A Review:  For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

A Review:  For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999.

Tom Decker

The book was published in 1999.  Where were you then?  Where will you be in 2099?  Read on!

Okay, the book is almost 25 years old but as you may already know, Annie Dillard is a well-known authoress, having won the Pulitzer Prize for her first work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in 1979.  Other books and awards followed.  My volume of For the Time Being, small at 200 pages, carries the book’s ISBN number and a two-word descriptor:  Literature/Philosophy.   Other reviewers hint that Theology is also an apt fit.

Perhaps the publisher told her that she needed “a good introduction.”  She does exactly that:  her succinct overview describes her work as “a nonfiction first-person narrative, but it is not intimate, and its narratives keep breaking.”   (p. 1)  She promises an unusual form with remote scenes, a wide focus, complete with an austere tone.  She doesn’t mince on what is ahead in the seven following chapters:  “scenes from a paleontologist’s explorations in the deserts of China, the thinking of the Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe, a natural history of sand, individual clouds and their moments in time, human birth defects, information about our generation, narrative bits from modern Israel and China, and quizzical encounters with strangers.”  All seeming disparate subjects leading exactly to what?

Dillard’s work contains none of Philosophy 101’s concepts and theorems.  Her forte is the attention to the smallest detail of humanity’s trek through time, and how these details might connect the dots—in time—for all of us.

Does a chaplain/clergy person need this?  Honestly, some will; others, not.  Some points seemed to be apt for the consideration of potential readers.  1)  Her short, pithy, somewhat scary, at times sobering, and yet humorous descriptors is a delight and curries our appetite for what’s next.  2)  Dillard’s big picture is in terms of the time span of the human genus in years, in millennia—and beyond—and yes, towards purpose.  She is not afraid to pore over what we sometimes miss in the news or what we heard in history, or what we think we learned in theology 201.  She raises questions.  She points to new understandings.  She invites wonder.  We should not be surprised.  3)  Without being preachy or intrusive, she relooks man’s contributions to God and vice-versa.  Yes, the contributions—as she sees it—just might go both ways.  She quotes from the rabbinical traditions as well as the Scripture as many have come to know it.  She is respectful in her approach to different traditions, allowing that such wisdom provides insight into our common life on the planet.  4)  Preachers take note:  her writing—that flows from her openness to humans who are perhaps different by birth or circumstance—elicited a choked tear from this reader.   We might well ask, what are we afraid of and dare we go there?  She leads and encourages our company.  5)  With regard to the big question of how we accomplish all that is on our own plate—or the world’s plate—she generously suggests that our control is little to none, and that our time is minuscule!  Good news?  Perhaps that is a tag on the words of Jesus about time’s brief moment for the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:30).  6)  A plus in this work of Dillard is her thoughtful overview of the life work of one Jesuit priest—and decorated WWI Medic from the French Army at Ypres—Teilhard de Chardin.  His story, his work, his view of things, his dismissal by his own religious body—and his love—is interesting and not to be overlooked.  Care to guess who discovered the Peking Man?

Where will you be in 2099?  Yes, that’s a good question!  We all grow towards that time with the provisions of our own faith and prayer.  Right now—needless to say—we are in the time being.  #