Annie Dillard on How to Fly

When Annie Dillard was a kid, she tried to fly down Penn Avenue.

She was aware that people could not fly. But once, just once, she wanted to try something that required all the joy a person could call up in herself. Also, “flying rather famously required the extra energy of belief, and this, too, I had in superabundance,” she wrote in An American Childhood.

So she ran. Down the sidewalk of Penn Avenue, arms flapping fast and high. She knew it was foolish. She knew the whole world could see her. But she knew “you can’t test courage cautiously.” And so she ran. Arms high and waving, joy on the rise.

Then, on the sidewalk, a man in a business suit. But she “banished the temptation to straighten up and walk right,” and ran, arms moving wildly, by him. He avoided her eyes. And she realized how easy it was to ignore him.

“What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish,” she wrote. “Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?”

Next on the sidewalk, a woman in linen. She met the girl’s eye. And the girl saw in the way that only like souls can see that the woman knew what was being attempted “because she herself took a few loose aerial turns around her apartment every night for the hell of it, and by day played along with the rest of the world and took the streetcar.”

Ms. Dillard ran on and on, never once lifting off the sidewalk. And when she slowed to a jog, then a walk, she knew that nothing could touch her now. She had witnessed her own courage, her own defiance of looking foolish in the name of joy.

Plus, as she wrote: “I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity, ever.”

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