Trellised

One of my favorite lines from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is an epigram from Goethe: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” Whenever I find myself burdened with tasks and thus sorely tempted to hurry, I remember this quote and slow down. Hurrying, I’ve found, doesn’t help me get things done any faster; instead, hurrying only frays my nerves, causing me to make clumsy mistakes that are counterproductive. Rather than wasting an ounce of energy on hurrying, when I’m busy I make a conscious effort to slow down and be meticulous. There’s a sweet spot between hurrying and resting where you are maximally effective, without any superfluous action.

Shopping cart

This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. I spent much of my 20s and 30s hissing and sputtering like a sparkler, with lots of flash and crackle, but very little targeted energy. In those days, I spent a lot of time running around looking busy, as if wringing my hands and complaining helped me get anything done. Only as I’ve grown older have I learned how to marshal my resources. When the hours are short and your to-do list is long, you can’t spare even a moment of misspent energy. Everything you do must be targeted: focused. There will be time to fret and panic later, after you’ve finished your tasks, but right now, it’s time to focus on the task at hand.

Reaching

These days I teach in the mornings, and I have about two hours of chores to do before I leave. Setting my alarm for what I call Zen Center hours–that is, wake-up at 5:00 am–means going to bed earlier than I do in the summertime, and it also means doing as much as I can to prepare for a full teaching day before my head hits the pillow the night before. On a good night, I prep my classes, pack my bag, and set out my clothes the night before so that everything is ready when I wake up. Like a firefighter answering a call, I slide swiftly down the pole of the new day, ready to face the exigencies of whatever arises.

Stretching

When you teach at multiple institutions, you learn very quickly how to be organized: if you don’t, you’ll end up at the wrong job on the wrong day with the wrong supplies. This year like last, I have my trusty laptop bag perpetually packed with teaching supplies, and this year, I’ve added an additional organizational element, packing a separate zippered pouch with the relevant textbook and teaching journal for each college where I teach. On any given morning–or, better yet, on any given night before–I slip the appropriate pouch into my bag, and I’m ready to go to whichever campus–this way or that–where I’m teaching at that day. As long as I remember what day of the week it is, I’ll steer my car toward the appropriate campus, and once I’m headed in the right direction, the rest of the day takes care of itself.

Cornered

Goethe’s proscription against resting doesn’t mean you have to perpetually busy yourself with busywork: pausing is not the same as resting. When I clean the litter box that two of our cats, Groucho and Scooby, share in a bedroom apart from our other cats, for example, I stop after moving the box from the wall and scrubbing the floor underneath. While waiting for the floor to dry, I sit with either a book or my iPod, quietly reading or checking email while either or both cats curl around me, pestering for petting. Stroking a cat isn’t mindless diversion but an intentional pursuit, your attention keenly focused on the creature rather than the task at hand. Just as walking meditation isn’t break from meditation, only a break from sitting, pausing to pat a pet is no less important than the chores that precede and follow.

Reaching and changing

That epigram from Goethe nicely dovetails with another quote Dillard includes in The Writing Life, this one credited to Michelangelo, who allegedly scrawled it on a scrap of paper found in his studio: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” No matter who you are or where you live, the days are short, with not a moment to spare. There never has been enough time, and nobody’s days are getting any longer. Given the sobering shortness of our days, why would we waste even a minute either hurrying or resting when we could instead focus on the task at hand?

Raindrops on crabapple blossoms

One of my teaching tasks this weekend is to re-read the first half of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which we’ll be discussing in my “Rivers and Literary Imagination” class this week. Pilgrim is a book I first encountered when I was an undergraduate in Ohio, and it’s a book I’ve re-read so many times, my original copy is literally falling apart. Even though I’ve replaced that original, well-worn copy with a newer edition so my students and I will be on the same page as we discuss the book, I’ve kept my old, yellowed copy with my old notes and underlinings: a tangible connection with whoever I was when I first read it.

