Review: Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready at hand? 


11267356_10153394507532277_2482322936456810272_nIn 1975, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard retreated to an island in Puget Sound, vowing to write a book about whatever happened during her first three days there. After two years, she finished Holy the Firm, a slim tour de force about the self-sacrificial nature of art, the metaphysical problem of pain, and the deep-down holiness of the natural world. Though richly poetic, Dillard’s imagery is also violent and visceral. Mimicking the sacrifice of the artist, a moth gives its life to a candle’s flame, becoming a supplemental wick; and little Julie Norwich, only seven years old, loses her face to the fire of a plane crash. Though Dillard warns us that “nothing is going to happen in this book,” somehow everything happens at once, as seemingly insignificant moments are elevated to a sacred and earth-shattering importance.

I came to Holy the Firm with higher than high expectations due to my dear friend Shelby‘s obsession with deep admiration for Dillard and her writing. That’s always a risky starting place — what if it’s not as good as I was led to believe? However, Dillard captivated me on her own merit, living up to even the most glowing recommendation. Despite its far-reaching themes, Holy the Firm is remarkably cohesive. Every sentence, every word, acts as a functioning cog in the book’s machine; no quote holds the same power when divorced from its context. And whittled down to a mere 76 pages, it never suffers from unnecessary wordiness — each word is carefully chosen, essential, and packed with precise meaning.

At the heart of Holy the Firm is the assertion that art (especially Christian art) must be painful, exhausting, and emptying, or nothing at all. If we are to become artists, we must surrender ourselves like the moth to the flame of the work, obliterating ourselves to become the lights of the world. I think she’s right, whether one’s art is her writing or her life itself. If you are an artist, a Christ-follower, or both, “you can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax. . . . ” Of course, this is easier said than done, and I have not even begun to master it. But if we view ourselves as conduits for God’s work, as wicks rather than flames, won’t the Kingdom be better lit?

Holy the Firm is a difficult book. It reads like poetry, and like poetry, it refuses to surrender its meaning without a fight. I found myself taking long pauses, reading and rereading paragraphs, trying to connect the dots between one image and another — and truthfully, I still don’t understand some of it. But unlike some (I’m looking at you, William Faulker), Dillard manages to invite rather than alienate. She deserves a reread (or two, or three), and I’m willing and anxious to give it to her.

Review: Home by Marilynne Robinson

“You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. Her father had said this more than once… If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace.” 


Marilynne Rhomeobinson’s Home, like its Pulitzer Prize-winning companion Gilead, deals with the complicated relationships in a small Iowa town in 1957. While its predecessor centered on the elderly Reverend John Ames, Home offers a closer look at Ames’ prodigal “son in the faith,” John Ames “Jack” Boughton. Returning home for the first time in twenty years, Jack struggles toward reconciliation with his father, despite the sins of his youth and the religious differences between them. Acting as mediator is the Boughton family’s youngest sister Glory, now thirty-eight and come home to care for the aging Reverend Boughton. Both Jack and Glory wrestle through the painful nostalgia of homecoming, attempting to forge adult lives in the midst of childhood memories.

Robinson’s style reads like honey: slow and smooth and sweet. Where Gilead frames itself as a letter from Ames to his son, Home follows a more traditional third-person narrative centered on Glory, but it lacks none of Robinson’s trademark contemplation. Glory herself, just a minor character in Gilead, shines as a strong female protagonist. I felt a kinship with her, even though I’m nearly twenty years younger — coming home from school after a year of growth and change feels a lot like coming home to Gilead. The tensions and discomforts Robinson describes are bittersweet and real.

I love Gilead. After two reads, it’s earned a coveted five-star rating on my Goodreads page, an honor I rarely bestow on any book. Part of Gilead‘s wonder for me lies in Robinson’s masterful ability to capture Ames’ voice and the subtlety of his motivations, and by giving up the first-person narration, Home loses a bit of that incredible depth. (We also don’t see nearly as much of Ames, and after 300+ pages I’d grown very attached to him!) Nevertheless, Robinson’s strength, above and beyond her gorgeous prose, is her characterization. The people of Gilead act like, well, people — never hollow or contrived. We don’t always understand them (even after reading two novels about him, I don’t necessarily understand Jack Boughton), but we believe in their reality. We empathize with Glory, and we join her in her struggle to empathize with Jack. We care, care deeply, and in my opinion that’s worth just as much as strength of style.

