My desert island novel is Gilead. If you told me I would have to give up all novels but one, I would not even hesitate to choose to spend the rest of my fiction life reading and rereading the story of the Reverend John Ames. It is a quiet book. And powerful. It at once sweeps me away and soothes me. When my faith and my life seem to fail to reconcile, reading Gilead calms my anxieties and reminds me that not all questions need answers.
Luckily, I don’t have to choose just one novel. And when I heard that Marilynne Robinson was writing Lila, which serves as a prequel of sorts to Gilead, I pre-ordered a copy and eagerly awaited the day of publication. Lila tells much of the stories of Gilead from the Reverend Ames’ wife’s point of view. It is the story of her life, their relationship – an unconventional one in any assessment – and her struggles to understand the faith and God that is so central to his existence. Lila has not been exposed to the concepts of religion. And she has not lived a life that has taught her to believe in mercy or love.
It took me about 40 pages to find myself caught up in Lila. I don’t know if that was me or the book. But once I did, the writing did for me what the writing in Gilead does – draw me into a place of peace and reflection I find remarkably healing. The story is devastating in places. Heartbreaking and unflinching. And completely beautiful. I can’t describe the plot because the plot is nearly incidental to the book. This is a story about a broken heart beginning to heal.
I’d like to hear more from Lila. I’d like to know her reaction to some of the later events and stories in Gilead. And how she experiences life after the end of that book. Maybe Marilynne Robinson will share that with us someday.
The night after I finished Lila I picked up Gilead to read it for the sixth or seventh time. It’s as good as it ever was. When I grow up I hope I can write like Marilynne Robinson
What to do if you’ve neglected a blog for ages? Why, start a new one, of course!
I’ve launched a cooking blog: A Savory Plate. There are only a few recipes so far, but more to come.
I don’t know if anyone still watches this space but I do have more plans for it. I’ve been busy and have had a bit of writer’s block. I could probably start a blog called On Becoming an Athlete and it would reflect a bit more of my focus these days. But the good news (for me anyway) is that writing on A Savory Plate has knocked some of the writer’s block out and I have a few posts in the mental queue.
There is the story. And then there is the way the story is written. Generally it is the way a story is written that makes me impatient with it. I find myself wanting take a red pen to the page to cross out modifiers or even whole sentences. Making notes in the margins to the author (“You already said this!”) all the while wondering why oh why I didn’t even consider selecting editing as a career path back when I was pondering my future life’s work.
This book is not that way. It is beautifully written. I would have to reread sentences, thinking “She made me feel that! How did she make me feel that?” As a reader who loves words and phrases for their own sake, I was charmed by the writing in The Goldfinch.
But I was exhausted by reading it. It was an act of will to finish. I won’t get into the recent arguments about whether a book can be good if its main character is unlikeable but if an author insists on giving me a protagonist who is as unsympathetic as Theo Decker then I need her to offer me another reason to slog through 784 pages with him (784!). I found myself resenting the first person narrative as I wanted to be inside the head of any other character but Theo (I would love to have known what Hobie was thinking). Theo’s choices made no sense to me at all. He was relentlessly self-destructive and yet somehow some really decent people stepped in to take care of him. (Again, Hobie. Poor Hobie!)
Arriving at the ending of this book (which felt wholely unearned) reminded me of my promise to myself I would stop forcing myself to finish books just because I started them. And yet, this book was beautiful.
There was motion and stillness, stillness and modulation, and all the charge and magic of a great painting. Ten seconds, eternity. It was all a circle back to her. You could grasp it in an instant, you could live in it forever; she existed only in the mirror, inside the space of the frame, and though she wasn’t alive, not exactly, she wasn’t dead either because she wasn’t yet born, and yet never not born – as somehow, oddly, neither was I. And I knew that she could tell me anything I wanted to know (life, death, past, future) even though it was already there, in her smile, the answer to all questions, the before-Christmas smile of someone with a secret too wonderful to let slip, just yet: well, you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?
This is my mother’s house – chattering, giggling, shouting and then, as the grandchildren tumble out in anticipation of visiting their ‘cousin-friends,’ suddenly still. The ticking of the clocks, wind-chimes improvising a melody, and the rumbling of a train half a mile away – all sounds excavated by stillness. The house itself seems to exhale, settle into a nice meditation seat and close her eyes. Time to solidify the peace. Soon enough the grandchildren will be back, having somehow multiplied with the return journey.
I saw him sitting on a wall on the side of the road. Serene. Relaxed. his hands rested loosely in his lap while his feet swung free. Safely behind his car and its blinking hazards he turned an unlined face to the oncoming cars. The morning rush ruffled his puffy gray hair. As I passed he caught my eye and bestowed on me the beatific glowing smile I might have expected from a saffron-robed monk.
I’ve been keeping notebooks off and on since around 2007. They make a pretty little stack, different sizes and colors and types of paper inside. At one point the collection was small enough that I kept a general list of the contents in my head. For instance, I remembered that the post-it note with sister number 3’s butternut squash soup recipe could be found in the small green landscape notebook. Now, however, there are too many notebooks and in order to find any one thing I find myself on a little reminiscing voyage through them all. (Or in the case of the recipe, I write it down and store it elsewhere.)
Sunday evening I found myself on one of those notebook voyages. I forgot my initial purpose (the notes from an artist’s perspective workshop) and lost myself in the pages. It’s the juxtapositions that make me smile. I ran across a couple pages with the list of medications and my dosage schedules from after my first surgery. Turn the page and there was a haiku and a sketch copied from Bridgman’s. Shopping lists, essays, party menus, tiny still life paintings, movie tickets, calligraphy practice… anything and everything lands in the notebook. Rough and fragmentary with only an occasional page that looks polished and properly finished, these notebooks can best be described as a record of my becoming.
I’ve felt creatively parched lately. There are a lot of reasons for that but I think ultimately I’ve been letting perfectionism get in the way. Here on the blog especially. I don’t want this blog merely to be a vehicle for self-expression and sometimes if I can’t perfectly determine to my satisfaction how someone else might get something out of what I post, I don’t even begin the attempt to follow through on my idea. Paging through my notebooks reminded me that something that is messy and imperfect can still be meaningful.
I was also reminded that inspiration doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from work. Pencil to paper, paint to canvas, nothing happens without effort. All those imperfect ideas can be inspiring if I’m willing to keep trying.
So I’m going to engage in a little humility practice. Let go of some expectations and try a little more messiness. I’ll post some old writing that didn’t quite make it to a point, some thoughts in which my conclusion might be that I don’t yet have a conclusion. I might even post a haiku or two. I’ll stop waiting for my lost inspiration to come to me and I’ll do what I can to build it myself.
I take a walk with my mother and with the lovely Miss L. We buy a three dollar bunch of flowers from the neighbor’s yard and Miss L dances away with it, intent only on her pretty posies.
Little three-year old Mister E visits my home for the first time. He ignores the blocks and trains in favor of the remote (he calls it a ‘tuh-mote’) that controls the iPod speaker system. To each song that comes on he responds: this is my favorite song! And then we dance.
I admire the intensity of children. The nowness of their experiences. Mister E is not exaggerating his favorites status. This is his favorite song. This one right now. Why would anyone think about some other song when there is one being played right now? Why would anyone think of anything but sunshine, flowers, and dancing when all three are available to you?
If you had to choose your favorites from among only what is available to you this moment, what would you choose? How would it change your world?
I’ll start. Today is my favorite day. It’s the best day I have right now.