Thursday, December 3, 2015

BAE 1990 as read by Joni Tevis: The Traveler: An Essay and Playlist

The Traveler: An Essay and Playlist

Joni Tevis


The legend of the Traveler appears in every civilization, perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols. Through every age he walks in utter solitude toward penance and redemption.


Should I mark more than shining hours?

—Evan S. Connell, Jr., Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel [1]

Annie Dillard’s “The Stunt Pilot” [2] is an essay about a plane crash. I’ve been thinking about that as I hustle through airport after airport, on book tour. TUFFY, says the stenciled vinyl of the courtesy wheelchair. TUG, says the grill of the luggage hauler, in a beefy font that I find comforting as I sit in the plane, waiting for it to take off and pondering my own mortality. You know. Like you do. For a certain kind of reader—well, for me—to reread “The Stunt Pilot” is to slingshot oneself back into Dillard’s deep catalogue; it’s of a piece, as far as I can tell, with three of her books of nonfiction. So I sit in a narrow seat, lap belt low and tight across my hips, and read. Dillard might be as obsessed with planes and plane crashes as I am. From “Total Eclipse”: “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.” [3] From “Stunt Pilot”: “I gave up on everything, the way you do in airplanes; it was out of my hands.” [4]

Brain science tells us that the mind loves novelty, which explains the phenomenon of why days and nights on the road seem to partake of time in a different way than do days and nights spent at home. When you’re presented with novel sights and experiences, they seem to take longer, because your brain is making new connections. I am on the road [5] and I am thinking about Annie Dillard—her essays, specifically, but more honestly, her narrator, also a person on the road, and therefore someone who notices more and questions more than she would while safe at home.

The article about the plane crash that killed geologist and stunt pilot Dave Rahm ran in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on August 4, 1976, and its particulars would satisfy a fact-checker [6] tasked with reconciling Dillard’s version of events with what the rest of the world agrees happened: Rahm crashed during a show in Jordan. “The plane spun down and never came out of it,” Dillard writes; “it nosedived into the ground and exploded. He bought the farm.” [7] Next to the story about Rahm’s death, the Spokane paper ran an AP article headlined “Pair of Holdups Make Bad Day.” In Providence, Rhode Island, a man was walking home when another man “grabbed a bag from him and fled. The bag contained a six-pack of beer and tomatoes.” Then a second man returned the bag to him and demanded a reward. When the first man offered him two quarters, he said that wasn’t enough, pulled a gun, and robbed him of $130. “Robert A. Greenway Jr. says it just wasn’t his day.”


Of those who studied Talmud in eighteenth-century Ukraine, Dillard writes, “people respected books. When a book wore out, they buried it like a person.” [8] I bought my copy of The Writing Life, a paperback with a blurry painting of a sailboat on the cover, as an undergraduate in Tallahassee. I paid $5.95, real money for me at the time.

Back then, I read issues of The Southern Review and The Georgia Review and Ploughshares at the long tables in Florida State’s library, even as I read everything else, compulsively, from Our Bodies, Ourselves to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to the filthy, descriptive, fascinating graffiti carved by frat brothers on the desks on the 7th floor. I read in the stacks as the sun faded behind the loblolly pines that ringed Landis Green and the sodium lights winked on, and then I walked back alone to my dorm room. I drove to the bookstore alone, I bought my cans of soup and Healthy Choice dinners alone, I drove to Carrabelle alone and walked on the beach, where interesting things washed up onshore. I examined the skeletons of dead fish, and once found a woman’s black high-heeled shoe with barnacles encrusting its peeling leather. Sometimes I sang Will Oldham songs [9] as loud as I could and it didn’t matter, because the dirty waves were louder than I was and anyway the beach was empty.

On the weekends, other students drank too much at the cheap bars on Tennessee Street and sometimes fell into the four lanes of traffic that separated the bars from campus and were grievously hurt. Me, I drank Orange Crush [10] I bought at the gas station on Highway 319 and headed out of town to the Huddle House, where a person could sit at a booth and write in a notebook for hours and not be bothered. I didn’t have much to say so I tried to describe things: the granite bald back home in South Carolina where you could sit and watch the sun set behind the Blue Wall; the way semi-trucks barreled south from Macon on I-75, bleeding their air brakes; the very diner I sat in, eavesdropping. What’re you writing? someone asked one night. You writing about us? Of course I lied. But I was desperate. I wanted to write something that would matter, that people would read. I would have sold out anyone to get the stuff I needed to make this work, even my family, my friends, let alone these strangers whose names I would never know, because I never asked.