The thematic lynchpin of the book is the fragile connection between understanding and forgiveness; in Robinson’s estimation, forgiveness comes first. Is that right? Does forgiveness help us understand those who have offended us, or do understanding and empathy empower us to forgive? I couldn’t help thinking of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (a very different book), which clearly takes the opposite tack — long story short, Ender’s empathic link with his alien enemies, his understanding of them, renders him unable to hate them. Who’s right? Truthfully, the answer’s probably somewhere in the middle. Empathy is a powerful tool, but despite our best efforts, the people in our lives are under no obligation to make sense to us — but this doesn’t excuse us from our obligation to love and forgive.

Like life itself, Home offers little in the way of conventional resolution, but it rings with a simplicity and honesty most novels can’t hope to match. If it didn’t quite meet the standard set by Gilead, it’s still a heartful, masterful novel, well-worth reading and recommending.

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Postcards

I almost didn’t write this, because I don’t know that I have the right to. Others are experiencing a depth of grief at losing Nicholas Smith that I cannot imagine — the loss of a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a best friend. People keep asking me if I knew Nicholas well, and every time I’ve felt a pang of regret at answering, “No, not too well.” He was a beau for my club, and we were on a first-name basis. We waved at each other in the hallway, made small talk, excitably discussed Doctor Who once in a while. That was all. I wish I could go back.

Nevertheless, Nicholas blessed me while he was here and is continuing to bless me now, even from so far away. I feel like I need to write this — I need to thank him for it somehow.

I did spend plenty of time near Nicholas, if not really with him. He rarely missed a Chi Kappa Rho meeting or function; we must have been in the same room countless times. Most of my memories of him are not interactions between us, but moments I was simply there to witness. Last fall at a mixer in the McInteer, I turned around to see him dangling from the first platform of the rotunda stairs. He had jumped up when no one was looking to grab the lip of the landing with his lanky arms. During club week, he performed an energetic lip-synch of The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” complete with original choreography. He must have loved BOX, but I saw firsthand how much he loved Chi Kappa Rho.

He made us laugh. He was so alive.

When we got the news that Nicholas had been killed, it seemed impossible. I have never known anyone who died who wasn’t supposed to. Several years ago we lost my grandpa after a long, slow battle with cancer — an altogether different kind of loss. Long before Grandpa passed, I understood that he was going to die. Nicholas’ death made no sense, still makes no sense. Death happens to the elderly, or to the sick, or at least to people I don’t know. It doesn’t happen to people like Nicholas, so full of energy and promise.

On Sunday night I found myself next to a roaring fire, commemorating Nicholas’ life with my XKP sisters and with his brothers in BOX. It had been a rainy weekend, and the wood had been damp. As someone poured kerosene onto the logs, the flames would flare a brilliant orange, leaping up to catch the lip of the black country sky. When the kerosene burned off, they would diminish again until only a crackling, reddish glow remained.

Huddled around the fire, we began to sing — not songs of mourning, but songs like “Be Unto Your Name” and “Awesome God.” It struck me as odd at first; I had expected “Blessed Be Your Name,” something that on the loss we all shared. But instead, we sang to God about Himself, His power and faithfulness, His salvation and protection.

Something began to stir in my heart as we sang those words, a realization. In Greek there are two different words for “know.” The word οιδα means a factual knowledge, but γινωσκω means a knowledge received from experience. Oιδα means that I know the Eiffel Tower exists; γινωσκω means I have stood at the top and gazed over the rooftops of Paris.

I have οιδα knowledge of God’s promise to save me, that when the angel of death comes for me he will see the blood of Christ on my doorframe and pass over my soul. I believe in the truth of that promise. But Nicholas, so full of life, so drenched in God’s grace — Nicholas has γινωσκω now, a depth of knowledge that I can’t ever have here. Nicholas looked into the eyes of death and saw that it had no power over him. Now that he has seen the face of God, he is beyond doubt’s reach.

