P.G. York's One-Elevens

“This is the Life”—Annie Dillard

Any culture tells you how to live your one and only life: to wit as everyone else does. Probably most cultures prize, as ours rightly does, making a contribution by working hard at work that you love; being in the know, and intelligent; gathering a surplus; and loving your family above all, and your dog, your boat, bird-watching. Beyond those things our culture might specialize in money, and celebrity, and natural beauty. These are not universal. You enjoy work and will love your grandchildren, and somewhere in there you die.

Another contemporary consensus might be: You wear the best shoes you can afford, you seek to know Rome’s best restaurants and their staffs, drive the best car, and vacation on Tenerife. And what a cook you are!

Or you take the next tribe’s pigs in thrilling raids; you grill yams; you trade for televisions and hunt white-plumed birds. Everyone you know agrees: this is the life. Perhaps you burn captives. You set fire to a drunk. Yours is the human struggle, or the elite one, to achieve… whatever your own culture tells you: to publish the paper that proves the point; to progress in the firm and gain high title and salary, stock options, benefits; to get the loan to store the beans till their price rises; to elude capture, to feed your children or educate them to a feather edge; or to count coup or perfect your calligraphy; to eat the king’s deer or catch the poacher; to spear the seal, intimidate the enemy, and be a big man or beloved woman and die respected for the pigs or the title or the shoes. Not a funeral. Forget funeral. A big birthday party. Since everyone around you agrees.

Since everyone around you agrees ever since there were people on earth that land is value, or labor is value, or learning is value, or title, necklaces, degree, murex shells, or ownership of slaves. Everyone knows bees sting and ghosts haunt and giving your robes away humiliates your rivals. That the enemies are barbarians. That wise men swim through the rock of the earth; that houses breed filth, airstrips attract airplanes, tornadoes punish, ancestors watch, and you can buy a shorter stay in purgatory. The black rock is holy, or the scroll; or the pangolin is holy, the quetzal is holy, this tree, water, rock, stone, cow, cross, or mountain and it’s all true. The Red Sox. Or nothing at all is holy, as everyone intelligent knows.

Who is your “everyone”? Chess masters scarcely surround themselves with motocross racers. Do you want aborigines at your birthday party? Or are you serving yak-butter tea? Popular culture deals not in its distant past, or any other past, or any other culture. You know no one who longs to buy a mule or be named to court or thrown into a volcano.

So the illusion, like the visual field, is complete It has no holes except books you read and soon forget. And death takes us by storm. What was that, that life? What else offered? If for him it was contract bridge, if for her it was copyright law, if for everyone it was and is an optimal mix of family and friends, learning, contribution, and joy of making and ameliorating what else is there, or was there, or will there ever be?

What else is a vision or fact of time and the peoples it bears issuing from the mouth of the cosmos, from the round mouth of eternity, in a wide and parti-colored utterance. In the complex weave of this utterance like fabric, in its infinite domestic interstices, the centuries and continents and classes dwell. Each people knows only its own squares in the weave, its wars and instruments and arts, and also the starry sky.

Okay, and then what? Say you scale your own weft and see time’s breadth and the length of space. You see the way the fabric both passes among the stars and encloses them. You see in the weave nearby, and aslant farther off, the peoples variously scandalized or exalted in their squares. They work on their projects they flake spear points, hoe, plant; they kill aurochs or one another; they prepare sacrifices as we here and now work on our projects. What, seeing this spread multiply infinitely in every direction, would you do differently? No one could love your children more; would you love them less? Would you change your project? To what? Whatever you do, it has likely brought delight to fewer people than either contract bridge or the Red Sox.

However hypnotized you and your people are, you will be just as dead in their war, our war. However dead you are, more people will come. However many more people come, your time and its passions, and yourself and your passions, weigh equally in the balance with those of any dead who pulled waterwheel poles by the Nile or Yellow rivers, or painted their foreheads black, or starved in the wilderness, or wasted from disease then or now. Our lives and our deaths count equally, or we must abandon one-man-one-vote dismantle democracy, and assign six billion people an importance-of-life ranking from one to six billion—a ranking whose number decreases, like gravity, with the square of the distance between us and them.

What would you do differently, you up on your beanstalk looking at scenes of all peoples at all times in all places? When you climb down, would you dance any less to the music you love, knowing that music to be as provisional as a bug? Somebody has to make jugs and shoes, to turn the soil, fish. If you descend the long rope-ladders back to your people and time in the fabric, if you tell them what you have seen, and even if someone cares to listen, then what? Everyone knows times and cultures are plural. If you come back a shrugging relativist or tongue-tied absolutist, then what? If you spend hours a day looking around, high astraddle the warp or woof of your people’s wall, then what new wisdom can you take to your grave for worms to untangle? Well, maybe you will not go into advertising.

Then you would know your own death better but perhaps not dread it less. Try to bring people up the wall, carry children to see it to what end? Fewer golf courses? What is wrong with golf? Nothing at all. Equality of wealth? Sure; how?

