Tessa Carman

Tessa Carman writes from Phoenix. She likes trees, slow meals, used bookstores, and semicolons.

Noteworthy: Diane Severin on Tinker Creek

“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge,” Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. . . . The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

The reader would be forgiven for thinking that Dillard was indeed living alone in the wilderness by Tinker Creek, an anchoress living deliberately, determined to live amidst “the mystery of continuous creation,” and to, Thoreau-like, “front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Dillard meant to write in the tradition of Thoreau and other writers — Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, John Muir — who lived alone in the wild. But, like Thoreau, she wasn’t quite alone. Diane Saverin writes in The Atlantic:

“Dillard knew that being a graduate student, or a professor’s wife living in the suburbs, wasn’t as exciting as, say, living alone in Arches National Park, as Abbey did. In Desert Solitaire, he describes the gopher snake he befriended to keep rattlesnakes away from his trailer. The gopher sometimes wrapped around his waist, inside his shirt, and rested on his belt. (“I’m a humanist,” he writes, “I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”) Such a narrator embodied all the right American ideals: the mythic frontiersman, the wild man, the true hermit.

But to write in the tradition of lone-man-in-the-wilderness, Dillard had to find a way out of the facts that (a) she wasn’t a man and (b) she wasn’t living alone in the wilderness. Reading through the journals and notecards Dillard kept while writing Tinker Creek, Saverin finds Dillard wrestling with the manuscript and trying to reconcile her writing with the unmentioned parts of her life (“The husband she lives with, the friends she lunches with, and the people she plays softball with are all conspicuously missing.”) Dillard even considered making Tinker Creek a novel before deciding to write a novelized book of nonfiction. “I didn’t obscure anything, I just left it out,” Dillard tells Saverin.

Saverin’s whole essay is worth the read. And then also worth the read is what Dillard left in Tinker Creek: her razor-keen eye and her exuberant reception of the world’s mystery:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then 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 dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked  breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

May we who find ourselves in the suburbs live so deliberately.

* The featured image is of a handwritten draft with Dillard’s whimsical doodles in the margins (Annie Dillard/Beinecke Library/Diana Saverin).

Beauty at Session House

The lights were low that Sunday night as the raw-voiced minstrel sang in the corner of Session House, an Irish pub in Manhattan’s Midtown East. I was standing at a bar table beside the band, by turns following the ballad and making conversation with my friend beside me, soaking in the rich pleasure of good music in good company. Jonah the tipsy law student approached our table and glanced at the title of the book beside me on the table: Beauty Will Save the World.

“Do you believe that?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, without hesitation.

He cocked his head, one hand on his glass of Budweiser, his tuxedoed elbow leaning on the table. “So, what kind of beauty? Like the Playboy kind?”

I shuddered inside at such a notion. A counter image rose in my mind of a blazing brier and a desert herder tremblingly removing his sandals.

I said, “The kind of beauty that makes you fall down and worship.”

“And that is worthy of worship,” my friend quickly, and wisely, added.

The conversation shifted to other matters. But I continued to think of the incompetence of words. Even if I had been able to produce a paintbrush from my purse and quickly render the fiery image from my mind’s eye onto canvas, I could not know if Jonah would have seen what I saw.

But what else could I have said? What use were mere words? What image could I point to and say, “This is beauty itself”? I was too eager to exclaim with Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, “Beauty will save the world.” And, like Myshkin, I was tongue-tied when asked to explain further.

 

Session House

 

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot. Neither can we bear very much beauty, which is much the same thing. Our eyes dull, our spirit staggers, and we must return to the ordinary sense of things. Why do we not weep every time we hold a newborn child, and why do we not swoon at the sight of a tree?

Because we are only human, after all. We could not bear beauty always undisguised. It would destroy us.

In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto writes that “the mysticism of love,” which is “seen in that ‘consuming fire’ of love whose burning strength the mystic can hardly bear, but begs the heat that has scorched him may be mitigated, lest he be himself destroyed by it.”

