Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

My buddy Vince lent me his copy of this very slim collection (just three essays, under 70 pages), saying he’d found it very comforting early in the pandemic and social isolation, and pointing out that the essays refer to Dillard’s time in the Pacific Northwest, when isolation was a bit of a theme for her.

My relationship with Dillard’s writing has been complicated since the beginning, when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and loved it, but not without qualification. We’ve had our ups and downs. When I found out that the rose-printing, bloody-pawed cat at the beginning of that book was a fiction, my trust was broken, and it turns out that I’m still dealing with that.

The three essays that make up Holy the Firm feel representative of Dillard’s work, although perhaps a bit at the abstract end of the spectrum, with fewer (as I told Vince) sticks and bugs than I prefer. It’s the minutia, the close attention to sticks and bugs, that I loved most about Pilgrim. And I am not the intended audience for musings on God, religion, or the church. I found myself often screwing up my face, a bit impatient with her (and when she describes her cat’s behaviors, I’m still hung up on the made-up cat, and unable to buy in). Put briefly, I’m sure this brief collection has a lot to offer the right reader, but it wasn’t for me on the whole.

There were, however, some lovely lines.

The earth is a mineral speckle planted in trees.

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools–that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here…

Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved.

On the other hand, I was suspicious of Dillard’s claim that “No drugs ease the pain of third-degree burns, because burns destroy skin: the drugs simply leak into the sheets.” (Indeed, a few websites indicate otherwise.) I’m not sure I believe in the burning moth in the first essay; I’m suspicious of the story of Julie Norwich (and offended by some of Dillard’s gendered expectations for her). This author and I may not be made for each other. We may have different priorities; we certainly have different rules for what constitutes nonfiction. But I still get to keep what I loved about Pilgrim. It’s nice that books work that way.

My favorite passage in the whole book was the one about buying communion wine.

How can I buy the communion wine? Who am I to buy the communion wine? Someone has to buy the communion wine… Shouldn’t I be wearing robes and, especially, a mask? Shouldn’t I make the communion wine? Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy? There are no holy grapes, there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us…

I’m out on the road again walking, and toting a backload of God.

In the end, I’m left with a sense of dissatisfaction with the essays as a whole, and a sense of grumpiness toward Dillard. But in the details, in individual lines, I definitely found moments to love. Perhaps more than ever, keep in mind that your reaction to this book will be different than my own – recall Vince’s recommendation and appreciation. To each her own.


Rating: 5 accidents.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: