Wild again; or, On Dillard’s For the Time Being

It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Annie Dillard, and I don’t know why. I have loved her work so, and have rerereread Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and remember laughing out loud reading An American Childhood. Her poems haven’t done it for me so much, but her essays. Good lord.

But I had not read For the Time Being. I vaguely remember it coming out and having good intentions, and then, oops, 22 years go by. So I found it on the library shelf and grabbed it.

What a strange book it is. It seems an even closer and unmediated glimpse into her mind than the other books of hers I know. Short and long snippets of notes fling us from a clinical book on birth defects to standing in China amid the unearthing of the terracotta army to the stony streets of S’fat, Israel, with the ghost of Rabbi Akiva. We dig with Teilhard de Chardin and watch a NICU nurse bathe tiny, wrinkled, multicolored newborns. We learn about sand. We think about God.

Sometimes I think she’s the Delphic Oracle, among us still. Sometimes I think she must have been drunk. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Entries jostle each other, sometimes loop back around to each other, sometimes just sit on their own, leaving the reader to make connections as she can. Each chapter has almost the same group of subheadings: Birth, Sand, Encounter, Now, among others. This lends a slippery netting to the whole enterprise.

She’s irritable in this book, and bemused, she’s righteous, and amiable, argumentative, generous.

The book is a button box, clackety and multivarious. It’s irritating, bemusing.

I’m quite sure if I understood what she was saying, I would understand Everything. As it is, though, I’m never entirely sure what the hell she’s getting at. It’s confounding. I love it. I’m perplexed by it. I can’t wait to read it again.

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