My copy of The Writing Life has accumulated little scraps of things over the years, drawing ephemera, like a Bible. Here’s a bookmark from The Paperback Rack in Tallahassee that reads WE GIVE CASH FOR LITERATURE. A postcard from the Houston reading series in which Dillard read, February 20, 2001; the next day, I drove her to the airport in my Crown Victoria. [11] The postcard is addressed to me, at my old Houston address on West Main Street, but my name is wrong. [12] A square of paper with “REVISION” scribbled in my handwriting. A postcard picturing Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, standing on the shores of Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota since the 1930s. Folks who live in Bemidji like to tell you that Paul and Babe are the second-most-photographed statues in America [13], and that might be true. In lucky summers, I teach workshops in Bemidji, and I must have taken this in to read to the class. Whenever I have a group of people gathered in a room who are made to listen politely to what I have to say, I exhort them to do as Dillard does, and “aim for the chopping block.” [14] Aim for the chopping block, she says, and not the wood you’re trying to split; don’t let the words get in the way of the idea that you’re trying to share with your reader. I love this passage so much and have read it so many times in so many places that I’ve come to think of it as a kind of editor’s prayer, a litany whose repetition will help bring forth clear thought.

So how do we learn to write; how do I try to teach it? Kind of like this book: a collection of anecdotes and advice, enthusiasm and examples (“They thought I was raving again. It’s just as well.” [15]) The best thing is to read something that’s already good and take it apart, then reverse-engineer it to see how it fits together, but as a philosophy of pedagogy, all of this can feel a little ad hoc. I ask Gil Allen, dear colleague and longtime teacher of writing, how he teaches [16]. “Establish trust,” he says, or you won’t be able to do anything else. Give advice according to each student’s ability. Tell them to read published work, and to read their own drafts aloud.

And so I go back to the text. [17] Rereading the stunt pilot essay, I appreciate the writing as much as ever. I’ve read these comparisons aloud to my students for years: doing a barrel roll with Rahm, Dillard writes, “We stuck to the plane’s sides like flung paint….Vaguely I could see the chrome sea twirling over Rahm’s head like a baton, and the dark islands sliding down the skies like rain.” [18] Lovely illustration of the advice to “compare the unknown to the known.” Earlier in the essay, she stretches out the description of Rahm’s stunt pilot routine for a good three pages, longer than you think the material will bear, but it still works; I credit her strong verbs, lists, and comparisons. “Rahm’s line unrolled in time,” she writes. “Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present….The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.” [19]


Airports, airplanes, and hotel rooms bless the traveler with two gifts: a place to sit, and time to think. So I take notes. AND ANYWHERE I WOULD HAVE FOLLOWED YOU say the subtitles beneath the figure skater on television. Sunday night, far from home, chicken fried rice from the airport food court. The skater spins with one leg tucked under his body and the other pointed straight, then pulls himself upright, spinning faster and faster. CHEERS AND APPLAUSE read the subtitles to the big finish.

Yes, we notice more on the road, and Dillard seems always to have lived there. I’m rereading For the Time Being now, published about a decade after the stunt pilot essay, but ten years ain’t much in the ebb and flow of time—as her essays keep reminding me—and she’s working over the same questions. I map the book’s structure on the back of a receipt from a candy shop (Terminal B, Gate 41), testifying to my purchase of a lollipop to take home to my child. What is holy? Dillard asks. “Didja miss me?” the man in dark-wash Dickies asks his wife, who has guarded their luggage while he sallied forth in search of fried chicken. “HAVE A SWEET LIFE!” advises the sales receipt from the candy shop. “In fact,” Dillard writes, “the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree.” [20]

