“This is, mind you, suburbia.” —Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”
I do a lot of walking in the suburbs of Katy, Texas, where I live, just west of Houston. I walk to see whatever there is to see, including the grand Texas sky with its impressive cloudscapes, which we Houstonians claim as our mountains, and birds and various critters among the other natural sights. On a disciplined day, I wake early and walk a mile or two around the retention pond in our neighborhood. On a less disciplined day, I walk our dog along one of the streets near our house. On an extra special day, my husband and I walk the trail at a local park, usually seeking out a favorite, quiet stretch of asphalt flanked by particularly tall pine trees whose scent conjures the tonic mountain air of our beloved Colorado. This spot on the trail is also where we saw a deer up close, and I guess too personal, for it scampered back into the woods.
I love my husband’s company, but every once in awhile, I wish I could walk the park’s trails alone, if they were not scattered with suspicious men sitting on top of picnic tables. My introverted personality craves the solitude of the sun-streaked woods and the sweet little creek that bends its will only when it encounters oak tree roots lodged in the soil, then continues on its merry way. This solo-rustic desire was planted within me a long time ago, during seven-mile hikes with my dad and brother in Colorado during my childhood, when my love for that state was born, all the while eating ostrich eggs for breakfast, or being chased down a mountain by lightning.
My love for the natural world grew to maturation when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard in my early, infant 20s, in my tiny studio apartment in Houston. This beloved book is as old as I am, both of us existing since 1974. I thought I understood this paper-paged friend fairly well. I described my adoration for Pilgrim here on The Curator in 2009 — how I learned to see properly and poetically thanks to Dillard’s writing. And loving and rereading this book all of these years has reaffirmed aspects of who I am that will never change: I love books, I love to read, I love nature, I love solitude, I love writing.
So when I came across an article in The Atlantic, “The Thoreau of the Suburbs” by Diana Saverin, where she divulged revealing details about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Annie Dillard’s writing process, I was ecstatic. Saverin’s piece blew my mind and left me wide-eyed, but not from bedazzlement or writerly bliss and inspiration — more like shock and disillusionment. Saverin writes, “[S]he wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a ‘Virginia housewife named Annie.’ She couldn’t change the fact that she lived in Virginia or was a housewife named Annie, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Her husband never made it into the book.”
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In my previous Curator piece, “On Learning to See,” I almost seemed apologetic that I live in suburbia instead of Annie Dillard’s supposed exotic surroundings. But I wouldn’t have been apologetic if I had known that Dillard herself was a housewife living in and walking around suburbia, beautifully and poetically describing the natural world of her domestic surroundings. I always conjured a dreamy fantasy when reading Pilgrim, one of solitude and beauty and wandering and philosophical epiphanies.
After reading Saverin’s Atlantic piece, I don’t love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek any less—it is still some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read—but I do look at the book differently. Now I know that part of Dillard’s story is missing. It would be more compelling to know that a housewife wrote such a phenomenal book, admitting her suburban reality instead of the typical dismissal of suburbia, deeming such a common life boring or uncool.
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I pulled into the driveway after church one day, talking on the phone with my mom, to find a hawk sitting in the epicenter of a small white bird’s carnage on our side lawn, the feathers spread out like a small, gentle explosion. The hawk’s eyes were wide and steadied on me. I trailed off mid-sentence, my eyes wide too, both enchanted and horrified by the beautiful, bitter, inevitable tragedy of violence in nature. That hawk and I stared at each other for a good few minutes; then it soared gracefully and powerfully away to nestle in a pine tree down the street. The circumference of white feathers remained on our lawn for a few days like a piece of installation art symbolizing the delicate reality of death.
Yesterday as I tended to our breakfast dishes, a tiny snail sidled up our kitchen sink window, a rivulet of slime trailing below its ecru body, its tiny eye-tipped tentacles bending back and forth, assessing the strange transparent terrain, and perhaps assessing the giant human face peering so closely with no respect for a snail’s personal space. I wondered if it was a baby snail. I stepped away for a moment, and when I returned I was surprised to see how fast that snail had booked it up our window, almost out of sight.