I envy Nicholas that, because sometimes my faith feels weak and faded. Sometimes οιδα doesn’t seem to cut it, and the beautiful promises start to sound like worn-out clichés. But standing by the bonfire, something stoked the dying embers in my heart and breathed the life back into them. I fiercely believed those promises in that moment, because I know Nicholas. Though I can’t know anything about heaven by experience yet, I know someone who is there at this very moment, gazing with adoration into the face of his Savior. It’s like getting a postcard from the Eiffel Tower. I’ve never been there, but I’m sure it exists — someone I know is there right now.

Thank you, Nicholas, for your life — and thank you for the postcard. Someday I’ll meet you there.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” -Hebrews 12:1

January

The new year lies before me
like a frost-glass pond,
its sleepy surface silent
while its pregnant belly teems
with life as yet unseen,

and I don’t know
whether friend or foe
waits beneath the ice,

but I have laced my skates.

Theophany

It’s raining. 

Through three months of a harsh Arkansas winter, I have positively ached for spring, for warm weather and the sweetness of dogwood-scented air. I’m ready for the rain to collect not in sheets of ice, but in puddles that I can splash in. Today, the storm is lumbering through the sky, powerful but peaceful, like a mother bear coming out of hibernation. Her thunder doesn’t roar; it just yawns. 

The delicious dripping of the rain is distracting me from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, homework for my Victorian Lit class, but I can’t force myself back into that dreary world. By putting his heroine through every problem a Victorian woman could possibly face, Thomas Hardy aims to prove his truly tragic point of view. Through this lens, God either does not exist at all, or He is malevolent, playing with humanity’s sorrows like pawns in a sadistic game. (Isn’t Thomas Hardy technically the one causing Tess’s suffering? Who’s malevolent now?)

Right now, as the lightning flickers through my window, I can’t see God playing with our sorrows– only with the flash on His celestial camera. That’s what my parents used to tell me, anyway. Those white forks of electricity burning through the sky are only God, taking pictures of me from heaven. Now that I’m older, though, I think they might have gotten it backwards. Maybe it’s God inviting me to take pictures of Him.

Tonight the campus library department is hosting a Faith and Film conference to look at how the Father shows up in the movies. As a storyteller, I’m enthralled by these kinds of discussions. In Christ all things hold together; not only my salvation and the storm clouds, but the creative imagination, too. It only follows that all truly good stories will echo His story, whether their authors intend the reference or not. All creation is telling that story.

These echoes bounce off the walls of the Starbucks community room, threads in the Story’s tapestry. We leave no genre untouched. In the death of Darth Vader and the redemption of the good man Anakin Skywalker, we get an other-earthly look at God’s saving power. When Walt Disney’s Beast transforms into a man, saved by the power of true love, we look to Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature…” Lewis and Tolkien make their obligatory appearances, affirming story, myth, fiction, Middle-Earth, and Narnia as windows into the Eternal. If God is the underlying structure of the world (and He is), good stories are cracks in the earth, allowing us to catch a glimpse of His glory.

By the time I step back out into the rain-kissed night, I’m pulsing with the joy of being not just a Christian, not just a writer, but both. More than anything, I want to carve one of those cracks in the earth myself, to let the Story shine in one more place. The cool Arkansas air, still fragrant and pure from the rain, nuzzles my skin. The stars, glinting in the velvet night, declare the glory of God. So does Star Wars. So did the thunderstorm. So will I. 

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Dogwood

The bell has long since rung,
but these dogwood trees
(more puppies yet than dogs)
with their begging bark
call out to me, “Stay —
stay outside and play.”
My bag, heavy with Tennyson,
Aristotle, the Apostle Paul
(dog lovers all, I imagine)
tugs at its twin leashes
around my collarbones,
but I, living to obey
the Master who made dogwoods
speak to me, I plant myself
in springtime, sit, and stay.

Yet

I am not yet a poet,
merely
a girl throwing words out
of windows,
hoping they learn
to fly.

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Crown Him with Many Crowns

Stressed, exhausted, and caked with fake blood, I sit in the house of my school’s theatre, waiting with the Macbeth cast for our Wednesday night devotional to start. Next to me sits a witch, her face painted like a skeleton, varicose veins snaking down her arms. A moment ago she was stabbing Banquo over and over again, trying to get the timing down. Later tonight, she will conjure apparitions, bring Satan’s voice from the depths of hell. Macbeth himself sits a few rows down from me, having already murdered several innocents. Now, we’re going to worship God.