The trees are silk, meant to resemble ficus, and they are at least fifteen feet tall. There are two of them, next to windows that let in actual sunlight. A television set suspended from the high ceiling gives information about the bombings in Paris this weekend, and the French government’s response. A boy, 13 or 14, stands at a gate, tears streaming down his face. He has missed his flight. A lanyard around his neck declares him an UNACCOMPANIED MINOR. A woman wears a faded t-shirt with Munch’s “The Scream” on it, and man wears one that reads I’M HERE FOR THE PARTY. Dillard finds a prayer written in French blown loose from the West Wall in Jerusalem and includes it here untranslated. [21] Did she tuck it back into the stones of the wall or into her pocket? Does it matter? It’s not hers, I want to object, but neither are the boy’s tears at Gate A15. Does it matter that when I repeat, quietly, the words written there, that I can guess at what they mean but am not 100% sure?
I hate airports but I love the bottle fillers I sometimes find there. Water pours in a sturdy stream into my red bottle, and a digital counter ticks upward: 10,474; 10,475 plastic bottles kept out of the waste stream by this filter so far. A green light tells me the filter is fresh. Pebbles encased in clear resin make up the backsplash, so subliminally I take in the message that I am filling my waterskin by a clear stream of running water. Streams and water make most of the world’s supply of sand, Dillard tells me in For the Time Being, sand that ends up in the world’s low places, like deserts and beaches. Streams are sand factories, and outside the tall glass windows there are what used to be car factories, this being Detroit, a city I have seen many times but only ever through windows. Some of the car factories have been bulldozed. [22]

Dillard has a thing for low places, and for waves, both in sand dunes and in water, and all three of these books [23] she spends a fair bit of time staring out her window at the waves, or walking along the beach, and pondering the mysteries of life. She writes of a rabbi who warned his students against visiting lonely places but she didn’t take his advice too much to heart, and when I was in college, I used to do the same old thing. I never was able to make much sense of anything during those lonely beach walks—I didn’t know what questions I was even asking, except maybe “why am I alone?” Figuring out that the work of writing an essay was there for me went a long way toward solving that problem, though marrying a kind man helped more.

Classically, the essay can be a way to knock around a problem until it’s at least, if not solved, a rounder shape, which Dillard tells us is a way to know if a grain of sand is old or young. And the problems she raises are basically insoluble. Why does evil exist? is one. But How then shall we live? is another, and more practical. (I find myself under her spell again, taking on her cadences.) She does seem to want to give us, or at least herself, some clue about how best to “mark these shining hours.” Nearing the conclusion of For the Time Being, she seems to agree with Martin Buber by including and transliterating his ideas: “Here and now, presumably, an ordinary person would approach with a holy and compassionate intention the bank and post office, the car pool, the God-help-us television, the retirement account, the car, desk, phone, and keys.” [24] “Just like me, they long to be/Close to you,” Karen Carpenter sang on the loudspeakers as I passed the skycap’s station before dawn.

I sit here in the library’s top floor as the afternoon climbs and the sun blinds me off the clear glass window. Yesterday the plane circled low over this building and I saw the rest of the campus—stadium, academic buildings, dorms—with that miniaturized, slightly unreal cast that seeing a place from above can give. This room contains, yes, two more silk ficus trees; tall windows with electric shades; windows looking out over flat roofs, parking lots, an anemometer that must be part of a weather data station, four bells hung vertically in a carillon. Machines to make music, to record the clouds and what gave rise to them. Yesterday in the Detroit airport, a sparrow flew from a television monitor down to the carpeted floor, plucked a tidbit of food, and carried it back to her nest behind the perforated ceiling tiles. Pan-entheism, Dillard says, holds that “the one transcendent God made the universe, and his presence kindles inside every speck of it. Each clot of clay conceals a coal. A bird flies the house.” [25] That sparrow flew the concourse and here, now, I hear the rhythmic breathing of a student, asleep in an upholstered chair in the sun. I WILL SING NO MATTER WHAT read the sign at the Seventh Day Adventist Church my host drove me past yesterday.


Last night there was just a rind of a moon, and the air coming in through the window over the lake was cold. I stayed in a historic mansion, now a rooming house, and when I walked downstairs to seek hot water for tea I found all the lights on in every room I passed—third floor, second floor, ground floor—but not another soul. All the doors to the rooms stood open, and each bed was neatly made. Quiet pillows. Framed prints from old natural-history books hung on the walls. DECIDUOUS WOODLANDS, my favorite, pictured pendunculate oak, Lords-and-Ladies, Enchanter’s Nightshade.The carpeted stairs creaked underfoot. KEEP SMILING the memo pad on the check-in desk downstairs commanded. The pad was printed with a picture of Mickey Mouse striding along an empty path with his hands in his pockets. LET US HELP YOU CREATE A SPECIAL MEMORY read the brochure that listed prices for summer weddings, weekends when all seventeen bedrooms are booked. The computer monitor in the silent vestibule displayed my check-in and contact information. ONE GUEST, it read. “According to the Talmud, when a person is afraid to walk at night, a burning torch is worth two companions, and a full moon is worth three.” [26] I had no good reason to get spooked but I walked back upstairs to my room and locked the door. At 8:27 the phone next to the bed rang. It was the night watchman.


