Sunday, October 17, 2021

Love Letters to My Life #40: Words that opened a new door

(We know the day we were born, but most of us do not know the day we will die. This love letter to my life is written on the day I've designated as my death day: the 17th of every month, and reminds me to be grateful for my incredible life.)  

 "One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreaming.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance...I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck."

  -- Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek

I think I had just turned 30 when I bought Annie Dillard’s book and read the passage about the tree with lights in it. It threw me into a tailspin. What was she talking about? I read and re-read that passage; copied it into my journal; turned it upside down and backward. Still I was mystified.

Years passed and I kept looking at trees, trying to find the one with lights in it. And, then, there it was in Yosemite. Long-needled Jeffrey pines catching morning sunlight as if plugged into their own solar panels. I rejoiced in my new awareness and spent (and continue to spend) endless attempts to capture those lights with my camera. 

One Christmas as we headed to June Lake for skiing, I was telling the girls about Annie Dillard and her tree when we turned a corner and there it was again. A huge pine completely wrapped in twinkling lights. It made me laugh, but also made me realize that what Annie was talking about wasn’t strings of Christmas lights and wasn’t sunlit needles. 

It was Annie having an enlightened moment, a moment of seeing with new eyes. I was never going to see that particular amazement because it was Annie’s. 

I admit glowing pines still stop me in my tracks; I still yearn for that moment when the world shimmers all my cells into a connected network of wonder and delight.

This yearning feels like the pain of unrequited love, a tightening in my chest, salt-water brimming my eyes, knowing I may never experience that particular grace. I wonder if it would have been better to not know about the trees with lights, to not feel the emptiness of not being able to glimpse that miraculous world shown to others?

And then I think of my life without even the possibility of seeing those light-filled trees and all I can do is be grateful for having a new door cracked opened. That brilliant passage changed me, made me a seeker, lured me into new realms of wonder, opened me up to the beauty that surrounded me.

So, this is my long neglected, but heartfelt thank you to Annie Dillard, a remarkable seer who gave me a gift I’ve spent decades unwrapping. Even if I never have that stunning enlightened moment Annie describes, her words are part of who I am and my life is richer because of her.

Wikipedia on Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

This is a 1974 nonfiction narrative book by American author Annie Dillard. Told from a first-person point of view, the book details an unnamed narrator's explorations near her home, and various contemplations on nature and life. The title refers to Tinker Creek, which is outside Roanoke in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Dillard began writing Pilgrim in the spring of 1973, using her personal journals as inspiration. Separated into four sections that signify each of the seasons, the narrative takes place over the period of one year.

The book records the narrator's thoughts on solitude, writing, and religion, as well as scientific observations on the flora and fauna she encounters. Touching upon themes of faith, nature, and awareness, Pilgrim is also noted for its study of theodicy and the inherent cruelty of the natural world. The author has described it as a "book of theology", and she rejects the label of nature writer. Dillard considers the story a "single sustained nonfiction narrative", although several chapters have been anthologized separately in magazines and other publications. The book is analogous in design and genre to Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), the subject of Dillard's master's thesis at Hollins College. Critics often compare Dillard to authors from the Transcendentalist  movement; Edward Abbey in particular deemed her Thoreau's "true heir".


  1. I remember her book! It was wonderful. Now, if I could only find where I put it...

  2. Hi Wendy ... my copy has long been downsized however, while writing this, I was tempted to buy a copy to reread. Maybe kindle this time. ;-)

  3. Anyone who invites us (and helps us) to see differently is providing such a divine service. You do this, too, Joyce. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Becky ... and as do you! I am grateful for the ongoing sharing of our gathered and gathering wisdom.

  5. Dillard planted a seed in you long ago and it finally took root and revealed its mystery. I like the way you describe the "cracked door" and the sudden, yet fleeting joy.
    Susan Larson

  6. Susan ... thank you ... your comments are always so appreciated. joyce