Our director, not missing the irony of the situation, challenges us to rise above the gore surrounding us and set our minds on things above. Moments later, our voices are rising through the fog that’s been flooding the stage for days now, their melodies a welcome light in the mirky darkness. Here, against the backdrop of our story’s tragedy, the words of our songs strike me with new poignancy.

“Lord, reign in me; reign in Your power.”

“Hosanna, You’re my King.”

“Worthy is the Lamb, seated on the throne. Crown You now with many crowns; You reign victorious.”

If you’ve read or seen the Scottish play, you’ll remember Macbeth’s insatiable desire to ascend the throne of Scotland and secure his line for generations. In pursuit of this goal, he murders all who stand in his way, even his best friend.  We watch this descent into madness and it shocks us, because we’re not murderers. We don’t care about the throne of Scotland. We can’t imagine how anyone could commit such heinous crimes.

But now I’m realizing that so many times in my life, I have been Macbeth.

When I tell myself I don’t want any thrones, I’m lying. I may not covet political power, but just like every other member of the human race, I love to sit on the throne of my own life. My tragic flaw, like Macbeth’s, is my unquenchable thirst for control. I, too, have supplanted the King and His Son and set myself in power. It doesn’t turn out any better for me than for Macbeth. Each time, my best plans go awry, Birnham comes to Dunsinane, and I am defeated.

In his final battle the tragic villain, knowing his end is coming, shouts in rage, “I will not yield to kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet!” He’s so maddened by his power that he prefers dying as a treacherous king than living as a faithful subject. Would the young prince have spared Macbeth’s life had he surrendered? Shakespeare never tells us, but I do know of another King who lets the penitent traitors live.

So we, cast and crew and church, penitent traitors, sit and sing God’s praises in the Ulrey. We kiss the ground at Christ’s nail-pierced feet, and crown Him with many crowns.

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From the Pens of Babes

“The Sibling Shell has been made one. Brother, behold your sister. Sister, behold your brother.”

That gorgeous sentence comes straight from the climax of a story I found in an old notebook this week. Based on the handwriting, I judge that my co-authoress and I must have been about eight. The literary masterpiece in question, aptly titled “The Sibling Shell,” stars thirteen-year-old orphaned twins Sean and Judy, separated by the latter’s totally irresponsible decision to run away to California. After thrilling (read: painful) accounts of a shark attack, a presumed death, and a botched news report, the pair finally find each other again when their magical shell necklaces connect. Shazam.

Other notebooks contained solo efforts by yours truly. I found several fairly nondescript chapters describing the life of a girl named Rose in Hawaii (think Lilo and Stitch without the dysfunction… or the Stitch). Yet another gem starred the tomboyish Princess Wincella in her quest to overthrow the wicked sorceress Rubella. For whatever reason, I actually found “Wincella” to be an appealing name at age nine. Fear not, future offspring. That phase is behind me.

At eleven and twelve, I had moved on to slightly more sophisticated concepts: a genie who lives in a mechanical pencil instead of a bottle (her name was “Constellatia”), a magical land called Renyah (no relation to Kenya), and a Cinderella retelling that I’m sure I thought was unique at the time. I found a few ideas that might actually be worth revisiting, but for the most part, my early efforts… stunk. Cringeworthy though these writings might have been, here’s the thing: I wrote. I wrote prolifically, constantly. Apparently undaunted by lack of knowledge or creativity, without second-guessing the quality of my work, I wrote. I wrote for the love of writing.

Nowadays I tend to wait around for the best idea or the perfect wording. After letting a concept ruminate for a day or two, I often decide it’s not good enough, not creative enough, not flowing easily enough… so I give it up. The spark of excitement the potential story offered quickly disappears.

And I hardly ever write.

So here’s my personal writing challenge for the new year: Write with the reckless abandon of an eight year old. Disregard the ruthless naysayer in your head; she hasn’t known you very long anyway. Write even when your idea is ridiculous, even when your prose is atrocious, even when every word you type is fighting to stay inside your head. Years later, you’ll probably find that old notebook and wince at your shaky stories– but you’ll have something to look back on.

(But to reduce the wincing, avoid names like “Wincella.” Trust me on this one.)

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