Likewise, when we encounter beauty unveiled, its power will not leave anything ugly untouched in us. Beauty will destroy the smeared, seared world, and from its ashes create a new one.

Perhaps this is why I’ve heard friends sometimes say that, though beauty has saved and will save, beauty will also destroy the world. It is too much akin to “that consuming fire of love” to do anything otherwise. It is something holy, like a fiery bush in the desert.

I am not talking here of Keats’s “thing of beauty,” but of that beauty which is ultimate—that to which all streams lead, the beauty of being itself, terrifying in its purity.

I once was in a philosophy class that was discussing the triad of truth, goodness, and beauty. One intelligent young lady grew impatient with the vagueness of our terms and finally demanded precise definitions for those three transcendentals. In nearly every other case, I would have joined my voice with hers. But her request was tricky, and perhaps impossible. David Bentley Hart writes that, though it is “impossible…to offer a definition of beauty,” it “is the true form of distance … the distance of delight.”

Beauty, says Hart, “is the showing of what is,” “a relationship of donation and transfiguration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.” Gift is then essential to beauty:

“There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply…

How can we precisely define beauty, when it is something that must be met, encountered? And if no neat denotation can be offered, will we abandon the search, chalking it up to the foolish talk of philosophers? Will we ask, as Pilate did of truth, What is beauty?, and not stay for an answer?

The reply to both questions, if Pilate had stayed, would likely have been the silent presence of the Christ before him. The further answer may have been the crucifixion on the hillside, the darkening of the sky, and the sepulchered Christ.

 

… though beauty has saved and will save, beauty will also destroy the world.

 

Months after Session House, I went to hear Fr. Peter John Cameron speak on beauty at NYU’s Thomistic Institute.

“Beauty is love in disguise,” he said. And I thought of the risen Christ. Love was veiled to the Emmaus travelers, who did not yet believe that their faith could be recovered; for them, the emaciated Christ lay still in the tomb. Only later was love revealed to them. (And is not love also a consuming fire?)

When Thomas doubted the resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus appeared to him and told him to touch his wounds and believe. But we do not read that Thomas did touch the wounds, only that he cried out, “My Lord and my God!”

The rest of his response is concealed by the silence of the text. But what more could he do but weep and worship?

I believe that beauty saves the world. But as our fairy tales tell us, beauty also destroys, and love consumes. And love never destroys without giving new life. The broken spell is coterminous with transfiguration, as in the old French tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” At the end of the story, it is not the wicked beast that stands before Beauty, but a new man, transformed and made human by love.

So perhaps what I could have said to Jonah the law student that night at Session House was that beauty is a gift, a medium of love. It begets the fires of wonder and delight. And if I could not point to beauty itself, I could point to the beautiful: the music of the balladeer, the tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” conversation over a glass of gin.

Facts

So then. There was a he, who met a she, and they
got on quite well, and the narrator of the poem
was nowhere to be found, so kindly he or she had slipped
into the shadows, refraining from intruding with personal asides
and observations.
    Now: just the facts. He met she, and they
went to lunch. They had sandwiches and coffee.
They walked in the park and went home.
    There. Wasn’t that better than wanton description
of how the sunlight glinted on the silverware on the café table,
and how he looked at her when she turned to admire
a painting on the wall, and how
their steps on the sidewalk steadily slowed,
and how no one could tell what they said
as they walked, but there were crystalline consonants
when he tucked a stray lock behind her ear, and she could scarcely
look at him, the ground was so interesting, but when
she finally looked up, with glistening eyes,
she received him with all tenderness and quiet joy?
    Yes, far better to simply say that, after their walk, they each
went home, and she checked the mail, and he made a phone call.

photo by: taylor.a

Parable on Wall Street

“The point of a protest isn’t direct action; it’s to educate people.” He puts his hands in the pockets of his black Nin jacket. A purple scarf is tied around his neck, and his dark hair is pulled into a tight ponytail. He calls himself an anarchist pagan Buddhist. His friends call him Captain. I find him camped out in front of Trinity Wall Street on a Tuesday afternoon. His friends—two tall bearded fellows with blond dreadlocks and a young brunette bedecked with a red-flowered garland—defer to his eloquence when I ask what Occupy Wall Street is all about.