Morning comes. “We have less time than we knew,” Dillard writes, “and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild.” [27] I might not care about theology today, and only love strong sentences that feel good in my mouth when I speak them aloud. I’m in Holy the Firm now, a book I used to love, but which now troubles me. “There are no holy grapes,” she writes, “there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us.” [28] She can’t help it; she loves to juxtapose the physical world with the spiritual one, transubstantiating the wine as she carries it home. And I love this moment of transcendence she describes, walking home with the wine she’s bought for communion. It feels earned, hers. I have had moments like that, too, when I felt especially aware and lucky and glad and grateful for work to do and the tools with which to do it. Outside the rooming house’s big bay window, the newly-cut grass is green, but only a few brown leaves still hang on the red oak, and the metal patio furniture will be stacked in the junkhouse soon, to wait for May. A hired man and his son have just finished setting up an artificial tree here in a corner of the breakfast room and turned on its LED lights, which glow ice blue.

“A name,” Dillard writes, “like a face, is something you have when you’re not alone.” [29] She’s radically alone in this book, even when crushing apples into cider with friends, even when buying wine. On the road a person has a face (replicated on one’s photo identification) and a name (replicated on ID and boarding pass) but is nevertheless alone. Where you headed? is a question I do not care to answer. “A life without sacrifice is abomination,” [30she writes, and I agree with her. But she loses me with poor Julie Norwich, a girl burned by a freak airplane accident, and whose story Dillard tries to fit into the question of why suffering exists in the world. I don’t understand.

Fact-checkers will see the tie Dillard’s making between the girl she calls “Julie Norwich” and “Julian of Norwich.” Fact-checkers will find, on [31], a listing of crashes in the Pacific Northwest going from January 1964 until March 2013, details of a plane crash in Dillard’s area of Puget Sound that took place on November 19, 1975, the date on which she says the events she describes happened. But fact-checkers who dig further (tenacious!) will discover that no little girl is mentioned in that crash of a Beech 19A in Port Orchard, Washington. Did that child really exist; did she suffer the burns that Dillard describes? I pray she did not. But if she did, it seems monstrous to me that Dillard should use her as a mere figure, a prop with which to work through an idea: “Happy birthday, little one and wise: you got there early, the easy way.” “That skinlessness, that black shroud of flesh in strips on your skull, is your veil.” “Forget whistling; you have no lips for that, or for kissing the face of a man or a child.” [32] No! I write in the margins of the page. The book’s last lines—“So live. I’ll be the nun for you. I am now” [33]—used to delight me, but now my heart turns from them. Is it because I’m older now, with a child of my own? Do I turn away from this maker I so revered, even as she turns away from God? “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!” [34] The vision of Elijah, who was sustained in the wilderness by ravens who brought him bread and meat.


I think Dillard knew she hadn’t reached a conclusion on these questions either, even after the ending of Holy the Firm, even after describing her process in The Writing Life [35], so she wrote For the Time Being. “’I can and I must throw myself into the thick of human endeavor, and with no stopping for breath,’ said Teilhard, who by no means stopped for breath. But what distinguishes living “completely in the world” (Bonhoeffer) or throwing oneself ‘into the thick of human endeavor (Teilhard), as these two prayerful men did, from any other life lived in the thick of things? A secular broker’s life, a shoe salesman’s life, a mechanic’s, a writer’s, a farmer’s? Where else is there? The world and human endeavor catch and hold everyone alive but a handful of hoboes, nuns, and monks.” [36]

So her thinking has shifted from the earlier nun’s life she valued for the burned girl and, more, for herself, at the end of Holy the Firm. Now it seems better or truer to her to value all human endeavor as potentially holy and good. She seems to be saying that we all need to approach life, no matter our spiritual tribe, with a moment-by-moment awareness of its beauty, fragility, meaning. Life has meaning. Of course we forget this but we must also remember it. Of course we sift through its details in order to fit it to the page, but I think she’s saying that what makes it to the page isn’t more enlightened that what doesn’t.

STUFF IT, read the sign on the mini-storage warehouse as the cab driver drove me to another airport. TIME HOME WITH FAMILY said the side of the semi-truck who passed us in the rain. He was registered to Mechanicsburg PA, a good day’s drive from there. “I want to go home,” the woman in the seat behind me on the Chicago-Hartford flight said to her friend. “Cora! What does the sheep say? What does the sheep say? BAAAAAAH.” Woman, Skype, faraway baby.

