Our Daily Breather: Reading To Stay Present During The Pandemic
Our Daily Breather is a series where we ask writers and artists to recommend one thing that's helping them get through the days of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Who: Cyrena Touros
Where: Washington, D.C.
Recommendation: Re-reading a beloved book
At the beginning of the year, I pulled my copy of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek down from the bookshelf of my teenage bedroom. I wanted to send it to a friend, along with all the notes my 17-year-old self scribbled in the margins and underlined in black pen. It's actually one of the few books I own that I've marked up, and it felt a bit like an unintentional gift from my younger self to my present one.
Pilgrim details a year of Dillard's life in Virginia's Tinker Creek, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the days warmed, I wanted to digest the book in a similar atmosphere, maybe find a nice, quiet spot by running water and sit to read, but instead I've been confined to my back patio. While some of my favorite passages are of Dillard just roasting insects ("Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another"), the chapter I keep revisiting is called "The Present."
"Time is the one thing we have been given," she writes, "and we have been given to time. Time gives us a whirl. We keep waking from a dream we can't recall, looking around in surprise, and lapsing back, for years on end. All I want to do is stay awake, keep my head up, prop my eyes open, with toothpicks, with trees."
I selected this quote and began writing this reflection before a Minneapolis policeman, who is now charged with murder, killed George Floyd on May 25. I wanted to talk about staying grounded in the present; I learned a long time ago that training yourself to live for only the good parts of life will steal the years away from you — especially when difficult moments stretch on and on and on.
I was 15 years old when a man killed Trayvon Martin in my home state; I was the same age as Michael Brown when he died and I went to my first protest. And I'm thinking about how unfair it is that I have changed so much in this past decade — since I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, since I first watched a black boy's cruel death become a national news story — when in some ways, the world has changed so little. As journalists across the country reopen the argument about "objectivity" — about how newsroom guidelines, often set by white corporate media, wittingly or not work in the interest of people in power — and as I grapple with what to do in the meantime, the challenge I set for myself is to not look away. To, as Dillard says, stay awake, keep my head up and prop my eyes open as a witness.
Cyrena Touros is an assistant editor at NPR Music.