(A) reporter interviewed me over the phone. “You write so much about Eskimos in this book,” she said. “How come there are so many Eskimos?” I said that the spare arctic landscape suggested the soul’s emptying itself in readiness for the incursions of the divine. There was a pause. At last she said, “I don’t think my editor will go for that.”
— Annie Dillard,
Afterward to the Twenty-Fifth Edition
of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I just finished A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It took me a while. Almost three months. The book is fewer than 300 pages. So I was averaging only a few pages a day. But it was so dense, so lush, that I quickly shifted from reading it like a book to reading it as if it were poetry. It is, in fact, poetry. The writing is beautiful. The meditations percolated in my head each day as I proceeded with my life.
The fact that I’d never heard of Annie Dillard or A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek embarrasses me deeply. But the way I found out about this remarkable work is the reason for this post, the first in a while. It’s not that I haven’t been up to anything. Quite the opposite. I have a new job. I’m the “storyteller” at Rural Action, a nonprofit here in Appalachian Ohio whose “mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in socially, financially, and environmentally sustainable ways.”
That’s how I met Annie Dillard. During my first week as storyteller, which basically means I get to tell the tales of how Rural Action is making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, whether it be through cleaning streams afflicted with acid mine drainage, or encouraging entrepreneurship, or providing fresh, local produce for Appalachians living in “food deserts,” I met with many of the key people who propel the organization, and I talked to them at length, trying to figure out what makes them tick, looking for stories and tales demanding to be told.
These conversations were fascinating and confirmed my belief that Rural Action is an organization that acts to improve things instead of whining about what’s wrong. One of these talks was with Joe Brehm, director of the environmental education program. That means he spends much of his time showing children (and sometimes adults) how much more gratifying it can be to peer into the squirming muck of a pond rather than to stare dumbstruck at a flickering screen. It produces stories like the Instagram photo above. It doesn’t take a storyteller to make that fascinating. A picture = a thousand words. Indeed.
In talking to Joe, he mentioned some of his influences, including A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. And Dillard is a Pittsburgh native. That sealed the deal. I went straight to the Athens Library and borrowed a copy.
A few days later, Joe showed up at my office and generously gave me a “spare” copy he had. I returned the library version and have been nibbling Dillard’s words most mornings for a half-hour or so before rising to feed the dog, clean up after the parrot and get ready to head in to work (a process that took me a while to re-adapt to after having been free range since my teaching stint at Ohio University ended and I declared myself “semi-retired.”)
But semi-retired wasn’t really working for me. I need something to throw myself into, and I’d been casting around in vain to find that something here in Athens. I tried a site dedicated to bikes and breweries but lost interest when I ratcheted back my beer consumption. I served on a local committee for several months but felt as if we spent most of our time talking about what needed to be done, not doing it. Then I came across Rural Action’s listing on Indeed.com. They were looking for a “storyteller.” I really wasn’t hunting for a job so much as an avocation. Something I could lean into. I knew vaguely of Rural Action, and most of what I’d heard was good. The deeper I dug, the more interested I became. So I sent them a résumé, not really expecting much to come of it since I knew I’d be competing with younger, more driven candidates and a tendency of most organizations to be understandably leery of overqualified old dudes seeking rank-and-file jobs.
But somehow we clicked. And three months later, I’m spending my days on tasks that range from assembling the Rural Rambler, our twice-monthly newsletter, to telling stories like the one about a pair of 13-year-olds who met Joe at 4H Camp one summer and became so inspired that now, 9 years later, the two young women are working in Rural Action’s AmeriCorps program, using nature to inspire youth as they once were inspired. The students become teachers. And two young people who might not have seen any reason to remain in Appalachia after graduating are still here, making a difference.
I’m starting to view Joe as Rural Action’s Johnny Appleseed, sowing his fascination with nature in everyone he encounters, leaving us all better for the encounter.
