Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Anne Dillard’

My Left Hip

In Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on June 8, 2013 at 7:00 am

It’s two and a half weeks since I had a defective hip prosthesis replaced. I have progressed from walker to cane to, again, bi-pedal motion. Pulling myself around behind a walker was revelatory and akin to stepping into a fast-forward time machine. At one point I was visiting my aged father, both of us shuffling behind our aluminium buggies. Yesterday when I saw him (sans walker) he poignantly commented that it must be rewarding to make progress. Sadly, he reflected, progress is behind him.

The bum hip resulted from years of hard-ship athletics: competitive weightlifting, long-distance running, mountain climbing, and so forth. I spent substantial time in my (youthful) life ignoring the ancient call for moderation, shunning what the Buddha called the middle way. It was obsession or nothing, one obsession daisy chained to the next.

Two weeks prone in bed gives one opportunity for reflection.

* * *

“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less,” writes Anne Dillard. I was greedy. Guilty. Moderation, the middle way–that is the new horizon and I consider it with something less than obsession and more akin to meditation, like a snake shedding its skin.

As I’ve mentioned before, the question is not how to live, but how to think. One precedes the other naturally, but the logic of such a thing too often escapes us and we trudge forward living only.

* * *

Anticipating the surgery, a wise friend asked, “What are you going to do with this opportunity?” What a marvelous question! And I mean marvelous in the sense that I marveled over it: direct and simple and challenging. I could not outline how I might wrestle this question into order, but I embraced it openly and without constriction. It was, and remains, my wide-sky mantra.

The thing is, a question sometimes carries more portent in suspension. The answered question loses potential in resolution. Perhaps that is why the big questions remain, being so big as to constantly provoke and unsettle, never giving the pilgrim respite.

To wit: What are you going to do with this opportunity called life?

We are what we…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writing on August 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Anne Dillard

Schopenhauer famously said that we are what we eat. But for a reader things are a different matter. A reader’s muscle is composed of pages, bones of bindings, blood of ink, thread for sinew. A reader is made of books consumed.

There are armfuls of books that fill my cells, that course through my blood, pound against my temples from the inside. The best I return to, like a favorite meal, a metaphor Schopenhauer would surely understand.

I have returned to one such feast, Annie Dillard‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Pilgrim won the Pulitzer in 1974. Dillard was twenty-nine. It is a breath-taking and beautifully written book and fills my current appetite to better understand the physical world I move through. Allow me to share an extended quote:

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”

Not all meals are equally satisfying, of course. Nor is nutrition evenly spread. I like a hearty meal, something that sticks to my ribs. I am not humorless, but have few deserts; nor am I given to starch. The books of my life seem endless in metabolic energy; like nuclear fusion they will burn long after my departure. Walden comes to mind. The essays of Montaigne. The Great White Whale, Moby Dick. And so many others. I eat and am never satisfied. Fortunately.

I have a done a few things well…

In Creativity, Family, Life, Memoir, Writers, Writing on June 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm
The Writer's Web.

The Writer’s Web.

I had a college literature professor, Colin Campbell, who likened writers to spiders. Colin would sit behind his desk, his eyes dancing behind his thick glasses, his face expressive and smiling, while with his fingers he would make itsy-bitsy spider motions, like one does for young children, and declare, “The spider makes its web from nothing more than what’s in its gut. It yanks the silk from its spinnerets and weaves it into spokes and spirals, making a design only it can envision. It’s the same for the writer. He works from what’s in his gut.” Colin’s hands would rotate as the spider climbed up the downspout. The image has stayed with me for years and the appeal, romance even, of making something from nothing other than raw being has a powerful hold on me. Anne Dillard says that the writer simply needs life to work, not experience necessarily.

I have done a few things well. I have raised good kids. I have successfully nurtured my marriage. I have had a good run at business; a good run at the arts; a good run at sports, at travel, at friendship. I have tried to not measure my successes by quantifying productivity or building bank accounts or accumulating land or cars. Indeed, I have no viable measure for success. I am not even sure of the notion of success and find this itself to be troubling. Ironically, I am full circle. I am in high school and wondering what exactly to do with this life. I have realized Csíkszentmihályi’s flow on a few hard-earned occasions and remember them vividly. But as the zen master also told me, one cannot seek yet must still find.

We are fond of saying, If I knew then what I know now. The odd thing is, I don’t think I have much to bring to that adage. I know more now than I knew in high school. That much is obvious. But there is no intrinsic value to that experience such that I would render things different given an opportunity to rewind the last forty years. To the contrary, I am certain I would take the same paths, read the same books, travel to the same places, marry the same wonderful woman and so on. Is experience completely lost on me? Is it all inert? Does wisdom completely escape me? Sometimes it appears that way–but, again, I don’t think I’m alone on this.

I have spun out of my gut a life-web. It has been a life not necessarily purpose driven which puts me at odds with conventional wisdom. I like being at odds with conventional wisdom. As a general course I disdain the conventional and go out of my way to avoid it. This makes me either an iconoclast or a curmudgeon, perhaps both, I don’t know. They are not mutually exclusive and both can be worn as a badge of honor, but that in and of itself negates each.

Thanks for reading,