Mark vs Cancer

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Annie Dillard Is A Genius

(Here is some of the greatest prose ever written, the first paragraphs
of Annie Dillard's Pulitzer Prize winning essay, "Heaven and Earth In Jest".)

"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, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. 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.

It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm.  I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp.  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.  The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain.  I never knew.  I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I'd purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover.  We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence . . .   "Seem like we're just set down here," a woman said to me recently, "and don't nobody know why."

These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and drying air.  You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell.  But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you're lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing.

I still think of that old tomcat, mornings, when I wake.  Things are tamer now; I sleep with the window shut.  The cat and our rites are gone and my life is changed, but the memory remains of something powerful playing over me.  I wake expectant, hoping to see a new thing.  If I'm lucky I might be jogged awake by a strange birdcall.  I dress in a hurry, imagining the yard flapping with auks or flamingos.  This morning it was a wood duck, down at the creek.  It flew away.

I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia's Blue Ridge . . . It's a good place to live; there's a lot to think about.  The creeks--Tinker and Carvin's--are an active mystery, fresh every minute.  Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies:  the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.  The mountains . . . are a passive mystery, the oldest of all.  Theirs is one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given.  Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent.  You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will.  The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there.  But the mountains are home."

--excerpted from "Heaven And Earth In Jest" by Annie Dillard, 1974

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