I still bristle occasionally at having to head in to the office each day, but even that is mitigated by the fact that my supervisor states emphatically that she doesn’t care where I work. I could work from home. But at my core, I really don’t want to. I love going in each day. Without exception, I work with inspired, smart, dedicated people who really want to make a difference in a world that seems to grow more indifferent daily.
But I digress. Back to Annie Dillard. And why I’m obsessing about her work. I knew intuitively as I read the book that she was wrestling with two views of god — one caring, nurturing, benevolent, the other indifferent, dark, perhaps even cruel. As Dillard notes, “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc.; that God possesses all positive attributes. I found the via negativa more congenial. Its seasoned travelers (Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth) stressed God’s unknowability. Anything we may say of God is untrue, as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God. Thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.”
I was deep into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’s via negativa when I received news that a childhood friend died. Curt was more than a friend. His three brothers and his sister were our next-door neighbors. They were like family. His oldest brother, Jim, was one of my dearest friends. I attended his funeral 30 years ago this October. Now another of the brothers was gone. Too soon. Senselessly. I was reeling as I drove to Pittsburgh for the funeral, and the meditations in Dillard’s penultimate chapter, “Northing,” ricocheted around my mind as I slipped into West Virginia, then back into Ohio, and finally into Pennsylvania, crossing the Ohio River multiple times before skirting southeast to avoid the dreaded Parkway West/Fort Pitt Tunnels at Friday rush hour and slip into Pittsburgh by following the Monongahela River up into McKeesport.
As I sat in St. Anselm’s — now renamed Word of God after the steel industry that was the Mon Valley’s rib cage rusted out, leaving a desiccated string of Catholic congregations clinging to the river’s steep banks, able to continue only by being mashed into a combined parish — I tried to remember the last time I had been there.
It was 30 years ago. For Jim’s funeral.
The organ rumbled solemnly as they guided Curt’s casket down the aisle, making Emily Dickinson’s words bubble to mind as she observed a shaft of light on winter afternoons that “oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes.” This is the Catholic church I grew up in, where I had my first confession, served as an altar boy, watched my brother marry. I long ago drifted from the faith, but my fascination with Catholicism’s medieval pageantry never waned. The stained glass. The robes. The sharp odor of incense. The splash of holy water. Autumn Pittsburgh sunshine streaming through stained-glass saints while the non- and lapsed-Catholic funeral attendees tried to remember if it was time to stand, sit, or kneel.
The priest bemoaned our discomfort at uttering the words “funeral” or “death”; we prefer instead to hold “celebrations of life.” It is important to remember, he told the mourners, that death also is worth celebrating. For Catholics, it leads to eternal salvation, the image of Curt and Jim hanging out around a campfire in Heaven, watching Gunsmoke and listening to UFO, waiting for us to arrive.
For Dillard, it conjures Eskimos.
“I had a curious dream last night that stirred me. I visited the house of my childhood, and the basement there was covered with a fine sifting of snow. I lifted a snow-covered rug and found underneath it a bound sheaf of ink drawings I had made when I was six. Next to the basement, but unattached to it, extended a prayer tunnel.
“The prayer tunnel was a a tunnel fully enclosed by solid snow. It was cylindrical, and its diameter was the height of a man. Only an Eskimo, and then only very rarely, could survive in the prayer tunnel. There was, however, no exit or entrance; but I nevertheless understood that if I — if almost anyone — volunteered to enter it, death would follow after a long and bitter struggle. Inside the tunnel it was killingly cold, and a hollow wind like broadswords never ceased to blow. But there was little breathable air, and that soon gone. It was utterly without light, and from all eternity it snowed the same fine, unmelting, wind-hurled snow.”
As I transcribed that passage, Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” filtered into Innisfree, the cabin I call home. The days are growing shorter. Acorns and black walnuts bounce off the shingles like popcorn kernels in a microwave. Leaves flutter gently earthward in the late September breeze. Stink bugs queue up on the screen door, waiting for opportunity to knock.
The soul is emptying itself. Bring on the divine.