Captain admits that “if you ask a hundred Occupiers what it’s about, you’ll get a hundred different answers.” He says he had joined the other malcontents to protest getting kicked off Trinity’s property. Captain castigates Trinity for closing two of its homeless shelters, and he mentions the rector’s $1.6 million salary, double-checking the numbers on his phone. He hopes the rector will eventually get the boot as a result of the protests.

I ask him what the next step would be for those moved by his and others’ demonstrations. “Get money out of politics,” he says. Make the politicians act on that, or else “we’re not going to f—ing vote for you.

He motions to the stone ledge beside the churchyard fence. “Want to sit down?” We step away from the pedestrian traffic on Broadway and sit beside the spread of OWS pamphlets—“The Heart of Occupy Wall Street,” “Interns: Know Your Rights”—and near a Guy Fawkes mask leaning against the stone. A few newspapers and books—George Martin’s A Storm of Swords, Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind—lie here and there amongst the blankets and sleeping stations on the sidewalk. A scruffy young man in a knit cap yells, “Free propaganda! Mostly true propaganda!” and tosses a handful of seeds over the fence for the flocking pigeons.

A poster full of slogans—“Love Love Love,” “Workers Deserve Rights”—drawn in pastel colors leans up against the churchyard ledge. Captain tells me it belongs to a woman named Sparrow, and that morning policemen had taken the poster from her. When she tried to get it back an officer pushed her away, accidentally knocking her head against a metal post. She lay unconscious on the curb of Broadway until she was taken to the hospital.

“Is she okay?” I ask Captain.

“Yeah, she’s fine. They arrested her after she went to the hospital.” He shrugs, not terribly concerned. It’s another day in the life; it’s the risk they all take.

I remember to the morning. I had been there. I had seen Sparrow lying limp on the curb. She was a young black woman with glasses, grey tights, a dark skirt. Sleepers on the sidewalk had gradually awakened and drowsily watched a police officer mark up a report in his notepad. One Occupier knelt beside Sparrow, rebuking the policemen circling her. Another indignant protester swept past me, breathing, “You’re not allowed to do that,” toward the officers. The poster leaned up against a garbage can on the corner of the next block, apparently forgotten

“Policemen act like they’re above the law,” Captain tells me. “Do you think a policeman would treat you differently than, say, a big black man?” I shrug, and he says, “You’re a pretty white girl. You bet they’re going to f—ing treat you differently.”

Captain begins to roll a cigarette. We look out on the street in silence and consider how messed up the world is.

Then he says, “Do you know any good parables?”

I ask if he’s looking for any in particular.

“I collect parables. They’re a good way to teach people. I know a couple great Buddhist parables.”

I say I have to get to class. “Do you have time for a parable before you go?” he asks.

I have time for one.

“Once there was a man who insulted a Buddhist monk by calling him a dirty piece of shit, and the monk said to him, ‘You remind me of the Buddha.’ The man, cocksure and arrogant, went home to his wife and told her of his exchange. ‘You fool,’ said his wife. ‘Don’t you realize that he who has the Buddha in his heart sees the Buddha in everyone, but he who sees others as pieces of shit has a heart of shit?’”

Captain finishes and looks at me. “I see it as saying that we should see the good in everyone,” he says.

I think of the policemen and propagandists, the shoe shiners and Wall Street financiers, the parishioners and protesters. And I think of Sparrow.

