A Memoir

I am reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard’s memoir won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1975 so I assume her writing is wise, and I might learn from it. The book conveys her thoughts on “solitude, writing, and religion” and has been categorized as a study of “theodicy”. I had to look up the word, as I hadn’t stumbled upon it before or if I had, its meaning slipped out my brain along with where I put my extra key for the shed. In case you suffer from vocabulary shrinkage, theodicy literally translates into justifying God. I’m only nicely into the book, so I can’t confirm by my own assessment if her writing is wise, but … it certainly got me thinking.

I speak only for myself when I make assumptions about human nature. I hope that is abundantly clear. I have no sharper picture of the world than any other and I would emphatically say my view of the world is not clear at all, but rather what I have assessed from my own seriously flawed human view. But I rely on my thoughts, tweaking and revising my opinions, when wisdom creeps in from experience and observation. My life has been occupied more with questions than answers.

Memoir writing can be described as recounting the highlight reel of one’s life, looking back and lifting out those events that shaped us, by pain or elation or both. But in that mix of one’s life are a lot of days that are ordinary, where nothing much happens aside of going about one’s business of being alive.

My childhood was filled with a considerable amount of solitude while growing up on a farm. I’ve lived very few days of my life in an urban setting. I think that shifts how we view the world and how we interact with it. I have never occupied a space inside a crowd where I felt a member, felt I was a cog in its collective engine. I haven’t minded that, but I have wondered at times what that sort of belonging might feel like. The introvert side of me experiences intense discomfort in large crowds but I do enjoy watching, while pulling at the threads that give me clues as to who the individuals in such a crowd are.

Inside my solitude, I spent a lot of time in my farm’s forest. I knew the trees as individuals, as friends, knew the shape of their leaves and the colour they turned when the days got short. I followed the well-worn paths around them while imagining I was Robin Hood on some days and Ivanhoe on others. It was an idyllic time. The trees were large, the undergrowth barely existent. The creek wandered through, making its way left and right until it finally found the river. A tree had fallen over the creek, creating a natural bridge, just for me I decided, as if it planned its own demise in answer to my need to cross the narrow span of water, water that hurried in the spring, but dallied in the summer. When I first took my repose on the tree’s substantial trunk, I felt very much alone in the woods, as if it was my own kingdom, my solitary property over which I reigned, but while I grew quiet and listened, I realized I shared the space with a host of other living things, who may or may not have taken any notice of me due to my insignificance, and I was fine with that. We existed in a parallel sense, me observing and enjoying their company, while they took care of their necessities.

One day in October, the oranges and the yellows on the birches and maples on the other side of the river, in Minnesota, were so brilliant and the sun just right that the reflection in the river seemed more real than image. I think of that day often. It happened only the one time that I recall, with such perfection, yet it defined the whole of my memory of living along Rainy River, as if that reflection was available to me every single day and I might fill the pages of my own memoir with the details of that single moment. Maybe that is why some are driven to write memoir, to understand the moments in our life that occupy the front page, the headlines. All too often we let those remarkable days slip away as we fret about what is going wrong around us. Today, I choose to remember the reflection and I’ll let all the other noise that is bumping into me fall silent.