A Balm in Gilead, part 3: children

The third in a series that is part writing exercise and part year-end reflection,
about the “balms” in my life, inspired by the book,
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

In Gilead, the Rev. John Ames reflects back over a long life that, while full, did not include the opportunity to watch his children grow up. He lost his wife and infant daughter while still a young man and later, as an old man with a heart condition, knows he is unlikely to see the 7-year-old son of his much later marriage turn 8, let alone 28. As such he easily ascribes gracious expectations of their character and what they might have, or will have, accomplished. The memoir he is writing, in fact, is intended for his son to read after he has become a man, meaning that the wisdom and explanations in its pages will have largely been unavailable to the youth in his formative years.

Not that the Rev. Ames is na├»ve. He has watched, often helplessly, as his best friend’s son has careened from one mischief and misadventure to another. That the man is also named after him further cements the empathetic anguish he feels for his friend’s fatherly agony and embarrassment. Young Jack, like most of us, is a man of more conscience than character, with a fatalistic dread of his shortcomings. Both he and his namesake have a sincere desire to reach each other, but are constantly confounded by their own missteps and the other’s misinterpretations.

The good reverend, however, never had the opportunity to convene a meeting in his parlor, to rest his own arms regally on the wide, wooden arms of his patriarchal chair, to fix a steely eye on an anxious young man across from him and, as I did, state the question, “What, good sir, are your intentions regarding our daughter?”

A balm in Gilead, part 2: wife

The second in a series, part writing exercise and part year-end reflection,
about the “balms” in my life, inspired by the book,
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

“We should talk more,” she said, her bare foot lightly brushing mine. She’s logical and practical in a way that some men say they wish women could be more like. There’s wisdom and concern in her words, a concern that perhaps we’re becoming too autonomous, rising and setting like the sun and the moon covering the same familiar ground but at different times, our orbits barely overlapping. Nevertheless, sometimes during the day, you can see the moon.

Earlier in the evening we had talked, sitting in big, comfy chairs in front of a too-hot fireplace at a local coffee shop. Then her motions had been gamine-quick, almost coltish as she reached across the small space between our chairs and stroked the arm of mine, or raised up to draw her legs underneath her, or raised her arms to take off her sweater when the fire became too uncomfortable even for her, the one who shivers almost non-stop from Labor Day to Memorial Day. She was telling me about her dreams, literally. Those fast-asleep dreams she had had recently, round and portentous, dripping with symbolism and still crystal-clear upon waking. To some extent they were also Dreams, having to do with what she wanted for the future, to pursue.

As for myself, the one who used to never be able to shut up, I had leaned back in my chair meditatively, parsing the symbols and conjuring context. Leaning back is something I’ve found myself doing more often the last few years; I’m not as concerned about letting silence into the conversation anymore, whereas before I often couldn’t wait to careen in and even high-jack it, not daring to leave a space where someone else could take it away.

Now, later in the evening, when she says “We should talk more,” it’s not so much to say that the talking earlier was fun, but that we don’t have as much fun as we used to have, or could have, and she sees the need to stay in practice. She looks ahead, imagines the inevitable empty nest. I imagine her considering the old buzzard sitting on the other side of that nest. What do the sun and the moon do once what has been your world goes away? “Ummm…” I say.

When we had first gone out I was nervous and had babbled, which I tend to do if I’m nervous. Fortunately, few things make me nervous anymore. Then, however, I had nearly blown it with my chatter, trying one conversational gambit after another looking for a favorable response, some traction. My best stories and jokes, my wittiest observations, littered the top of the table at the restaurant like dirty dishes. So I shut up, and things got better, because she had some things to say, too.

One of the things she said, some time a bit later, was, “Look, I don’t want to lead you on. You’re nice, but I believe God is preparing Mr. Right for me, and when he comes along, you’re out of here.”

Okay, so I have been nervous.

In Gilead the Reverend Ames reflects, with some wonder, over the circumstances that brought his young wife — and ultimately the son to whom he is writing — into his life. A widower who lost his first wife in childbirth and his infant daughter shortly thereafter, he had lived most of his adult life as an outside observer and counselor of the family dynamics taking place around him, covetously (he admits) watching the relationships that appeared to be denied to him, until these, too, overtook him.

I have only half-jokingly said that I was smart and got my trophy wife first. I didn’t have to wait until old age, like Rev. Ames, to know the comfort of a wife and family. And it is a tangible balm.

My wife and I first met in April, 1986. We went on our first date in June. By late September we were engaged (though we didn’t marry for another year). Once, as she and I were clearly getting serious in our relationship, a concerned friend of mine (who had known me for years) drew her aside to urge caution, warning her of the dark moods that were known to come over me from time to time. These moods were not imagined, and during those times, I confess, I was not a good friend. I remember these moods well. Strange, I don’t remember having one since I married.

Once, not too long ago, I was teasing her. “Oh, you’re definitely high-maintenance,” I said, citing how particular she is about the ingredients in the food we bring into the house, her taste in clothes, the way she likes things that concern her to be “just so.” She was not amused, which suggests that there are still times when it is better for me to keep my mouth shut, especially if it gives me time to think. And as I thought about it I quickly realized that almost all the maintenance she requires is handled by her. She rises early for her physical and spiritual exercise, the burdens of selecting and preparing the foods we eat fall upon her, her fastidiousness in her appearance reflects well on both of us with little involvement from me. About all I have to do is avoid shrinking her jeans in the wash (difficult, because I like tight jeans on her) and bring her favorite towel up from the laundry on Saturday night and hang it on the rack above the bathroom radiator (I’ve also ceded this premium towel position to her). Further, since I am almost pathologically detail-averse, she manages the details that keep our household running smoothly, from balancing the checkbook, paying the bills and (usually) putting the things I need out where I can find them or won’t forget them.

She does all of that, and somehow still desires my attention and conversation.

We should talk more.

Related Posts:
A Balm in Gilead, Part 1: Life and Death
A Balm in Gilead, Part 3: Children

A balm in Gilead, part 1: life and death

I’m just about finished reading one of the most profound and moving books I’ve come across in (at least) the last 10 years: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In fact, the only works of fiction that have affected me as much as this book are Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Listing these three books in one paragraph makes me realize that, though they are very different, they all revolve around the nature of time and place, the nature of man and the nature —as Lightman/Einstein would put it — of “The Old One.”

Gilead is set in the mid-1950s in Gilead, Iowa and is written as a letter from an elderly pastor to the young son who came to him very late in life and who he knows he will never get to see grow up and become a man. The pastor, Rev. John Ames, has lived his entire life in Gilead, pastoring the church his father pastored before him. Ames is, in fact, the third generation of preachers in his line. His grandfather was a firebrand abolitionist in Kansas, known to preach with a pistol stuck in his belt and thought to have ridden with John Brown and, perhaps, to have killed a federal soldier who was pursuing the Reverend’s band of insurgents. He railed against the spiritual complacency of the “doughface” Christians who could tolerate slavery and warned of God’s judgment on the nation as a result. He fought in the Civil War and lost an eye in the conflict.

Ames’ father was the complete opposite, a dedicated pacifist who saw the 1918 Spanish Flu plague, in the midst of World War I, as God’s judgment on a mad world. Nevertheless, the father took in the aged grandfather when he had no place to go, giving the young Ames a chance to observe their respective theologies and the dynamics between the men, even though the surest sign of a disagreement between them was their use of the title “Reverend” when addressing one another. Also factoring into this narrative are Ames’ older, apostate, brother; Ames’ lifelong best friend, Old Boughton, who is the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead; and Old Boughton’s prodigal son, John Ames Boughton (Jack), who was named after the narrator and who consumes a great deal of the old man’s thoughts and fears as he lays out what little legacy he has to offer his seven-year-old son.

The plot, such as it is, progresses much as an afternoon float trip does, meandering slowly around bends and through shady places as Ames unwinds the story in such a way that you don’t readily realize how much ground has been covered, while leaving you with a vague unease about what rapids or waterfalls might be ahead. I am continuously charmed by each page and awed at the grasp that the author, a woman, has on the inner-workings of a man’s mind. I could have read the book in an afternoon, but I have purposely drawn out the pleasure by allocating myself only a few pages a day to read and ruminate upon.

Now, if my purpose in this post was to offer a book review, I’d hope that my words so far would inspire you to seek out the book yourself (indeed, I do). But that is not the purpose of this post, despite the paragraphs that have come before. Instead, the book has stirred something in my own inner voice, and in my mind, to record some of the thoughts I’ve had of late, some of which have come along of their own accord and some that have been brought forth by the book, and many that are a bit of both.