Inspiration: Annie Dillard

We all need people who inspire us, whether heroes, models, mentors or friends. During the WordCount Blogathon Speed River Journal will present a special Saturday feature profiling people I admire. These are all living people whose work relates directly or indirectly to the environment. Whether by courageous action or quiet passion, they encourage me to believe in making the world a better place.

Annie Dillard photo by Phyllis Rose
Annie Dillard, photo by Phyllis Rose

The winter of 1995 and 1996 was the darkest season of my life. I was a conservative Christian recovering from debilitating depression. The illness had forced me to stop fighting my sexuality and accept that I was gay. The decision had cost my marriage, church community and all my friends. I feared losing access to my two daughters, who were 2 and 4. I was 31, deeply homophobic, terrified and alone.

However, I happened to be reading a book of supernal beauty. My desire to become a nature writer had led me to Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is a modern book-length essay in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. She based it on journals kept around Tinker Creek at her home near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. She reflects on observations of nature in order to comtemplate mystical ideas about God.

I had often done the same. During my own rambles around the Speed River and woodlands near Guelph, I often felt relief from loneliness and fear. My sexual orientation is irrelevant in the big scheme of things. My unhappiness was not a punishment from God but a consequence of brokenness in society, particularly intolerance.

Church had taught me life is worth nothing compared to eternity. Dillard argues living is all we know, and not to be wasted. From the book I adopted this line as my life motto: “These are our few live seasons. Let us live them purely as we can, in the present.”

Much water has flowed under Guelph’s bridges since then. My ideas have diverged from Dillard’s theology. The notion of an all-powerful creator who needs our allegiance seems to reflect human egotism more than perfect love. One February afternoon on the bank of the Eramosa River, it hit me: I do not believe in God anymore. It was another frightening, lonely epiphany. We believe what we must in order to face the brutality of life and death. By then I had enough hope in life itself to guide me.

I have not lost gratitude for survival nor reverance for what happened. I owe my life to the writer of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her clarity, eloquence and compassion will always inspire me as a writer.

I had the privilege of meeting Dillard briefly. When For the Time Being was released in 1999 to mark the 25th anniversary of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she gave a reading at Toronto’s Harbourfront. I attended. This beautiful, effervescent, funny woman seemed much at odds with the contemplative, monkish narrator I knew. Writers and their voices often seem like different people.

In the long queue for book signing, I had time to choose my words. Too much time would be unfair to scores of others in line behind me. Arriving at the table, I handed her the new book first and held Pilgrim up like a placard.

“This book!” I said, then repeated it for emphasis: “This book gave me something to believe in at the darkest time of my life.”

Her face shone as we traded books. I don’t remember her words: something about making it all worthwhile.

Then she signed it: “For Van: This book!”

Next week: Poet, cultural critic and farmer Wendell Berry.



9 thoughts on “Inspiration: Annie Dillard

  1. I confess I hated Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim on Tinker Creek. Hated it. I thought it went on and on and on about too much detail when I first read it about 11 years ago. You’ve given me pause to consider trying it again. Maybe my mind is in a better place than it was back then.

    1. The writing is very personal, so it is bound to hit different people in different ways at different times. There have been quite a few supposedly great books I hated, like Life of Pi. It’s interesting to hear other people’s reactions to books I have liked.

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