(Reprinted with permission from The Boston Globe, written by Elizabeth Knies.)
In this new work of nonfiction, For the Time Being, Dillard again guides us through the macrocosm and microcosm that are by now her familiar terrain. At first the book seems a series of random jottings—journal entries, perhaps. Notes from trips to China and Israel and observations made during visits to an obstetrical ward are interwoven with natural histories of two rather improbable commodities: sand and clouds
The main characters, or “presences,” in For the Time Being recur like musical motifs. One of the most compelling is the French scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, affectionately referred to as “the paleontologist.” As other personages, including the Jewish holy man known as the Baal Shem Tov, emerge in pithy anecdotes and quotations, the central questions of the text begin to reveal themselves: What does life mean? What is the nature of God? Why does evil exist? Can a single life have any value? To put it more concretely: Does the production line of healthy newborns in an average obstetrical ward offset the disconcerting fact that bird-headed dwarfs and babies with tails and gills also pop into the world with some regularity?Tackling these concerns with her usual aplomb, Annie Dillard reports that, in fact, eons after its inception, the human race is still collectively shaky about its raison d’ tre. One thing individuals agree about is that they enjoy being alive. We’d prefer to, as Dillard puts it, “skip death.” While each new generation may be convinced that things are going to hell in a handbasket, none would want to miss the ride.
Dillard muses, “What, if anything, does God do? If God does not cause everything that happens, does God cause anything that happens?... Does God stick a finger in, if only now and then?” Among the many pleasures in the pages of For the Time Being you will find these questions most thoughtfully considered.
He was forty-two years old, tall and narrow, fine-featured. He wore a big felt hat, like a cowboy, and heavy boots. Rough weather had cut lines on his face. He had carried stretchers during World War I for a regiment of sharpshooters. His courage at the front—at Ypres, Arras, and Verdun—won him several medals which the surviving men of his regiment requested for him. One of his fellows recalled his “absolute contempt for danger” as he mounted parapets under fire. They shortened his name—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—to Teilhard, “Tay-YAR” in French.
—from For the Time Being