Yep, I’m pissed at Annie Dillard and Poets & Writers

“I don’t read as many women as I’m told I should be reading. I don’t like doing what I am expected to do.” (Annie Dillard from the March/April 2016 issue of Poets and Writers)

I tried to let it go. I tried to let it go because I couldn’t quite put words around the bitter irritation I felt when I read the above quote in Poets & Writers. And then this morning, birdsong through the open window, a cup of hot coffee on the bedside table, my computer in my lap, on the screen as I peruse books suggested for me, it pops up, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard, and I am tossed like a soured dishcloth right back into the seamy, acidity of pissedoffedness.

Yes, I’m pissed off.  I want that damned book. I want it so badly. If I hadn’t read that article in Poets and Writers a couple of weeks ago, the book would be sandwiched between two sheets of bubble wrap ensconced in a cardboard box and traveling in a squared off brown truck to my house right now. Much to my husband’s dismay, I have one-click ordering enabled. Truth be told, that fucking tome would already be in my bookhungry little hands because it came out on the 16th

How could one of the greatest writers of all time (in my opinion the essays of How to Teach a Stone to Talk and the dizzying array of questions asked in For the Time Being comprise some of the most compelling writing I have ever read) not know how to answer this simple question–What about women, are there any women writers you like?  I am angry because I am not stupid. I know what it means when Dillard says, “I don’t do what I’m supposed to do,” as if reading women writers is a chore.

It’s not a fucking chore.

Annie Dillard couldn’t answer the question Garnette Cadogan posed–“Are there any women writers you like?”–with a name or two. She was coy and dismissive. We are to suppose that she’s a freer spirit, unbound by dictates that the rest of us women and men have imposed upon ourselves concerning women writers.

Why am I so pissed about this? It’s the opinion of one writer in a world with many opinionated writers. Why do I want to take Annie Dillard to task for her outdated and outmoded beliefs; after all, I’m sure she doesn’t consider herself to be a feminist, and she certainly doesn’t give a shit what a curvy menopausal feminist writer from the midwest thinks about her interview.

Do I believe the Annie Dillard owes me something–me as a woman writer? I don’t think I do, and I could silence myself pretty darn quick if that was all there was at stake, but there is something else in her statement–I don’t read many women writers. I suppose I don’t like to do what I’m supposed to do–a disdain and discomfort with women writers. John Freeman doesn’t call Dillard out in the interview, no he goes on to tell the reader that “you can almost hear the pops and fizzes of combustion as the flue clears and Dillard’s mind gulps down the oxygen it has been feeding on for years–books. It’s something to behold.” What am I  to take away from this but that the brilliant and awe-inspiring Dillard must be right when she can’t come up with a name or two–you know, women’s names–because there are no women worth reading.

Dillard’s dismissal stings. But really, Poets and Writers, your dismissal stings too.

I’m not pissed because my hero has fallen.  No, that’s not it. Listen, I think it’s total bullshit that she created the fucking cat in Pilgrim which won a Pulitzer prize. I think it’s bullshit that she was living at home in suburbia with a husband and the narrative reads as if she is living alone–you know, the pilgrim schtick–out in the wilderness. She wasn’t. I knew all of that before I read the book, so there was no falling involved. I took her as she was–brilliant and flawed.  I could let that go because the other writing, Holy the Firm, Teaching a Stone to Talk, For the Time Being  was so damned good.

But now it’s not good enough. That might seem like a short answer, one that doesn’t take into account the above-mentioned brilliance, but as a woman who writes, a woman who has chosen to read only women writers in this 50th year of life, a writer who needs, wants, loves the voices of other women, voices that have been shut down, shut out, discounted, pissed on, and choked at the tiny tendril where voice occurs; for this woman there is no longer room for women (or men) who find the voices I find so essential to be a chore.

Dillard writes into a tradition of great male writers and thinkers. And apparently, there is no room for women (other than Dillard herself) among them. Listen, I am not discounting those voices, those great male voices. But like all other great things, those voices came to life on the backs of the voiceless. I find Dillard’s comments grossly ignorant and mean. Yes, mean.

So I’m not buying her new book even though I love new books, collections of great writing between hard covers. I love nothing more than flipping through the unread pages, deciding where and when I will begin to read, catching glimpses of awe and wonder. But Annie Dillard is not the tradition I want to write into. I want to write into a tradition that has within it the silenced, the brushed-off, the disregarded.

I don’t like doing what I’m expected to do either.




A Story About Type 1 Diabetes

I smelled it.

