Marilynne Robinson

“I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.”
“Oh!” he said, then I’m glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.

I’ve been rereading, for the third or fourth time, one of my favorite novels, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. I first heard of Gilead from my friend Kevin who is an avid reader, thinker, and writer himself; and, in general, when he recommends something, you take it seriously. The first time I read the book was while I was pregnant with our first child and just months after my mom had died, it was a tender time in my life, and I think that’s part of the reason her writings impacted me so deeply. However, I have continued reading (and rereading) her novels in the time since, and they’ve always struck me as particularly wonderful.

I’m grateful for all those dark years, even though in retrospect they seem like a long, bitter prayer that was answered finally.

I’m hardly alone in my admiration of her writings, people much more eloquent than I have expounded on her grandeur: see one interview with Miroslav Volf, and another one with Obama (while he was the sitting president, um... how cool), and this piece in the Guardian are some of my favorites.

Just as she speaks in the smooth paragraphs of her written prose, so Robinson emanates the same goodness. Her high cheekbones and habit of listening with her head to one side suggest the gentle wisdom of an owl. If she has talons they are well hidden, but she is incisive with her prey and happy to swoop down on both sides of the political spectrum: between our contemporary left and right, she writes, “we circle in a maelstrom of utter fatuousness”.

Adam and I have spent many weekend hours of late listening to her interviews, she’s been something of a maternal, guiding light to me during this year. Is that pretty bold to say? I don’t know, she’s kind of amazing.

I miss civilization, and I want it back... I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith from one human being to another.

I’ve felt incredibly benefitted by hearing her take on what is going on, and what ought to be going on, in the world of politics and religion, art and humanity. Her viewpoint has been something of a consolation to me as the current political stance of many of my fellow Christians has troubled and disappointed me.

I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies' sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault. Those things can only be true. It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their father loves them.

If I were to attempt to put a finger on the remarkable nature of her writing, I would say it is the ordinary, every-day-ness in the story telling; it is so ordinary and every day that it could be the story of any one of us. There is something sacred and holy about being a human, and if we will only pay attention, we will find a story worth telling about our own days.

The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.

I have spent much of my life being rather cynical, as something of (what I would have liked to assume was) a protection from disappointment; a real thick layer of “what is the point of it all” applied to every thing, even what I enjoyed in life. On my exploration towards hopefulness I’ve discovered that there’s great hope to be found in the existence of humans, literally all of creation, but that wondrous, eternal quality of the human soul is beyond words. The intentionality, the great length of efforts God has extended to be intimate with us, to bring us to wholeness, to reveal to us what are the good things. We are precious to Him. This great, humbling fact is something I missed in my understanding of God for so many years, as I was wrapped up in righteousness, self-righteousness, and what I thought was a worthy pursuit of black and white absolutes. This brilliant truth is gifted to us in the ordinary, every-day-ness that we drift through, tucked inside our daily rituals like a pop-up book of golden, existential value. You are precious.

Pity us, yes, but we are brave, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.

I have grown to love and crave day-to-day ordinariness and finding the gold hidden in the mundane. This is something that raising children is teaching me well; it is not always so easy amongst the constant lessons, constant messes underfoot, constant neediness of toddlerhood, constant inability to focus on any one thing, to spot the brilliance. Sometimes it strikes me in the moment, however; for instance, my son just went back outside after having had to come in to change his clothes from an accident, and before he closed the door he said “thanks so much for your help getting cleaned up” and man... if that doesn’t just set you back on your heels, to be thanked by your toddler for the work you’re putting in. I mean, that’s rarified air, right there.

The best things that happen I’d never have thought to pray for. In a million years. The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can.

This is the first time I’ve read Gilead since having encountered as a parent the personal, emotional trials of my children as they begin to express their own unique take on being a person. We all have that little something deep that both pesters us and elevates us into this higher glory of humanness, it’s what makes our lives so rich and generous, and difficult and deeply penetrating. Attempting to hold all of the emotions of our house in my heart simultaneously: learning to hold them, and not solve them, learning to hear them, and not judge them, learning to let them all be, releasing them all out on their own journey towards wholeness, this is much of what motherhood is revealing itself to be to me.

That is how life goes--we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord's. I need to bear this in mind.

I usually write down quotes as I’m reading, I started doing that in high school when I was introduced to the wealth of language in older literature, and I have quite a collection by now. You might be gathering this for yourself, without me having to say it aloud, but when I read Marilynne Robinson books I get a stack of quotes so high you might well think that I should’ve just sat myself down to read the whole book again. Which, as I’ve previously mentioned, does happen.

I could probably not say more than that life is a very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.