A dream consists of little more than its setting, as anyone knows who tells a dream or hears a dream told:
We were squeezing up the stone street of an Old World village.
We were climbing down the gangway of an oceangoing ship, carrying a baby.
We broke through the woods on the crest of a ridge and saw water; we grounded our blunt raft on a charred point of land.
We were lying on boughs of a tree in an alley.
We were dancing in a darkened ballroom, and the curtains were blowing.
The setting of our urgent lives is an intricate maze whose blind corridors we learn one by one—village street, ocean vessel, forested slope—without remembering how or where they connect in space.
You travel, settle, move on, stay put, go. You point your car down the riverside road to the blurred foot of the mountain. The mountain rolls back from the floodplain and hides its own height in its trees. You get out, stand on gravel, and cool your eyes watching the river move south. You lean on the car’s hot hood and look up at the old mountain, up the slope of its green western flank. It is September; the golden rod is out, and the asters. The tattered hardwood leaves darken before they die. The mountain occupies most of the sky. You can see where the route ahead through the woods will cross a fire scar, will vanish behind a slide of shale, and perhaps reemerge there on that piny ridge now visible across the hanging valley—that ridge apparently inaccessible, but with a faint track that fingers its greenish spine. You don’t notice starting to walk; the sight of the trail has impelled you along it, as the sight of the earth moves the sun.
Before you the mountain’s body curves away backward like a gymnast; the mountain’s peak is somewhere south, rolled backward, too, and out of sight. Below you lies the pale and widening river; its far bank is forest now, and hills, and more blue hills behind them, hiding the yellow plain. Overhead and on the mountain’s side, clouds collect and part. The clouds soak the ridges; the wayside plants tap water on your legs.
Now: if here while you are walking, or there when you’ve attained the far ridge and can see the yellow plain and the river shining through it—if you notice unbidden, that you are afoot on this particular mountain on this particular day in the company of these particular changing fragments of clouds,—if you pause in your daze to connect your own skull-locked and interior mumble with the skin of your senses and sense, and notice you are living,—then will you not conjure up in imagination a map or a globe and locate this mountain ridge on it, and find on one western slope the dot which represents you walking here astonished?
You may then wonder where they have they gone, those other dots that were you: you in the flesh swimming in a swift river, swinging a bat on the first pitch, opening a footlocker with a screwdriver, inking and painting clowns on celluloid, stepping out of a revolving door into the swift crowd on a sidewalk, being kissed and kissing till your brain grew smooth, stepping out of the cold woods into a warm field full of crows, or lying awake in bed aware of your legs and suddenly aware of all of it, that the ceiling above you was under the sky—in what country, what town?
You may wonder, that is, as I sometimes wonder privately, but it doesn’t matter. For it is not you or I that is important, neither what sort we might be nor how we came to be each where we are. What is important is anyone’s coming awake and discovering a place, find- ing in full orbit a spinning globe one can lean over, catch, and jump on. What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch—with an electric hiss and cry—this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.
On Your Mountain Slope now you must take on faith that those apparently discrete dots of you were contiguous: that little earnest dot, so easily amused; that alien, angry adolescent; and this woman with loosening skin on bony hands, hands now fifteen years older than your mother’s hands when you pinched their knuckle skin into mountain ridges on Robin Ottawa an end table. You must take on faith that those severed places cohered, too—the dozens of desks, bedrooms, kitchens, yards, landscapes—if only through the motion and shed molecules of the traveler. You take it on faith that the multiform and variously lighted latitudes and longitudes were part of one world, that you didn’t drop chopped from house to house, coast to coast, life to life, but in some once comprehensible way moved there, a city block at a time, a highway mile at a time, a degree of latitude and longitude at a time, carrying a fielder’s mitt and the Penguin Rimbaud for old time’s sake, and a sealed envelope, like a fetish, of untouchable stock certificates someone one hundred years ago gave your grandmother, and a comb. You take it on faith, for the connections are down now, the trail grown over, the highway moved; you can’t remember despite all your vowing and memorization, and the way back is lost.
Your very cells have been replaced, and so have most of your feelings—except for two, two that connect back as far as you can remember. One is the chilling sensation of lowering one foot into a hot bath. The other, which can and does occur at any time, never fails to occur when you lower one foot into a hot bath, and when you feel the chill spread inside your shoulders, shoot down your arms and rise to your lips, and when you remember having felt this sensation from always, from when your mother lifted you down toward the bath and you curled up your legs: it is the dizzying overreal sensation of noticing that you are here. You feel life wipe your face like a big brush.
You may read this in your summer bed while the stars roll westward over your roof as they always do, while the constellation Crazy Swan nosedives over your steaming roof and into the tilled prairie once again. You may read this in you winter chair while Orion vaults over your snowy roof and over the hard continent to dive behind a California wave. “O’Ryan,” Father called Orion, “that Irishman.” Any two points in time, however distant, meet through the points in between; any two points in our atmosphere touch through the air. So we meet.
I write this at a wide desk in a pine shed as I always do these recent years, in this life I pray will last, while the summer sun closes the sky to Orion and to all the other winter stars over my roof. The young oaks growing just outside my windows wave in the light, so that concentrating, lost in the past, I see the pale leaves wag and think as my blood leaps: Is someone coming?
Is it Mother coming for me, to carry me home? Could it be my own young, my own glorious Mother, coming across the grass for me, the morning light on her skin, to get me and bring me back? Back to where I last knew all I needed, the way to her two strong arms?
And I wake a little more and reason, No, it is the oak leaves in the sun, pale as a face. I am here now, with this my own dear family, up here at this high latitude, out here at the farthest exploratory tip of this my present bewildering age. And still I break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day, as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive.
Annie Dillard is an author and poet. She was awarded the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the 2014 National Humanities Medal among many other honors. She is currently a Professor emeritus at Wesleyan University.
From An American Childhood. Copyright ©1987 by Annie Dillard. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.