Bejeweled

Over the years, I’ve downsized my personal library several times. When I was married, my then-husband and I frequently moved, and with each relocation I weeded through my stacks, selling or giving books away. When my then-husband and I divorced, one of the most painful parts of separation was the dividing of our already-diminished book collection into piles labeled “his” and “hers.” Whereas many of my tenure-track colleagues have offices whose walls are lined with bookshelves, as an adjunct I’ve always shared an office, so bookshelf space is at a premium. Unlike those of my teaching colleagues who still have copies of all books they’ve read, taught, or published research on, space constraints mean I occasionally have to do a book-purge, selling, donating, or giving away books I’ve read but don’t plan to revisit.

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a whole other story. Like my old, well-annotated copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, my disintegrating undergraduate copy of Pilgrim holds great sentimental value. Although I first heard of Dillard in an undergraduate Honors course titled “Ideas of the Natural World,” Pilgrim wasn’t a required text. Instead, it was on a list of recommended texts, and we each had to choose one title for an in-class presentation.

Raindrops on yew

From the list of texts, I chose to present on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I had read and enjoyed in high school, and a friend of mine randomly picked Dillard. I remember my friend saying in her presentation that she’d enjoyed the book, so when I saw a remaindered paperback copy at a local bookstore where I and another college friend would often walk, promising one another that we would not return to campus with yet another armload of impulse purchases, I had to break my promise and buy it.

That was at least 19 years ago, and I’ve lost touch with both college friends. The store where I bought my now-crumbling copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is now closed, in a city I’ll probably never have reason to visit again. When I bought that old remaindered copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I had no idea what role it would play in my life; indeed, I had no idea where life would take us, Pilgrim and me, in subsequent years.

Raindrops on rhododendron

When I pulled out my old copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to review its notes and underlinings this past week, I spent a long time studying the signature on the inside front cover: Lorianne DiSabato. I bought this book as a virginal undergraduate in Ohio, before I’d married, moved to New England, and eventually divorced. I still own a handful of books from my married days as Lorianne Schaub, and I have plenty of books I’ve purchased after I divorced and reclaimed my original last name. But a book that dates from my maiden days feels like a relic, a reminder of that Other Person from my past who shares my present name.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books I’ve read and re-read at so many different points in my adult life, the text itself has an accompanying personal history, a kind of marginal commentary in which I automatically remember Who I Was and What I Thought at the various times I revisited it. “How many a man,” Thoreau once asked, “has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and this woman, for one, can claim Pilgrim (along with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Thoreau’s own Walden) as one such book.

Rain on forsythia

The first time I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I wished I had written it; upon later re-readings, I grew convinced that I could have written it, had Dillard not beaten me to it. Given Dillard’s interest in nature and spirit, two of my own favorite topics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek articulates many of the ideas that existed as merely vague impulses until Annie Dillard gave them shape on the page.

Re-reading Pilgrim this time around, the text is so familiar to me, it almost feels like I did write it: just as I experience an odd kind of deja vu whenever I read something from my own blog archives, there’s a familiar nod of remembrance and recollection whenever I revisit some passage of Dillard’s that has nestled itself into my literary subconscious, a line or an image that rang so true the first time I read it, I felt Dillard must have been telepathic to have snatched the thoughts right out of my mind.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is about vision in every sense of the word, as I tried to explain in a graduate research paper I wrote about the book in 1996. So much of what I do these days as both a writer and photographer relies upon this sense of vision, re-reading Pilgrim feels like re-visiting my own creative manifesto. When you live by a creek, Dillard suggests, the constant flow of water and light presents an ever-changing panorama for you to observe and appreciate. If you keep your eyes open to this nonstop show, you can’t help but ask deeper questions about the source of this boundless creativity, and by asking these questions, you open yourself up to realizations you might have never anticipated.

Underneath

Although I live within easy walking distance of two rivers–the Ashuelot in Keene and the Charles in Newton–I don’t think you need to live by a creek or river to have the kind of epiphany Dillard recounts in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. All you have to have, I think, are wide-open eyes and a curiosity to match. I don’t know if any of my students will date a new era in their life by the reading of this book, but I secretly hope at least one of them does. I can imagine no sweeter thought than that perhaps one day nineteen years from now, one of my now-students will stumble upon her annotated copy of this book, now well-worn and crumbling, and wonder back upon the person she was when a simple paperback encouraged her to open her eyes.

