I have been reading the novels of Marilynne Robinson the past several weeks. She writes with such grace and intelligence that I find myself rereading sections several times over to savor their exquisite taste and, in some instances, to make sure I have grasped the meaning of what she has written.
The best writing can often be difficult. One does not want a piece of writing, as the poet Marianne Moore so aptly puts it, “ to be so derivative as to be unintelligible.” But one does wish for the intelligible to be worthy of some thought and effort so that the full gist of its significance can be grasped – and then appreciated. Such encounters can lead to a prolonged and meaningful relationship with a particularly alluring idea or insight.
In “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer, the narrator, an aging minister, is writing a series of letters to his eight-year-old son. He had married late in life and figures given the reality of a gradually weakening heart he will not be around too long. The letters are his in absentia way of sharing his life and mind with his son.
Having never known my own father I was constantly reminded of my own sense of loss, of a void never to be filled that even just a few letters might have helped fill the hole just a bit. I am not the cry-over-spilt-milk kind of guy so I do not spend much time agonizing over impossibilities. But it does remind one of one’s obligation to hand over as much wisdom and insight about oneself and the human condition generally to one’s kids. That I have tried to do, and it is really the reason that I write. It is why I produced a first collection of essays and am at work, admittedly slothfully, on a second. One of these days I will not be around, but my son and grandchildren will have whatever I have written, published and unpublished, available as a record of my life, wrinkles, flaws, and all. One of the most instructive aspects of any life is its imperfections, those moments that endure because perhaps we might have acted or thought differently.