The Maytrees: Annie Dillard

The Maytrees

By Annie Dillard

HarperCollins, 2007

“She knew Christianity stressed the Ten Commandments, Jesus Christ as the only son of God who walked on water and rose up after dying on the cross, the Good Samaritan, and cleanliness is next to godliness.” (from The Maytrees, p 86)

This is an older book. Nearly four years old now. It is not about Christianity; maybe not.

It is about what holds us together and how we fall apart. “I am not going to fall apart, she had told herself…She fell apart.”

It is about love: what makes it, what it is, how it is and why we keep returning to love as the basis of a life well formed and lived. “Why then do old people fall in love? Why stay loving? The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will. It is a gentleman’s game.”

It is about forgiveness. “And forgiveness had nothing to do with it.”

It is about oneness and depth that is a pair of humans who know each other and do not. “Half his life he had sounded her and never struck bottom.”

The book is about The Maytrees; Toby and Lou, their life together and apart. It’s about their hurt and their hope. “We speak, we listen, we wonder, we move…under the sky.”

“She found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch.”

Love is a strange thing. It covers a multitude of sins. It is preeminent among our lists of things we Christian folk ought to do. For God so loved. And, worse, Love one another; deeply. I can’t keep up with that command. I cannot even keep up with the thought of reading it.

It is more than a feeling. It is more than an emotion. It is more than what appears on the surface as a happy face or a warm handshake. Love, true love, is something far more complex than we understand hence those soundings that never quite strike bottom or those kites we fly that never quite reach the sky.

The book is about the way a man loves and the way a woman loves and the way they love each other. It is about what survives when everything else is crashing, falling apart, changing, or coming to an end. Death does not stop love. Infidelity does not stop love. Growing old does not stop love. Broken limbs and hearts do not stop love. Love is presence. Love is an awakening. Love is ours for the asking or the giving. Love is a letter that comes in the mail from an old friend, someone we have tried to forget and haven’t, and so we read it and end up back at square one and start our forgetting and moving on all over again. It’s an edge from which we might slip.

Love is like that, does funny things to our hands and hearts and heads. Love is a glass of gin after many years of estrangement; or a hug.

The best part of the book is found on pages 158-161. All I want to say about these pages is that they make sense for what they say and what they don’t say. What makes our feet move? What makes us go on journeys perilous and terrifying with no way to measure our steps in the dark or balance ourselves against wind, sand, and tree branches hang low in our path and we strike our heads against them. Why do it? Why press on? Why continue moving in the direction of love when our feet are bloodied and our head aches? Why not turn back when we know we should? Why does it matter?

“There far on the right was her light.”

The best four pages in the book are the pages that show the reader that love is and always was but that we have to go through a damn awful lot to realize it. The best four pages in the book describe the journey of a broken man in search of a light in the dark, the one place he hopes to find grace.

And isn’t that the story of us all?

Is it enough if we only realize that love at the end, at death’s door? Whose face will be the face of love? Can we be forgiven for being so obtuse and discovering this too late to undo all that hurt and suffering we have created for ourselves along the way, in our estrangement?

The book is asking: Just how weak is love? Does it have a breaking point?

I recommend this book to you for all of its Annie Dillard beauty and triumph and grit and reality. You will struggle on some sentences and you will need a dictionary close by at times, but it is, as a professor used to say to me of Shakespeare, worth the struggle.

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