“Sounds like a good philosophy,” I say.

photo by:

On Tomato Picking

Tomato picking must have a long and illustrious history. I’m sure many distinguished persons took part in it, from Seneca to Samuel Johnson to Susan B. Anthony—great men and women who went on to change the world.

Or at least such a high-minded thought is heartening when you’re facing an entire greenhouse full of the red baubles alone.

But I like picking tomatoes. I like the pleasant plumpness that softly fills the hand, and I like exploring the jungly vines. I like having my body engaged in meaningful work. And in my solitude I can practice being fully present to my surroundings—to the crickets under the tomato leaves, the geese crossing the sky, the greenhouse heat, my toes in the dirt, the odd orange orbs hiding there and here—and the unfortunate crack of a tomato vine that I’ve just stepped on.

Let the air of monotony have no place in this greenhouse! When you’re not remarking the varieties of tomato contour, or enjoying the satisfaction of filling box after box, your imagination can roam free—to theories of epistemology and entomology, to the cultural ramifications of landing on the moon and the Russian ballet on American culture, to the velocity of an unladen cricket—or you may turn your thoughts toward ripe red tomato slices sprinkled with salt, homemade sauces and salsa, steaming tomato soup, tomato-tossed salad, and succulent BLTs.

You may also turn toward the noble history of tomato picking, this time picturing an Italian peasant amongst the vines with his two black-haired daughters, enumerating the ways a good husband is like a good tomato—firm but mature, neither too hard nor soft; or perhaps a French chef, who makes his sauce from tomatoes plucked ripe from the garden behind his Paris restaurant; or an old Spanish widow filling her baskets with fruit that she will sell in the village square.

"It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato." -- Lewis Grizzard

My dad’s side of the family are old hands at tomato picking. My great-grandfather made the front page of the local Michigan newspaper for pioneering a method of greenhouse growing that yielded better and earlier tomatoes. My grandfather took over the tomato growing, and now my uncle has received the torch.

Tomatoes are an honored part of our family tradition; the planting and picking and sorting and selling and eating of tomatoes is a crucial part of relational and culinary enrichment. However, a small scandal threatened to break out when a cousin of mine admitted that he really didn’t like tomatoes.

That’s okay, cousin. As long as you like picking them.

It is difficult to hide that you’ve been picking tomatoes. Your hands are brown and green and yellow, your bare feet are filthy, and you may have a few leaves lingering on your clothes. When you wash your hands afterward, you must be fully armed with a bristle brush, grease soap, and—if you really want to eliminate all signs of activity—a rotten tomato. Sometimes you must fight fire with fire, or in this case, tomato with tomato.

I think my family would agree that picking tomatoes is good therapy after eating at a restaurant that serves anemic pink tomatoes shipped from across the country. When my family goes out to eat in the summer at local restaurants, someone usually gets something with a tomato—a burger, a salad, a garnish. And when we see what the tomatoes look like, each knows what the other is thinking:

Why?

A friend recently asked me for an inexpensive but classy dinner idea. As we’re both college students, I understood his predicament. So I suggested tomatoes, basil, and melted mozzarella on baguette slices—simple bruschetta. He told me he couldn’t do the tomatoes. You see, he had been to our farm—handled our tomatoes, tasted their sweet flesh—and the grocery tomatoes paled in comparison (literally). I understood: once you have tasted ambrosia and nectar, it is difficult to go back to the fare of mortals.

This reveals both the upside and downside to seasonal eating. On the one hand, you get only the best of the harvest: fruits and vegetables that are bursting with flavor and nutrients—you don’t settle for less-than. On the other hand, what about all those months going without fresh berries, cucumbers, snap peas—not to mention tomatoes?

At long last, the final row is ended, and the remaining tomato boxes are hauled away. After scouring my hands with gritty soap I enter the farmhouse kitchen to assemble some lunch. On the counter is a ripe tomato that I slice onto my plate. As I bite into its lush redness, I experience a delectable revelation.

Life is good. And so is tomato picking.