent the months afterward devouring Dostoevsky, Henry James, George Eliot, and dozens more that I can’t even recall. This time it would need to be more of a slow burn.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell that college student to choose a different path, to pursue his PhD in literature instead of moving to New York in the depths of the Great Recession with his then-girlfriend on the fantastical notion of either becoming a big-time editor or a fiction writer. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, until my dad died and we found ourselves back in my hometown with my pursuit of an MFA aborted. I know what I love: I love reading words, analyzing them, discussing them. But no one particularly cares about your reflections on Jane Austen and her exigency in modern life unless you hold a doctorate.
That takes me back to Annie Dillard, who went into the woods just a few miles from where I live now and wrote about what she saw. It was as simple as that. The result of her observations opened my heart to a beauty with which it’s still being filled today, even as I sit in the midst of a failed marriage wondering what could have been. But what if she’d said to herself, “No one will care about my musings on elm trees and muskrats and hoop snakes,” and put her manuscript away? What if she had been terrified by her awe instead of inspired? In my new life, I want to be like Annie Dillard: so filled with love and wonder that it can’t help but overflow into creation.
Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his daughter and an Australian shepherd.