Ordinary Grace–and Two Books

I should have taken warning from these lines on the third page: “Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous….But I am not always in what I call a state of grace. I have days of illuminations and fevers. I have days when the music in my head stops. Then I mend socks, prune trees, can fruits, polish furniture. But while I am doing this I feel I am not living.”

So writes Anaïs Nin in her Diary from the 1930’s. Hers was a name I had often run across, perhaps because she seems to show up a lot in collections of quotes. I didn’t know anything about her, so I bought this used paperback book last month. It’s yet another that I will stop reading now. Why did I go on as far as I did, to read such lines as, “To be fully alive is to live unconsciously and instinctively in all directions….”? I don’t know.

But I know that I find this self-absorption and drama almost laughable, and definitely boring, in its gushing descriptions of feelings. Her prose is good; it’s the content that is lacking in concreteness and pervaded by an avoidance of reality; even the erotica she is known for is infused with her self-psychoanalysis and psychobabble.

Then there are the dreaded “ordinary” activities. If Nin can’t find her “state of grace” in the concrete here and now of Everyday, in nature and housework, I would give her condition a different name.

I should start doing a little more research on authors before I take time and/or money to learn about them the old-fashioned way. Wikipedia is easy. I could have found several reasons not to read her.

Annie Dillard is the opposite of Nin in some ways. She finds God, or at least looks for Him, in every rock and cloud and human she meets. When I threw For the Time Being into my sewing basket to take to the hospital for the waiting and laboring, I didn’t know that scenes from the hospital OB ward figure heavily in the book. I read a few passages to Pippin before her labor got very laborious.

“These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this? Or who will consider it?” Dillard asks, as she, like Nin, considers the ordinary, but as a member of the human community, struggling with many questions that concern us all and sharing her ruminations with the reader.

She includes categories and section headers with labels such as Now, China, Sand, and Clouds, and cycles back to the topics again and again through the book. I skipped around and read a few of the Birth paragraphs aloud, and I haven’t yet read from the beginning to see how the author ties all these parts together, but I know from her other writings that she sees the philosophical interrelatedness of everything.

I recall words from G.K. Chesterton about how it is really the common everyday occurrences such as the sun rising or the train running on time that should astound us. But the best version of his thought I can find at the moment is: “The whole order of things is as outrageous as any miracle which could presume to violate it.” This is how Dillard thinks.

Of the OB ward, she writes, “There might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks. There might well be an old stone cairn in the hall by the elevators, or a well, or a ruined shrine wall where people still hear bells. Should we not remove our shoes, drink potions, take baths? For this is surely the wildest deep-sea vent on earth. This is where the people come out.”

Her appreciation of the Numinous pervading our existence brings to mind another quote from Chesterton that will be my wrap-up: “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

9 thoughts on “Ordinary Grace–and Two Books

  1. I've always thought Anais Nin's gift for prose was wasted on someone with the emotional maturity of a precocious fifteen-year-old. I love her words, but cringe at her self absorption. I notice however, that I tend to find most fault with those who fall into the same traps I myself am prone to. I am far from immune to long-winded paragraphs about my own emotional state, minus Nin's literary gift.

    I've never read Dillard, but I plan to now.

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  2. When literary commentary magazines get wise they will want to snatch you up…but the pervading lover of our souls has already snatched you. I meant to say a word to you when I saw Nin in the photo stack. In the 60's in Berkeley I don't even know what it was of hers that I read…but I have nothing from it, oh, maybe some scars…

    You popped Dillard in your basket, did you? You had a bit more reading time in the OB ward than we may have hoped, but then look at the glorious child. And H. is radiant. Reading Dillard is probably like doing math for the brain…in one sentence she sends you scuttling through histories, cultures and nature memories so quickly the neurons jump up and say…well hey, if she is going to keep using me I guess I might as well stick around.

    As ever, a lovely post.

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  3. I'll need to keep an eye out for Dillard. I like your last quote also, and have heard a variation of it quite often from my husband's family: when a child says “I'm bored,” we usually reply, “No. You're not bored. You're just boring.” Life isn't boring, but people are, and they pass it on to the things they do.

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  4. I am glad you read Nin, because it provoked yet another thread of wisdom from you. Your understanding of “ordinary grace” has often kept my ambitious (but often discouraged) soul afloat!

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  5. Okay, I have to admit that I have For the Time Being, but have never finished–not for lack of interest, but for lack of brain space. I got it when Jack was born ten and a half years ago, and soon found that sustained pondering in books–something I've always loved in Dillard's writing–was not something my brain could sustain. But I'll give it another go.

    frances

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  6. Well said, as always.

    Love this quote:

    “The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”

    Thomas Moore
    Irish poet (1779 – 1852)

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  7. Thanks for giving me another look at Annie Dillard. I picked up a book with a selection of her writings, but donated it to the library without reading it. I read something by her that I found depressing, and I didn’t give her much of a chance.

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