On Learning to See

A few years out of high school, I became a big fan of Sixpence None the Richer. I haven’t listened to the band in years, but I still remember one particular EP that remained in heavy rotation. Smitten not only with Leigh Nash’s beautiful voice, but also with the album title (Tickets for a Prayer Wheel), I read the liner notes like literature and discovered that the poetic phrase was borrowed from the title of a book of poetry by Annie Dillard.

After devouring that book, contemplating “The Shape of the Air” and other such lyrically scientific matters, I wandered around a Half Price Books store to find more of Annie Dillard’s writings. I felt something like a magnetic pull. There are times in my life where God shines a beam of otherworldly light directly onto a book on some shelf. Though it is invisible to other eyes, that book is illuminated for me with a similar (though much less divine) revelatory sentiment as when the angel spoke to St. John:

Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.

There is a gastronomical upset brought upon by reading God-awful writing, but that is not the kind of which I speak. If these books that lure me do yield any bitterness, it is because they turn my world upside down with an unveiling of reality. They change me and form me — and sometimes, reversing my mindset is a bit unpleasant. Not meant as a quick gulp of novelty or escape, these are books to read, eat, and chew . . . slowly, like meditation.

So it was with a book aglow on a wooden bookshelf at Half Price all those years ago: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Once again, the title caught my eye — a little slice of poetry. I began to realize why a college professor said I had the mind of a poet. I am not a poet, but I discern the poetry of life — all the intensity, emotion, mystery, and rhythm.

The first paragraph minced no words, and beauty and violence walked side by side:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back . . . And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. . . . What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.

I was both captivated and startled. Cats are cute, but bodily fluids? Such visceral, poetic writing prodded my five senses to life with each word. I kept reading. I took the first steps away from a timidity of words — providential seeds planted to cultivate who I am today, how I see the world, and what I write. As best I can describe, the book reads like a scientist-mystic’s journal, a bizarre narrative that might seem like a collection of essays as Dillard’s unusual mind jumped from philosophy to science to religion to absurd humor to meditation on nature, but there is a thread of continuity — her connections and conclusions arrive like a slap on the back. It's here: “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery."

Dillard lived near the suburban forests and mountains of Tinker Creek in Virginia, an area teeming with hordes of lively animal life. She walked outdoors by day and read voraciously at night. She filled twenty or so journals with quotes by Thoreau, Van Gogh, Marius von Senden, Pascal, and Galileo, as well as her observations of the natural world in her neighborhood. She transferred prime excerpts to notecards, and within eight months, she created the book that is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This literary madness granted her the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 when she was just 29 years old.

My copies of Tickets for a Prayer Wheel and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are browning, the pages soft and familiar. They bear my maiden name on the front pages in blue and black ink respectively, such a sweet bruising to my writerly soul. Both were published the year of my birth, so I feel a tender kinship with them. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not straightforwardly Christian; Dillard cites Jesus and the Bible, but also Judaism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Eskimo spirituality. I am one of those conservative Biblical types, yet this weaving of religion and art and startling beauty gave my writer’s voice its first breath. I was inspired by words and sentences for the first time.



. . . and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny? . . . if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

Photo: Sam PlantWhy, I wondered after I read that, had I never seen anything before? I don’t believe I hadn’t, but I made my own plans to see from that day forward. Her reflections left me breathless and wide-eyed: the frog sucked dry to mere skin by a giant water bug right before Dillard’s eyes; a still Osage orange tree suddenly released one hundred red-winged blackbirds; a mockingbird took a nosedive from a roof gutter straight toward the ground only to pull up seconds before death. She described the “night . . . knitting over my face an eyeless mask,” and boy howdy, I saw what she meant one starless night in Houston.

Soon thereafter, I moved into a small studio apartment with old wooden floors. I hung an Indian tapestry over the one big window in the main room. I marveled at how sunlight filtered through the fabric like fiery coals, threatening to lick the floor with flame and level my little home to ashes.

Now I dwell in the ‘burbs. Not as picturesque as Tinker Creek, but I still do this seeing, and I still revere this book. I reread the whole narrative from cover to cover, or I flip around and meditate on a paragraph or two. Either way, it is forever born again and new in a cyclical fashion. Oh, how a writer should see! There is so much to see and write and share — one just has to make the time.

I take a shower and see one long, thin vein of a spider web cascading from the ceiling light to top of the shower stall, glowing eerily with artificial light. You’d think I would knock it down, but I leave it for awhile, admiring the arachnid’s ingenuity.

My husband and I name a lizard who hovers on a window outside most nights. He’s “Marty.” Our cats peer with intent confusion, craving the prey. I walk into the kitchen and see Marty’s cousin swinging on a slat of the mini blinds on his tummy — no joke. He’s no threat to me, so I just let him swing in peace, tiny dots of eyes blinking. Would I have looked so closely before?

I often sit in a favorite chair and look to our backyard, praying for answers. Our tree and the neighbors’ trees sing and sway tipsy with praise. They shake off rain with sudden convulsions of tears, but for the joy of cleansing and the sun — healing and restoration. I move a rocking chair to the back porch and monarchs with fire-wings of grace flit overhead near enough to touch! The old wooden fence sings the sun through its weathered planks. I walk around my neighborhood to see all there is to see.

It all rings true. Jesus asked us to “look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” — to pay attention and not look past anything. The Bible is the icon of truth; beauty and tragedy are neighbors. Wars and persecutions; victories and loss; triumph and betrayal; violence and peace; and ultimately, death raised to life. These same realities echo through nature, and all things are made new.

And so, I see all there is to see not as mere scenery or just the weather, but creation: alive, speaking, waving, praising, mourning, groaning, awaiting redemption just like me. As a writer, and a Christian, I feel the weight of my responsibility to do as Dillard proclaimed:

. . . take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

I make my pilgrimage through what is truthful, beautiful, good, and tragic, and Annie Dillard is one of my lifelong guides.

Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, a drummer's wife, caretaker of three cats (Harley, Milo, and Lily Belle), writer, coffee/tea/wine-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a bird-watcher. This article was originally published on The Curator.

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