Annie Dillard on Living in the Present

“The present is what your life is,” Mary Oliver famously wrote in her meditation on living in the now.

Annie Dillard (b. April 30, 1945) echoes this sentiment in her Pulitzer-winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s a meditative read that can pull you out of your head and into the present moment. A few days ago, I spent an evening flipping through its pages and instantly felt the need to share my favorite passages. Inhale, for example, this:

We tune in and out. But moments are not lost. Time out of mind is time nevertheless, cumulative, informing the present. From even the deepest slumber you wake with a jolt — older, closer to death, and wiser, grateful for breath.

You quit your seat in a darkened theatre, walk past the empty lobby, out the double glass doors, and step like Orpheus into the street. And the cumulative force of the present you’ve forgotten sets you reeling, staggering, as if you’d been struck broadside by a plank. It all floods back to you.

Yes, you say, as if you’d been asleep a hundred years, this is it, this is the real weather, the lavender light fading, the full moisture in your lungs, the heat from the pavement on your lips and palms — not the dry orange dust from horses’ hooves, the salt sea, the sour Coke — but this solid air, the blood pumping up you thighs again, your fingers alive.

Annie Dillard.

As we allow our senses to roam free unhindered by discursive thinking, we start to see our surroundings in a different light. Everything becomes more vivid, more alive, more present. We are grateful for just being. Annie Dillard writes:

I am absolutely alone. … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. …

Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleafed forest and rumpled rock in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow.

These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. … I am more alive than all the world.

Enclosed Field with Rising Sun by Vincent van Gogh.

When our attention plunges us deeper into the now, another process starts to unfold: a feeling of something greater than us permeates our bodies, taking us beyond the narrow confines of perceived reality. We feel one with the whole. Annie Dillard writes:

The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening. If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow. The sun’s surface is now exploding; other stars implode and vanish, heavy and black, out of sight. Meteorites are arcing to earth invisibly all day long.

On the planet the winds are blowing: the polar easterlies, the westerlies, the northeast and southeast trades. Somewhere, someone under full sail is becalmed, in the horse latitudes, in the doldrums; in the northland, a trapper is maddened, crazed, by the eerie scent of the chinook, the snow-eater, a wind that can melt two feet of snow in a day. The pampero blows, and the tramontane, and the Boro, sirocco, levanter, mistral. Lick a finger: feel the now.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.

Couple these mindful meditations from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with Henry David Thoreau on finding healing solitude in nature and then revisit Mary Oliver on living in the moment and Aldous Huxley on living in the present moment.

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