I read this breathtaking passage by Annie Dillard earlier this evening. I was outside, watching the nature on the cliffs that frame the swimming pool. The moon was rising and a familiar sensitivity ran through my veins, a sensation going back to my teenage years.
It was a confluence of sadness and receptivity. The sadness often takes hold during a full moon. I remember how it was once overwhelming to my younger self. Now I recognize it as an old friend come to visit, one whose presence I have never felt completely comfortable with. It has taught me that the best action to take is to welcome the moment and sit quietly for the duration of the visit.
The other aspect of this flow, the heightened receptivity, is worth the price of admission – to sit in the presence of nature and not be governed by wants, needs, secrets and distractions because those distractions cannot possibly offer relief from the power of this mood.
I sat under the trees and watched a small flock of pigeons move in unison as they sought shelter on the open terraces of our hi-rise building. Drawing semi circles in their flight from rail to terrace rail seemed more like play. The two young hawks I had seen earlier this summer were not present. Perhaps I was projecting fear for the pigeons' safety. The possibility of being dive-bombed by a hawk would have kept me moving too.
I was grateful for the convergence of all this beauty landing on me at once. I have always loved Ms. Dillard's writing, so I feel compelled to share this passage. It made me remember how stunning the world we live in can be if we just open to it, even in the midst of sadness and inner strife.
from THE WRITING LIFE
By Annie Dillard
"One January day, working alone in that freezing borrowed cabin I used for a study on Puget Sound—heated not at all by the alder I chopped every morning—I wrote one of the final passages of a short, difficult book. It was a wildish passage in which the narrator, I, came upon the baptism of Christ in the water of the bay in front of the house. There was a northeaster on—as I wrote. The stormy salt water I saw from the cabin window looked dark as ink. The parallel rows of breakers made lively, broken lines, closely spaced row on row, moving fast and pulling the eyes; they reproduced the sensation of reading exactly, but without reading’s sense. Mostly I shut my eyes. I have never been in so trancelike a state, and in fact I dislike, as romantic, the suggestion that any writer works in any peculiar state. I sat motionless with my eyes shut, like a Greek funerary marble.
The writing was simple yet graceless; it surprised me. It was arrhythmical, nonvisual, clunky. It was halting, as if there were no use trying to invoke beauty or power. It was plain and ugly, urgent, like child’s talk. “He led him into the water,” it said, without antecedents. It read like a translation from the Gallic Wars.
Once when I opened my eyes the page seemed bright. The windows were steamed and the sun had gone behind the firs on the bluff. I must have had my eyes closed long. I had been repeating to myself, for hours, like a song, “It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” From Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Sunday Morning.” It was three o’clock then; I heated some soup. By the time I left, I was scarcely alive. The way home was along the beach. The beach was bright and distinct. The storm still blew. I was light, dizzy, barely there. I remembered some legendary lamas, who wear chains to keep from floating away. Walking itself seemed to be a stunt; I could not tell whether I was walking fast or slowly. My thighs felt as if they had been reamed.
And I have remembered it often, later, waking up in that cabin to windows steamed blue and the sun gone around the island; remembered putting down those queer, stark sentences half blind on yellow paper; remembered walking ensorcerized, tethered, down the gray cobble beach like an aisle. Evelyn Underhill describes another life, and a better one, in words that recall to me that day, and many another day, at this queer task: “He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.”
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti’s drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted.
A twentieth-century master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, taught that “the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.” Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.
Admire the world for never ending on you—as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away. 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.
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”