Untreated or undiagnosed or unacknowledged Type 1 Diabetes smells like fingernail polish remover, and I smelled that on my 14-year old daughter, Peanut, three years ago today.

I was the only one who smelled it, and I smelled it for a week, on her breath and on her skin. I sniffed her for a week while she slept—and she was sleeping a lot—while she ate, while she watched TV. This irritated her a great deal, and I can see why. Every time she turned around, there I was with my nose in her hair, or trying to get a whiff of her breath. I knew something was wrong.

There were other symptoms, sure. She was losing weight which could be explained away by her age—14. She was hormonal. Her body was changing. Things were shifting as she grew taller. She was eating strange things like Frosted Flakes or Snickers candy bars, and she was drinking soda and lots and lots and lots of water. She peed all the time. Of course, I attributed the peeing to the water drinking and I attributed the water drinking to the weight loss—I thought it was a strategy, one I had used my entire life; drink more water in order to fill up and not eat so much food.

It wasn’t a strategy.

The night before the diagnosis, Thursday, March 14th, the fingernail polish remover smell rippled around Peanut like a gas leak, and so I asked a lot more people to smell Peanut’s breath because she and I and about 20 family cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles were at a charity bingo that would raise money for cancer research. Not one aunt or uncle or grandparent or cousin smelled that fingernail polish remover smell on her breath which should have consoled me; however, it did not console me because I COULD smell it; at this point, I thought I could see it.

I didn’t sleep that night because I was busy shuffling into Peanut’s room to smell her. Did I really smell it? Each time I leaned in for another sniff, I answered the question. Yes, I still smell it. In the morning before I woke her, I smelled her again, and knew I would have to do something. I woke her, took her to school, and then googled this: “Breath that smells like fingernail polish remover.”

And there was Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz and diabetes.

Now most of the time, I’m glad to see Dr. Oz. He is a familiar doctor face with interesting ideas and strategies for good health. He’s a friend of Oprah’s! In fact, a few years ago, I saw his face in an ad for Acai Berry supplements for weight loss, and I bought the Acai berry supplements for weight loss because I thought that if Dr. Oz allowed his face to be used in the ad, Acai berry supplements must work. But this time Dr. Oz’s face (and his words, I believe) donned an article about diabetes. Dr. Oz said that a fingernail polish remover smell was ketones and it could mean diabetes. Just like before when he was selling Acai Berry supplements, I believed Dr. Oz about the diabetes. I finally knew why my daughter gave off the distinct scent of fingernail polish remover even though she never painted her fingernails and thus had no reason to be removing polish.

I called our pediatrician’s office after the Google thing, and told the receptionist the story about the fingernail polish remover and the Googling I had done and I said that I suspected, but wasn’t sure, of course, that Peanut’s blood sugar might be high. I asked her if our doctor would order a glucose test. The receptionist promised to talk to the doctor and get back to me.

And then I took a walk. You see, there was a part of me that already knew Peanut had diabetes and there was a part of me that refused to believe it could be true. The part of me that refused to believe it could be true went out for a nice walk and saw some things that seemed like omens–crows that may have been plain old black birds, gray skies and intermittent sun. I knew and I didn’t know. I don’t remember how long I walked while I waited for the phone call, but soon the phone I carried rang, and the receptionist said I should retrieve my daughter and bring her in for a blood test.

The day sped up. I called the principal, my sister, and asked her to have Peanut ready, and when I made it to the school, Peanut was sitting pale and drawn in my sister’s office. On the way to the blood test, I explained that we were going to rule out diabetes. Or maybe I didn’t even say diabetes at all. I was still toying with the slight chance that I was a worrywart with a tumor that caused me to smell strange scents on other people. Can’t tumors cause you to smell strange scents?

At the clinic, a lab tech drew blood, and then Peanut and I went out for lunch before I dropped her off at school. Back at home I sat at my computer reading over and over the same symptoms of diabetes I had read over and over all morning whenever I had a chance. Within ten minutes the doctor called. He was and still is a kind man, and as a conversation opener he asked me what had been going on with Peanut. I told him about the weight loss and the water drinking and the strange fingernail polish remover smell that prompted me to bring her in. And after I listed these symptoms, hoping that I didn’t sound like an Internet website, the doctor said he believed that Peanut did have diabetes because her blood sugar was over 300 (a regular blood sugar a few hours after breakfast would have been under 100).