One morning, very early, I lugged my weary body out of bed, determined to exercise. I stepped out our back door and inhaled fresh air; I caught the scent of pine high above me. I crossed the street, turned the corner, and reckoned with the oval-shaped path around the pond. Sometimes I see whimsical faces in the long, spindly streaks of tar mending ruts in the asphalt, but that day the faces were inexpressive, impassive — quite frankly, they were bored. The sky was a major disappointment of gray, but I trekked onward with a miraculous determination, seeing as this was pre-coffee. I passed fledgling cypress and oak trees growing alongside each other. A few mockingbirds flitted about silently, not in the mood for mimicry. The typically vibrant colors of neighbors’ flowers spilling over their fences were mute and dull. I felt the groaning of creation mentioned in Romans 8 in my bones and in every living thing around me. On the last stretch of the path, a slender cruciform of white glided through the air in my peripheral vision. I looked upward and to the left to see a great egret swooping low overhead. I could see the fringe of its stately wings, and the narrow point of its beak. That elegant white bird felt like a royal visitation, come down out of the silent sky to speak peace and joy and reviving over me. I wanted to grow small and spry enough that I could jump and grab hold of its legs, climb gently on its back, and fly in tandem wherever we pleased.
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“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.” —Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
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In light of Dillard’s omissions of suburbia and domesticity, I’ve been wondering about the term “creative nonfiction.” Shouldn’t I write as truthfully as I do creatively? Can’t I do both? If I were to write a memoir about walking in my neighborhood and what I observe, should I delete all details of the suburbs of Houston where I reside? Should I edit out the word “retention” in my great egret account and merely write “pond”? Should I omit my drummer husband and our mundane, peaceful working-from-home life? Should I make my book a strictly Thoreau-esque affair to appeal to the nature-loving masses? And what exactly would such an account be? Saverin also divulged in her Atlantic piece that Dillard was hip to the fact “that there had always been a certain amount of delusion involved in the lone-man-in-the-wilderness narrative.” Thoreau’s cabin sat on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, within walking distance of Concord, and it was rumored that Thoreau’s mom did his laundry. He was no doubt a great observer of the natural world, but again, the truth was made to seem optional and unappealing.
Perhaps I struggle with this impulse, too. Writing requires faith, and part of faith is seeing what is true and not turning away from it, nor hiding it. Perhaps above I should have written that along with an idyllic, gurgling creek in the heart of Cullen Park, trash sits on some of those oak tree roots, also diverting the path of the water. Or that the men atop picnic tables laughed and reeked of marijuana, maybe not so much enjoying it as selling it. Or that we have often walked on what seemed like a secluded part of the trail to the sound of children’s parties blasting celebratory Tejano music through the pines. Perhaps we all struggle with Dillard’s type of writerly omissions, such as many other writers have done before and after the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — to include what we like and delete what we don’t. We probably do this in other aspects of our lives as well, especially in this day and age saturated with social media — the name Facebook even having literary connotations — where we can easily present an image of our lives that we like, and a flattering angle of our appearance with a selfie. But our unfaithful omissions in writing and in life do not reflect reality.
As writers, we need to be honest, which is another component of faith. But this honesty is not so much about describing every single thing I’ve seen in our local park or in my suburban neighborhood, but of giving you a well-rounded mental photograph of my place, my reality. This recalls some of my favorite lines from the novel Peace Like a River:
Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.
I’ve been there and am going back.
Make of it what you will.
This is my writer’s declaration. In order for your reader’s imagination to make of things what it will, I have to give you the materials with which to make, to create. If I omit that I live in suburbia, but describe other waterbirds such as a blue heron we saw in the park, that doesn’t give you a true glimpse of things. You might think I live in a coastland area outside of Houston, living in a simple beach cottage.
Part of the glory of my great egret sighting was that it soared above my head in the mundanity of suburbia. Annie Dillard taught me to perpetually notice: What is happening when I’m not looking, when I’m not seeing? But after digesting Dillard’s decision to edit out the suburban and domestic aspects of her existence, I don’t believe that she taught me how to be authentic in my writing, at least not in this instance. I feel disillusioned by her lone-woman-by-the-creek narrative. I believe that Dillard really did see all of the natural wonders she described in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but the omissions of her suburban neighborhood and her college professor husband fall short of truthful. Aren’t writers witnesses to the good, the true, the beautiful, the banal — all of it? Isn’t that part of the art of seeing that I learned from Dillard long ago?
Part of the glory of nature in the suburbs is that it happens in suburbia, in a place you might least expect to behold beauty. But whether I write that book about walking or not, and no matter what I write, I am a writer. I am a suburban housewife, a resident of Katy, Texas. I live in a two-story brick house with my drummer husband, two cats, and one dog. I plan to write a great many things during my life that have nothing to do with the suburbs, but my place shapes me. I do understand Dillard’s poetic habit of seeing, and I also believe we writers should undertake that artful practice of observation. But the poetic is more powerful if it is rooted in the truthful — what is really “going on here.” I have seen the poetic, transcendent glory in my neighborhood, and I am here to write, my feet grounded in suburban soil.