In the kind of stroke of serendipity I no longer find surprising in my dance with the Universe, while I posted my last musing on Annie Dillard and a snippet from her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I hadn’t thought of for years, sitting in my mailbox was my first issue of Isle, the journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (thanks, Ann Fisher-Wirth, for encouraging me to join!), containing an essay by Julia Ireland, “Annie Dillard’s Ecstatic Phenomenology,” in which she explores Dillard’s attempts, chronicled in the aforementioned book, to learn to really see, not in the active, aggressive, cataloging way we normally approach the world, but a way, rather like Zen, in which the intellect or ego steps aside, shuts up and sits down, and allows reality to present itself to us in all its mysterious selfhood. Dillard calls this “letting go seeing.” Emblematic of this for her is “the tree with lights in it,” which, in a sort of climactic episode near the end of her sojourn, she finally does encounter. (Alas, not so for me, as I say at the end of my poem “Confessing Grief,” “still, I search the trees for one lit up with grace.”) Though simply the attempt, over the past twenty years or so, to approach the world in a receptive rather than dominating way has led me into a relationship with reality that feels like much less of a struggle than what I experienced as a youth. Enlightened? No way. On the path? Who isn’t? Knowing I am, though, sure helps me dance with reality, rather than wrestle with it.
In her article Ms. Ireland discusses teaching Ms. Dillard’s work to her college students in a 200-level course called “Environmental Thinking” in an attempt to get them, eager activists that they are, to understand that it’s not all about doing, that there’s a way of thinking, a way of being, that can change things. A place from which right action flows naturally. This came up recently on the WOM-PO listserve in a discussion about disability rights, and language use, at the conclusion of which I observed that at the root of the issue is compassion, or the lack of it, and that if we figured out how to change THAT, rather than outlawing certain vocabulary or metaphors, then the suffering caused to those with differently abled bodies (or minds) in their encounter with society would automatically be lessened. In my right sidebar there’s a quote from James Baldwin about how we write to change the world, knowing full well that we probably can’t. But as he observes, changing the way people think CAN change the world. Poetry may not DO anything, except, perhaps, provide a lens through which people can see themselves and the world in a different relationship. Clearly this is going to be a slow process. Activists want change NOW, but change that happens suddenly and by force more often than not brings about a backlash, an equal and opposite reaction. Looked at from some distance, a farther perspective, humanity has made significant progress, and there’s cause to hope that we’re on a path toward a future in which every human is recognized for what s/he is, and beyond that, the rest of the ecosystem is equally honored. A long way to go, sure. But we’re getting there. I’m not calling for complacency, but acceptance of the slow, organic (and inexorable!) process of real and lasting change. As part of that Ecology and Literature course I took in college I had to keep a journal, including newspaper clippings that dealt with environmental issues. I remember combing the paper and feeling lucky to find a tiny bit tucked into the back pages. Now the environment is front-page news. Granted, the problems are more significant now, but I can’t help but think that it also shows a shift in consciousness, an increased level of awareness. The same could be said of issues regarding people with disabilities, sexism, people of color, diversity in sexual orientation or gender expression, militarism and colonization. Like I commented at Harriet recently, all these issues are bound to get tied up in a thoughtful poet’s poetics (as they have in mine), because at root they flow from the same source (that lack of compassion again). I’m only 42, but I can remember how things were when I was young, and times, they’ve sure changed plenty, and thank goodness.