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May 1, 2014

Robinson novels show grace, intelligence

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — 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 One of these days I will not be around, but my son and grandchildren will have whatever I have written, published and unpublished, available as a record of my life, wrinkles, flaws, and all.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.

Thinking back on several moments in his life, Reverend Ames writes that “ a moment is a such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve” (162). We all have our moments. Some are more worthy of storing away in one’s memory vault than others. William Wordsworth writes that there are moments in our lives that have a “renovating virtue.” I think that is what Reverend Ames means that a moment’s abiding is a “gracious reprieve.” As a fourteen year old I remember lying down on a camp bunk in a cabin in New Hampshire late one rainy afternoon listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops hitting the cabin roof. To this day, the gentle rhythms of raindrops on a roof bring me back to that afternoon so long ago. I remember feeling an incredible sense of thoughtless repose, as if my body had peeled itself away, as if I had become pure essence. When I am troubled by something I often think back to that moment in time. It does not always help, but sometimes it does. I believe that this is what Ames means by a moment’s capacity to gift us with a gracious reprieve. These are not grand moments at all.

Growing up I spent quite a bit of time on a farm not far from here. Most summer afternoons were spent haying. We hauled the loose hay up into the mow with a huge fork pulled by a tractor and once the load cleared the hay mow door we pulled it to where it would be stored and released the fork’s tenacious locking mechanism. There were always several minutes between loads, which afforded us a chance to rest by flopping down into the most recently dumped pile. Talk about a memorable moment! There are few feelings possible on this earth as sweet as lying on a bed of freshly mown hay, perhaps sinking down low enough that chaff gets in your hair and stiff, scraggly stalks scratch and tickle your face.

Life is a composite of moments whose significance is revealed to us over time. Like the strand of dried hay that tickled my face in that haymow many years ago, these moments abide as knots in a braid that constitutes our lives.