I didn’t finish the book; I didn’t want to rush it.
She talks about the nature of personal, spiritual, and material time… by way of evolution, Christian and Judaic teachings (and seers)–both Orthodox and Mystic, birth defects, a cruel and philanthropic Chinese emperor, a French Jesuit geologist, a baby-washing nurse in a neo-natal ward, the Grotto of the Nativity, the way different people have cataloged clouds and sand, what numbers we can count to and even comprehend. Dillard asks, what is the nature of God? What is the nature of us?
And somehow, no thread feels loose. Somehow, she manages to explain what Bird-headed dwarfism has to do with the ten-thousand clay soldiers buried in China. And what the wake of a speedboat can tell us about the limits of “eternity.” I could spend a week just contemplating all the fucking layers in the title alone. HOW DOES SHE DO IT? I don’t know, but I’m going to keep taking my time soaking it up.
Here are two passages.
“Now. There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time — or even knew selflessness or courage or literature — but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
“There is no less holiness at this time — as you are reading this — than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said “Maid, arise” to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.
“Purity’s time is always now. Purity is no social phenomenon, a culture thing whose time we have missed, whose generations are dead, so we can only buy Shaker furniture. “Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,” says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, “If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.””
“That mass killings and genocides recur on earth does not mean that they are similar. Each instance of human, moral evil, and each victim’s personal death, possesses its unique history and form. To generalize, as Cynthia Ozick points out, is to “befog” evil’s specificity. Any blurring is dangerous, if inevitable, because the deaths of a few hundred scholars or ten thousand people or one million or thirty million people pain little at diminishing removes of time and place. Shall we contemplate Chinese scholars’ beheadings twenty-three centuries ago? It hurts worse to break a leg.
“What, here in the West, is the numerical limit of our working idea of the “individual”? As recently as 1894, bubonic plague killed 13 million people in Asia — the same plague that killed twenty-five million Europeans five and a half centuries earlier. Have you even heard mention of this recent bubonic plague? Can our prizing of each human life weaken with the square of the distance, as gravity does?
“Do we believe the individual is precious, or do we not? My children and your children and their children? Of course. The 250,000 Karen tribespeople who are living now in Thailand? Your grandfather? The family of men, women, and children who live in central Asia as peoples called Ingush, Chechen, Buryats, and Bashliks? The people your address book tracks? Any other group you care to mention among the 5.9 billion persons now living, or perhaps among the 80 billion dead?
“There are about a billion more people living now than there are years since our sun condensed from interstellar gas. I cannot make sense of this.”
In completely unrelated news, I made good progress on the sweater and my burgeoning local rock collection. My mini-cohort and I also trekked into Fort Collins for provisions, which included fancy natural foods and Thai food for dinner. I managed to find a cheap pair of “travel” binoculars, so I hope to ID those little brown birds tomorrow.