The woman watching sheep over there, the man who carries embers in a pierced clay ball, the engineer, the girl who spins wool into yarn as she climbs, the smelter, the babies learning to recognize speech in their own languages, the man whipping a slave’s flayed back, the man digging roots, the woman digging roots, the child digging roots what would you tell them? And the future people what are they doing? What excitements sweep peoples here and there from time to time? Into the muddy river they go, into the trenches, into the caves, into the mines, into the granary, into the sea in boats. Most humans who were ever alive lived inside one single culture that never changed for hundreds of thousands of years; archaeologists scratch their heads at so conservative and static a culture.

Over here, the rains fail; they are starving. There, the caribou fail; they are starving. Corrupt leaders take the wealth. Not only there but here. Rust and smut spoil the rye. When pigs and cattle starve or freeze, people die soon after. Disease empties a sector, a billion sectors.

People look at the sky and at the other animals. They make beautiful objects, beautiful sounds, beautiful motions of their bodies beating drums in lines. They pray; they toss people in peat bogs; they help the sick and injured; they pierce their lips, their noses, ears; they make the same mistakes despite religion, written language, philosophy, and science; they build, they kill, they preserve, they count and figure, they boil the pot, they keep the embers alive; they tell their stories and gird themselves.

Will knowledge you experience directly make you a Buddhist? Must you forfeit excitement per se? To what end?

Say you have seen something. You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real, the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?

 

Dillard, Annie.  “This is the Life.” Harpers Magazine (June 2002).

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39 thoughts on ““This is the Life”—Annie Dillard

  1. Tzu Wei Lin on said:

    “So the illusion, like the visual field, is complete. It has no holes except books you read and soon forget.”I really like how Dillard is telling how narrow minded we are and we how we won’t give other perspective a chance or a look. We are so use to our world that we don’t go out and explore the other worlds. I’m really glad I read this, I felt that this is a great read.
    “Say you have seen something. You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real, the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?” this would have to be one of my favorite line, its a great way to end the read. It had me thinking.

  2. I also liked your favorite, line but I also liked the being line, because when we read it we kind of say yes to ourselves, but some how deep down we know that, that is not true. Although we like to think of it as true, because we all some how belong to some sort of community as are looking be approved of the choices we make.

    • Tzu Wei Lin (Vivian) on said:

      Yeah, like we never really go outside of our bubble. The reason why you like the line makes a lot of sense too, and it is true, we never really explore the world outside of our world.

      • Erik-Scott Lunsford on said:

        I agree, I think overall the piece talks about the importance healthy doubt. We will never have all the answers, so be prepared to lose the ones you’re holding onto.

  3. This story makes one think in a certain way, at first we agree with what she says, then we really think abut it and change our mind. When we are making choices we look to our community and to our culture for help. I enjoy the who essay it was very interesting to see her opinions of the world and what she thinks the world thinks of it.

    • I agree with you too. In the beginning of the story you’re nodding in your head as you read because you agree with the author. But as you keep on reading she makes you thing more and more.

    • Marc Robles on said:

      I agree with you as well. It basically makes you think and one person’s opinion in life is different from another person’s opinion.

    • Melissa Ortiz on said:

      I agree with you. In the beginning she tells us things for us to agree with her then later on she throws a curve ball making us change our opinions.

  4. Andrea Amaya on said:

    “Who is your “everyone”? Chess masters scarcely surround themselves with motocross racers. Do you want aborigines at your birthday party? Or are you serving yak-butter tea? Popular culture deals not in its distant past, or any other past, or any other culture. You know no one who longs to buy a mule or be named to court or thrown into a volcano.”
    I think this paragraph is trying to say that our lives are filled with people we have similar interests with. No one is going to want to spent a life surrounded by people you don’t like.

  5. In the beginning of the story everything she was saying I was agreeing with her. Then she started to talk about thing everyone would agree on, no matter there background. In example “everyone knows a bee stings”. It the asked who is “everyone”. I really like how the way she makes you think is just like the lecture in class when saying everyone has a different background. When we read a story everyone reads it from a different perspective and it has it’s own meaning to different people.

  6. Matthew Iimura on said:

    I agree with other people how the author is talking about some thing that is in our lives that satisfy us. But later on, the author talk about the negative side of the lives. I think the author is trying to tell the readers that human should care more about some thing that will make the world a better place.

    • i think that its the other way around actually because if u look at the negative side of life too much u start to question everything. the author just wants to make sure everyone is using their own brains to think

    • JAYMI SCOTT on said:

      Exactly. Because in the end, no one will be happy with possessions they have earned. There is a meaning to life way more meaningful than “livin the good life.”

  7. i think in a sense the author is checking to see if we are actually reading, kind of like when a teacher says something that is incorrect on purpose to see if the class is paying attention. It makes u really zone in and pay attention and really think about what the essay has to offer. the main point i think is to think freely

  8. This essay is kind of random to me. I believe what author wants to say is fatalistic.

  9. Marc Robles on said:

    This is basically a person’s opinion on life. It started off as a typical life depending on the person, but it soon goes into more of a deeper state that a person might have a negative view on it. I liked this because it makes you think.