I remove my shoes and coat, place them in an empty bin, and walk slowly through the metal detector’s open door with empty pockets, stocking feet. “Then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will,” Dillard writes; “then it’s time to break our necks for home.” [37] By the time my first flight lands, my connecting flight’s already boarding, two concourses away. I swap out my heels for my running shoes, tie the laces tight, and sprint down the tunnel as fast as ever I can, weaving between clots of slowpokes and dodging around trash cans and sliding into the departure gate at the last possible moment. I will get home to you. I will get home to you. If I have to run from one time zone to another, I will get home to you, will kiss your dear face before the sun sets and darkness comes.



[1] Used as epigraph in Annie Dillard’s book of nonfiction, For the Time Being (1999)
[2Best American Essays 1990; seventh and final chapter, The Writing Life, 1989
[3] “Total Eclipse,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982
[4The Writing Life, 99. Cue up Buddy Holly, “That’ll Be the Day.” Buddy, I think of you as I sit on the dark runway, how you were just making a living. From across the vale, do you feel my regard? 
[5] Cue up Joni Mitchell, “All I Want”: “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/ traveling, traveling, traveling./ Looking for something. What can it be?” 
[6] Thank you, fact-checkers! My debt to you shall never be fully repaid.
[7] The Writing Life, 106
[8] For The Time Being, 55
[9] “Little blue eyes, why did I follow you? Why did I snap at you? I liked you so.” Also, “Ohio River Boat Song.” 
[10] Listen, now, to REM, “Orange Crush”; The Allman Brothers Band, “Midnight Rider
[11] An ice-blue 1995 model with a V-8 engine, very sweet ride. Cue up Gillian Welch, “Pass You By"
[12] "Jeanie Tevis"
[13] Behind Mt. Rushmore
[14] The Writing Life, 59
[15Holy the Firm, 18
[16] Read Catma, his latest book of poetry, recently published by Measure Press.
[17] From “The teacher in me says, "The way to learn about a writer is to read the text. Or texts."
[18] The Writing Life, 104
[19The Writing Life, 96
[20For the Time Being, 88
[21For the Time Being, 189

[22] For example, the Packard plant, in October 2014

[23The Writing Life, For the Time Being, and Holy the Firm
[24For the Time Being, 202
[25For the Time Being, 137
[26For the Time Being, 178
[27Holy the Firm, 21

[28Holy the Firm, 62

[29Holy the Firm, 71
[30Holy the Firm, 72
[31] Page 11 of 16; 50 crashes per page
[32] All from Holy the Firm, 74
[33Holy the Firm, 76
[34Holy the Firm, 76
[35] A book she calls “embarrassing” on her website
[36For the Time Being, 171-172
[37Holy the Firm, 62



Atwan, Robert and Justin Kaplan. The Best American Essays 1990. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Vintage, 2000.
--. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper Colophon, 1984.
--. Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: HarperPerennial, 1982.
--. The Writing Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Salih, Sarah and Denise N. Baker, editors. Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. (“Julie Norwich and Julian of Norwich: Annie Dillard’s Theodicy in Holy the Firm,” by Denise N. Baker, was particularly useful.)


And also:

Deep thanks to Milkweed Editions, and to my recent hosts at universities, bookstores, and conferences. I have wanted to live a life like this for a good twenty years, and your generosity has made it possible. Thank you.


Formerly a park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots, Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, The Wet Collection: A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory, and The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, both published by Milkweed Editions.  Her essays have appeared in Orion, Oxford American, Poets & Writers, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. She serves as the Bennette E. Geer Professor of Literature at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.


  1. I love Dillard and I love this. What a fine essay, worthy of your hero. Thank you.

  2. "Partake of time." Joni Tevis, you are a genius.

  3. "Partake of time." Joni Tevis, you are a genius.

  4. Nicole liked it so much the comment appeared twice. I don't like Dillard, but thought this essay quite excellent regardless.

  5. Ander, you should write about why you don't like Dillard. Would be interesting. She has faults, can be gnomic and astringent for my taste. All the same, For the Time Being is one of my top ten books of all time.

  6. "Down with Dillard" - Indeed, Ander, I'm waiting for that essay...

  7. Dillard is the sea turtles of literary nonfiction. Maybe I can hit—or at least aim at—both birds with one stone.