And not only did Peanut most likely have diabetes, but we would need to take her to a hospital. I listened and agreed to the hospital bit, even the part where he said she would need to go to Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. Then he paused and said that he hoped I understood that he meant now. That she would have to go to a hospital now. I think I did understand this in a way, but in another way I didn’t understand it in that as long as we were talking about it we didn’t have to start acting. But he made it clear by saying that I needed to go get my daughter right now from the school and I needed to take her to the E-room of our local hospital, so they could stabilize her before putting her in an ambulance to leave for St. Louis.

He said stabilize her.

I remained calm, outwardly. But I said stabilize her over and over. I said to my husband who was home for lunch. Go get finished up at work while I pick Peanut up and take her to the hospital, so they can stabilize her. I called my parents, I’m taking Peanut to the hospital. She has diabetes, and they need to stabilize her. I called the principal and told her, Get Peanut out of class, I’m on my way to get her. We have to go to the hospital, so they can stabilize her.

Stabilize her scared the shit out of me. Stabilize her is not something you want others to have to do to your daughter.

Peanut, in desperate need of stabilizing, looked very scared when I picked her up.

My husband met us at the hospital where we talked to one of those traveling ER docs. He was short with thin dark hair and squinty dark eyes. He hooked Peanut up to an IV so she could receive enough insulin to stabilize her. While we waited for the stabilizing of Peanut, the little doctor told us something I still don’t understand. He explained with lots of hand movement and an encouraging smile that Peanut was lucky to have the good type of diabetes. And I still wonder if he meant she was lucky not to have the sort of diabetes in which there is a stigma—the sort of diabetes folks think you have given to yourself because you have eaten too much or haven’t watched your weight. And I thought then and I still think now that it is so much bullshit to blame people for their illnesses, and I didn’t listen to him a whole lot after that although it is entirely possible that I wasn’t listening very well to begin with, and perhaps I got confused about what he was trying to tell me because my baby was lying in a hospital bed and was getting read to be taken to a children’s hospital almost three hours away, and they were still stabilizing her.

And when they finally stabilized my daughter, they rolled her into the back of an ambulance, and my husband and I got into our van and drove to St. Louis.

The nice people at the children’s hospital told us we were lucky Peanut was diagnosed on a Friday because diabetes education was unavailable on Sundays, so we had one extra day to learn about taking blood sugars and giving injections and dangerous lows and Diabetic Ketoacidosis. And when we left on Monday afternoon after finishing our education, we didn’t think we knew enough, and we were very worried all the time.

And this hasn’t changed. I remain worried all the time. But when you must, you can push the worry back. And I do this. Sometimes I do this because I am brave and strong and other times I do this because I am drinking wine on a Friday evening.

It seems to me that many illness stories require a big change in the people affected. We like our narratives to prove that getting sick can change our lives for the better. I do not like those sorts of stories because diabetes hasn’t changed our lives for the better in any way. It did change things.

Mostly it stripped me of the illusion that I can control anything, that I can keep my children safe. When I say this, I imagine that people who hear me say it think that I’m wrong, that I can do lots of things right and that it makes a difference, and I’m sure that in the way they are thinking this, they are correct; but what I know is that nothing I did or didn’t do could have changed this. And that is a hard pill to swallow. There is no blame. It’s not about me.


Our lives changed three years ago, for sure, but lots didn’t change. For example, Peanut is beautiful, smart, funny, and extremely messy. Her room is a scary scary place. This was true three years ago.

Last night, I read this post aloud to Peanut who sat on the couch next to me, her head on my shoulder. We both cried.

Stories connect us. We tell them to make sense of what we do not understand, and there are times, like this morning, when understanding remains elusive. And still, we try.






The Bra Fitting

It’s Saturday late afternoon. My daughter, Peanut, the makeup artist, has skillfully applied foundation to even out my complexion,  dark eyeliner and a sweep of black mascara to “pop my eyes.” Tonight is the Art Auction, an event that Eric and I attend every two years, and all I need now is the outfit.

And of course, this is where trouble makes an entrance.

I try on three pair of pants (more than once), five shirts, and a long skirt that makes me look witchy. I try a myriad of clothing combinations. Nothing works, nothing transforms me into a 49-year-old woman you might see in the pages of O Magazine

I do, however, have a great bra.


I am a short curvy woman who consistently tries on clothes made for a more willowy type. When I’m in a dressing room, the mirror never fails to call me out.

Okay, it’s not the mirror’s fault. There are a couple of things going on–one, I am not a tall, long-legged creature made for the flowy clothes that such women can wear, and two, the lighting in those hellholes is awful. A few weeks ago, I found myself (did I wander in there drugged?) in a dressing room with a pile of ill-fitting but beautiful clothes.

