Theologian’s Almanac for Week of April 28, 2019
April 30 is the birthday of Annie Dillard, American non-fiction writer and novelist. After finishing a master’s thesis on Thoreau’s Walden, she set about writing a memoir of her time living along a creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She wove first-hand observations and marvelous facts about the natural world with reflections on theology and literature, and the result, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1975. Dillard was 29 years old.
Here’s how the book begins: “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”
But here’s the kicker: Dillard decided to omit from her masterpiece several things about her life, including the fact that she lived in the house with her husband (a writing professor), and that the house wasn’t a Walden-in-the-wilderness, much less a hermitage, but rather was located in a conventional suburban development in Roanoke, with a backyard that sloped down to a little stream. Many reviewers (and readers) mistakenly assumed Dillard wrote while living alone in a remote cabin in the woods. In the end, this isn’t sleight-of-hand so much as a splendid act of imagination: through Dillard’s eyes, we can see how “wilderness” - and the quality of mind wilderness can provide - is actually all around us, even in suburbia!
Here’s some more Dillard, this time on creativity: “One of the few 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.”
May 1st is May Day, a date with a host of holidays in its history. The Celts of the British Isles considered it the day that divided the year in half, between light and dark, with May Day marking the return of life and fertility. Ancient Romans devoted the day to celebrating Flora, the goddess of flowers. And in the mid-nineteenth century, the international movement for workers’ rights - including the movement for the eight-hour work day - claimed May 1st as Labor Day. After the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland officially moved Labor Day to September in order to disassociate it from May Day’s historic connections to the rights of workers. Today May 1st is still a day of rallies and protest in many parts of the world, and in 2006, May Day demonstrations returned to the United States, calling attention to the rights of immigrants.