Berries

Wednesdays are precious because I can sleep without an alarm clock, waking and then walking whenever the sun stirs me. On teaching days, Reggie and I walk in the dim-lit morning or after-dark evening, but on Wednesdays, we can visit in full daylight the various neighborhood landmarks we see only faintly on other days.

Stop both the wars

Reggie and I do very little exploring these days, tending to choose the same streets and sidewalks day after day: our usual route. It’s as if the purpose of our twice-daily dog-walks isn’t to explore new places but to discover what is different about the old ones: a process of getting re-acquainted with a long-familiar place.

They’re building two new houses at the end of the street, clearing the weedy field that Reggie and I occasionally use as a shortcut, leaving a narrow fringe of scrubby trees that still shelters our resident Cooper’s hawk. Losing yet another shortcut is just the latest change to our usual dog-walk route, the first being the fencing (and then the demolition) of the old abandoned factory on Water Street, where this morning a boring crew was working with a tall drill, preparing this lot for whatever its next incarnation will be.

Spire with foliage and flag

Land is too valuable for prime real estate to remain weedy and abandoned for long. The bike path Reggie and I have walked so many times on our way to or from downtown has been re-routed due to construction, the topography of its gentle slope–the low banks of an old railroad bed–taking on a new, unrecognizable shape. I can’t count the number of buildings that have sprung up–and are still arising–around Depot Square, with the new Moving Company mural pointing to the way Railroad Street has radically changed over the years I’ve lived in Keene.

Already, I have a difficult time remembering what the now-demolished portions of the warehouses at Beaver Mills looked like, their still-functional remnant being the only thing that remains. The old mill that was converted into retirement housing is finished and looks like it’s been here forever. Even the local basketball courts, whose construction necessitated the clearing of a row of birch saplings that felt like yet another loss when it happened in the months after my separation, now seem like they’ve been forever planted here, even acquiring their own fringing row of new birch saplings, narrow neighbors to replace the ones that were lost.

Facade with foliage

For every thing that passes, something arises in its place: this is the rule of both life and impermanence, the subtle and inextricable link between passing and continuance. The law of the living is that all things die; the law of the dead is that life goes on after you’re gone. Last night after dark, students in my Frontier in American Literature class sat discussing the string of deaths chronicled in Annie Dillard’s novel The Living, noting with quiet sadness the way that Ada Fishburn, one of the early-generation Puget Sound pioneers whose story the novel recounts, barely seems to mourn the sudden passing of her husband, Rooney.

Years before, en route to the Pacific Northwest, Ada’s young son, Charley, had died, crushed under the family’s own wagon wheels, and Ada and Rooney had quickly buried the child under a cottonwood tree in soil studded with the bones of previous emigrants. Soon after the burial, Ada, Rooney, and their surviving son had to move on, following their wagon train to the coastal frontier where Ada would bear two more children, lose one, then lose her husband in a well-digging accident: a numbing string of loss that leaves her resigned and reserved.

Fruit and foliage

My students are young: they think that death is a tragedy that slams your life to a grinding halt. Older folks know the wagon train always moves on, with new things replacing the things we’ve lost: death is a tragedy, but its stoppage of time is merely temporary. Once they’ve read further, my students will learn that Ada Fishburn remarries and becomes Ada Tawes; my students will probably think she never loved her first husband, given she’s able to replace him. But I know that life is simply a series of replacements, this present thing being a consolation for that past one: every day, not just this one, is precious, with each one replacing its predecessor. The shocking realization isn’t that death happens but that life goes on, inexorably, the river of time continuing to flow whether you’re on the bank, watching, or slipped into the stream, afloat. All we ever have is time: time that is fresh and virginal when we’re young and seasoned with the ritual of replacement once we’re older.