  10. Estefania Ramirez on said:

    I actually found this to be very interesting. As I read on, I would constantly find myself going back and forth trying to understand what she meant in every single line like Mr. York taught us in class. I found myself getting a deeper meaning as I kept reading. This definitely made me think and go more into depth.

  11. Aaron Schoonover on said:

    I think that this essay is basically showing us the different aspects of life through different cultures and time periods, at first it starts with the modern day life our wants and needs then makes a drastic turn to things that people today can’t imagine happening.

    • Stephen Smith on said:

      I agree with Aaron, this short story is showing us different aspects of life through cultures. The only thing that i would add, is that the author does this to show how close mined we are. And how scared society is of change.

    • Carissa Hart on said:

      I also agree with Aaron as well, Dillard tries to lure her audience into seeing the different aspects of life through cultures and time periods. Yet, what she really does is to show even though people came from different periods of time, the thought of “what is the best thing to have in life”, became all too similar in every case. Whether it was having a mule, land, money, natural beauty, etc., materialistic things has still kept its toll on us.

    • Melissa Castillo on said:

      I also agree with Aaron that the author is trying to portray the different aspects of life through diverse cultures and different time periods. I feel like the author is trying to stress the importance of being exposed to different cultures and their “way of life”.

  12. Stephen Smith on said:

    After reading this short story by Annie Dillard. I realized how true it is that almost everybody in a society has the same thoughts on what life is. Or what the good things in life our, and what the bad things in life our. She makes a strong point in showing her readers how closed mined we our. Annie Dillard gives us the impression that we as a society are so used to our everyday life, that we don’t want to change it around our try new different things.

    One of my favorite parts of Annie Dillard’s book is “Any culture tells you how to live your one and only life: to wit as everyone else does.” This quote from the story makes it extremely clear to me, that everybody that is involved in this culture or society really does have the same mind set. Which we can all see in our everyday life’s.

    • Mikeal Anderson on said:

      I completely agree with you. Everybody has the same mindset and thought process. Although our personalities may be different our thoughts will always be the same.

    • Andrew Duong on said:

      I agree with Stephen. We are closed minded and we think we know what’s good or bad.

  13. When I read this poem, I felt like Dillard was trying to explain how we have become so closed minded. We don’t give other peoples cultures and perspectives a chance. Also, we have to learn how to develop our own idea rather than using someone elses.

  14. JAYMI SCOTT on said:

    Dillard was making the point that most everyone is so consumed in the small aspects of life such as our possessions, our goals, our incentive to work and go far; but it is important to look outside of that realm and see the main picture of life and why we are here. I believe she tried to express multiple things: our purpose in the days we have is to make an impact that will last generations, and also that there are things out there that we are not aware of and we need to expand our knowledge of.

  15. Mikeal Anderson on said:

    After reading this short story I have reached 2 conclusions. The first being everyone in society and our culture having identical mindsets. I didn’t really put that into prospective until now. We all as individuals place ourselves in a culture that some how relates to us and live our life based off of that culture. The second this is that society is losing originality.

  16. Carissa Hart on said:

    Dillard picked pieces from different places on what exactly life means to everyone. Whether, it is having the best things or none at all, life for anyone is different. It seemed that she considered human society itself is narrow-minded on various things about life: “Beyond those things our culture might specialize in money, and celebrity, and natural beauty. These are not universal.” The more Dillard went on about life, how when it turns against you, our culture does as well and becomes a struggle. “Since everyone around you agrees ever since there were people on earth that land is value, or labor is value, or learning is value, or title, necklaces, degree, murex shells, or ownership of slaves.” She points out that success is different for everyone, but as a whole it comes together that people need specific things to be better than others. People were raised on that belief itself, strongly suggesting that life is better and fufilling if people have things others won’t have. Dillard’s piece itself questions society and their choices on knowing what exactly is life meant to be?

    • maressa villa on said:

      i agree with you. i believe there is no exact meaning to what life is meant to be. i believe its based on the individual.

  17. maressa villa on said:

    writing about life is a vast concept for people. I feel like the author was trying to write to reach out all the audiences of people there are. mentioning religion or people who like the Red Sox, per say. but i feel like she was trying too hard to reach out to many audiences that she didnt really get her point across to what is “the life”?

  18. Andrew Duong on said:

    I think the author is trying to get the readers to see other people point of view in other cultures. We don’t try to learn how other cultures function, we just judge them on how they look.

  19. I agree with everyone when they said that the author was trying to make sure that we are paying attention because at times I had to go back and read it because i started to doze off. I think the main point in this was to show different perspectives of different places and people. It makes you feel like you are actually there.

  20. Melissa Ortiz on said:

    Annie Dillard makes us see the worl as we see it, in the beginning of her passage. Throughout the passage, she has us agreeing with what she says about the world. Then later on she switches gears and makes us think about what she really means making us change our minds. I liked this piece because Dillard made me think about things i normally don’t think about.

  21. Erik-Scott Lunsford on said:

    I think this piece speaks about how transient what we hold as “truth” is in reality. Sometimes we allow our perspectives to be small, and we are not aware of our true position in this universe.

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