Once, many years ago, there was a child of nine who loved Walter Milligan. Once Saturday morning she was walking in the neighborhood of her school. She walked and thought, "The plain fact is--as I have heard so many times--that in several years' time I will not love Walter Milligan. I will very probably marry someone else. I will be untrue; I will forget Walter Milligan."~ Annie Dillard, born on this day in 1945
Deeply, unforgettably, she thought that if what they said about Walter Milligan was true, then the rest went with it: that she would one day like her sister, and that she would be glad she had taken piano lessons. She was standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change. It was all she could do to remember not to get run over, so she would live to betray herself. For a series of connected notions presented themselves: if all these passions of mine be overturned, then what will become of me? Then what am I now?
She seemed real enough to herself, willful and conscious, but she had to consider the possibility--the likelihood, even--that she was a short-lived phenomenon, a fierce, vanishing thing like a hard shower, or a transitional form like a tadpole or winter bud--not the thing in itself but a running start on the thing--and that she was being borne helplessly and against all her wishes to suicide, to the certain loss of self and all she held dear. Herself and all that she held dear--this particular combination of love for Walter Milligan, hatred of sister and piano lessons, etc.--would vanish, destroyed against her wishes by her own hand.
When she changed, where will that other person have gone? Could anyone keep her alive, this person here on the street, and her passions? Will the unthinkable adult that she would become remember her? Will she think she is stupid? Will she laugh at her?
She was a willful one, and she made a vow. The light changed; she crossed the street and set off up the sloping sidewalk by the school. I must be loyal, for no one else is. If this is the system, then I will buck it. I will until I die ride my bike and walk along these very streets, where I belong. I will until I die love Walter Milligan and hate my sister and read and walk in the woods. And I will never, not I, sit and drink and smoke and do nothing but talk.
Foremost in her vow was this, that she would remember the vow itself. She woke to her surroundings; it was cold. Even walking so fiercely uphill, she was cold, and illuminated by a powerful energy. To her left was the stone elementary school, deserted on Saturday. Across the street was a dark row of houses, stone and brick, with their pillared porches. The porch floors were painted red or gray or green. This was not her own neighborhood, but it was her turf. She pushed uphill to the next corner. She committed to memory the look of that block, that neighborhood: the familar cracked sidewalk, how pale it was, how sand collected in its cracks; the sycamores; the muffled sky.
30 April 2006
A running start
From "Aces and Eights" (my favorite essay of all time) in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters: