Friday, April 27, 2012

religion, nature, and the world of human interaction

Finished Phineas Redux, which was not at all as dire as I remembered. I had forgotten there is a murder trial!

Then I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. I approached it with some trepidation: Holy the Firm affected me profoundly, but it is only eighty pages long and I remember being aware that more than eighty pages would have begun to tax my patience. And, indeed, this turned out to be the case. Dillard is highly invested in showing how violent nature is, so we get tale after tale of creatures - insects, mostly, and I am at my girliest when confronted with disgusting insects - spawning and swarming and killing in horrible ways. Ironically (given the two authors' stances on evolution; more on that below), it made me want to read Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation again, because although that often deals with matters not for the squeamish, it's never anything but fascinating. Dillard is just trying to shock her readers, as she says openly.

My copy was a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, so there is an afterword by Dillard saying that she is a little embarrassed by the book and is well aware that, at twenty-seven, she never thought a sentence done until it was completely overdone. This self-awareness made me a bit more forgiving of the language which I had found overwrought, although the tone of the afterword is too pretentious to be endearing, and she adds a deeply snotty paragraph saying that "someone" decided that her book should be school reading, but that it's far too difficult for teenagers and this decision is the only reason few adults read it. I probably would have loved this book when I was a teenager, particularly if I'd come across it during my religious-crisis phase.

And speaking of religious crises... there's nothing wrong with God in a believer's writing, but in Pilgrim Dillard is constantly asking, baffled, "Why would the creator make a creature this way?", when, well, there are obvious and simple reasons why evolution would make it that way. Her refusal to acknowledge evolution when discussing behaviors in nature is her right, but it makes her protests that she really does want to know WHY either wilfully exasperating or obnoxiously grandiose: she moons about moaning that There Is No Answer to things which absolutely have a biological explanation that she isn't willing to accept, so all the questioning comes across as the petulant demand that a burning bush appear to her and explain God's thought process on everything from leviathan-hooking on down.   

Your feelings about this may vary depending on your relationship to faith, of course, but I have no patience at all for those who think that knowledge, scientific or otherwise, is antithetical to wonder. In my experience it adds immensely to wonder, and I have never fallen in love or maintained a lasting friendship with anyone who doesn't light up when learning something fascinating. Someone sitting by a creek saying, "My god is a terrible god because he has created swarms, and humans will never fathom why," is, in my opinion, expressing a desire not to learn. You can believe in a god, and even think that your god is a terrible god because it is so difficult to survive in this world that species had to develop swarming behaviors for their genetic propagation to be possible. You don't have to think, "I will never understand this and the wonder is that I will never understand." I mean, you're free to, but your book will be boring.

God is in Holy the Firm, as you might imagine, but it's all pared down. That book is primarily about the beauty and the language, and not about how God owes Annie Dillard a personal apology for the giant water bug. The reason I read Holy the Firm was because Jon Krakauer used the following quote as a chapter header in Into the Wild:

We sleep to time's hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it's time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it's time to break our necks for home.

There are no events but thoughts and the heart's hard turning, the heart's slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.

That? That I can get behind.


I traveled a bit this week, just down to Pennsylvania. It did mean kenneling the dogs, which I found traumatic because I am a crazy dog lady. Darcy, who has abandonment issues (understandably, given that he was abandoned by his previous owners), did not want me to leave. Bingley, who is well aware that the kennel means playing with lots and lots of other dogs, felt I couldn't leave fast enough.

While down there I went to a Scythian show; they are a ridiculously talented band whose performances are pretty much the beginning and end of my interest in live music (in theory I frequently desire the amazing energy and good-will which can be generated by a crowd of people loving a live performance; in practice I'm a sober anxious early-to-bed type and one drunk dude can ruin an entire environment for me). I went alone, since the friend with whom I'd planned to go was sick.

Methods of handling stranger-interactions vary by region. In New England everyone carefully ignores each other. In the Midwest they will ask you your life story (Claudio and I were once trapped by a Madison salesclerk who was apparently not going to hand over our purchases until she had learned enough about us to write our biographies; Claudio finally said, "We're from Boston; your friendliness is scaring us"). In New Mexico, my place of origin, people will discuss the situation / environment, but never each other. If you're in a queue or a waiting room, it is completely acceptable to turn to the person next to you and talk about the fact of the queue or the waiting room. Not in a huffy, impatient, why-are-they-so-incompetent way (which I hate), but in a cheerfully rueful, we're-in-this-together way. But you do not exchange any personal information, ever.

So I can do the conversation with strangers, to a degree. I can walk up to a group of two or three people and ask where they're from, how long they've been following the band, etc. And all the fans I talked to were friendly and charming. But I was thrown every time when, after about twenty minutes of conversation, the person I was talking to said, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."

Right, I thought. It is traditional to exchange names. But it does not come naturally to me to offer my name up when first meeting someone. I feel as if it is not infringing on anyone to discuss the situation in which we have found ourselves, but the minute I hand over my name, I am expecting them to acknowledge me on a different level: not just as a fellow passenger for a period of time, but as [Beatrice], who exists outside of this context. I am sure that no one asking my name is getting this metaphysical about it; they just want to know how to refer to me during our time together. But, like most socially anxious people, I have a terror of pushing myself in where I am not wanted, and so always start out by trying to be useful, in the sense of providing amusing commentary or being helpful (I started a conversation with one girl by offering to help her with her club wristband). There's nothing wrong with that, but I should probably stop being surprised when someone who finds me interesting enough to have been talking to me for twenty minutes wants to know my name.

Anyway. The show was fantastic and everyone I talked to, band members and fans alike, was so sweet that I am still feeling a distinct sensation that People Are Good At Heart. Going places by myself and feeling welcome is crucial to me at this period of my life, so I value this experience a lot.

That doesn't mean I didn't get up at four o'clock yesterday morning and break my neck for home, because I did. The dogs and I had a joyous reunion, and the lady in the cat food aisle who gave the stink-eye to my kneeling down on the floor to hug them and saying aloud, "I missed you too!" can bite me. Angels unawares are good, and entertainment by them reassuring in a cold world; two known and furry angels are the reason I still believe in love.  

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