Here’s what happened.

I go to Dillard’s and try on about 700 different items and not one of them transforms me into a beautiful lithe hippie with long flowing tresses and kick-ass legs. By the time I pull the last unflattering lacy poet top over my head and toss it on the mound of clothes I’ve discarded, I’m just done–no more shirts, no more pants, no more skirts. They look beautiful, so damned beautiful, on the hangers. But what happens to those clothes between the hanger and my body is a fucking horror show.

This is how I end up in the basement looking at bras.

I need new bras. And I need them in the right size. The last five years have added another D to my 34D, and I’ve been bulging from the sides of my bras for a couple of months now. Imagine it, it’s not pretty. At my sister’s insistence, I ordered a Wacoal bra in a 34DD, and it fit like a dream, so while I’m in Dillard’s I decide to pick up two more.

I’m contemplating the advantages of a t-shirt bra with slight padding when a beautiful young woman with long dark hair and a tape measure draped casually around her neck approaches me. I try to avoid eye contact. I have taken note of the signs advertising today’s promotional bra fitting, and I’d prefer a flea bath to a bra fitting. But the young bra-fitter isn’t dissuaded by my lack of interest in her hovering.

She’s quite sweet when she asks that god-awful question, “Can I help you?”

And I’m sweet too when I tell her that I don’t  need any help, I’m just here to pick out a couple of bras. I already know my size, thank you very much.

She’s persistent though, and reminds me that even though I know my bra size, often bras are different and while one bra may fit me perfectly, I could need a different size in another.

I find myself nodding and before I know it, I have agreed to the bra fitting.

She shows me to the spacious dressing room, and let me tell you, it’s lovely in there. Walls in varying shades of gold and cream, lighting warm and soft–the whole place exudes comfort. I sit on the small but comfortable settee in front of the first decent mirror I’ve seen all day, and I wait.


It’s only a minute or two before my own attendant swishes in. Her name is Nancy. She appears to be a couple of years older than I am. She wears a dark skirt, a nice crisp purple blouse, and a measuring tape around her neck.

“Just take your shirt off,” Nancy says, “and I’ll get a measurement.”

Now, I’m not super modest. Even with all my body image hangups–and they are legion–I’m not overly concerned about getting naked, and still it’s awkward taking my shirt off in front of Nancy. I’m beginning to think the only thing that would make this dressing room a lovelier place would be a nice glass of red wine even if it is only 10:30 AM. But Nancy neglects to offer up a glass of wine though she does look away as I pull the yellow sweatshirt over my head.

I stand there, topless and without wine, and raise my arms up while she flourishes the tape measure around my back and then up between my breasts in a couple of practiced moves. Before I know it, she has taken notes and is out the door in search of the right bras for me.

Again, I sit on that nice comfy couch looking at myself, but this time I am sans shirt. And while the shirtless part is not quite as pleasant, it’s not horrible. What is this place?

And before I begin bemoaning my reflection, Nancy is back with four bras. And let me tell you, she is one slick fitter.

Ever so gently and in a mild and lulling tone, she asks me to turn around so that my back faces her. She explains, “I’m going to bring the bra around in front of you, and you just put your arms through the straps.”

So I turn and Nancy swings the first bra around me and I morph into an octopus, flinging my eight arms around in extreme effort.  But she is one deft bra maven, and soon I have calmed down enough to maneuver my arms through the straps while twittering maniacally. Cool as a cucumber, that Nancy pretends not to notice my strange giggles while hooking the bra around my rib cage. In that same lulling voice, she instructs me, “Now scoop the breast and position the nipple in the center of the cup.”

Okay, it’s a little weird sounding. I am at first taken aback. But each time she tries another perfectly fitting bra on me, each time I twirl around and look in that mirror that flatters even my half-naked self, each time she instructs me again to scoop the breast and position the nipple in the center of the cup, I am gently reassured that all is right in this one little corner of Dillard’s.

I buy four, count them, four expensive bras. And I am as delighted as if I’d purchased a new wardrobe.

And this brings me back to Saturday evening pre-art auction. I call Peanut back to my room and ask her help in picking out an outfit, and you know what–I end up looking and feeling pretty great.

Why is asking for help so fucking hard?

I suppose it’s that damned vulnerability stuff again. One has to be vulnerable in order to ask for help. I need a reminder, and thanks to Nancy and that warm comfy dressing room at Dillard’s, I will be wearing a 34DD reminder on my chest for a long time to come.

“Scoop the breast and position the nipple in the center of the cup.”

Thanks Nancy.