Saturday, July 24, 2010

There is a Balm in Gilead (Or: Reading)

I finished reading Marilynne Robinson's book, Gilead, and I suspect that this is another book that people will love or hate. I suspect that "well, it's the musings of a Congregationalist minister in 1950s Iowa" would not be a huge sell for most of my friends. But I loved it. It's the story of an old (76) minister who writes a letter to his young, seven-year-old son, hoping to impart some wisdom on the boy because he won't be around as he grows up. It would be easy to simplify and say that this is a book about "life lessons," but I don't want to do that. It's about life, death, forgiveness, love, grief, etc. It's about how even a simple, small town life can be a beautiful life.

Robinson's writing is amazing. I remember reading her book, Housekeeping, while we were away on vacation in Cancun. I kept thinking that it was the worst beach read ever. Not because it was a bad book, but because the prose was so packed and beautiful, it took me forever to even get through a page. She waited more than 20 years to publish her next book, and the words read like she was working them over for a long time, choosing them to be perfect.

I also love that this book keeps to the form of the letter from cover to cover. I've always been a writer/journaler/whatever, but post-Zygote, I've been even more enthralled with? committed to? this idea that she should have a written record of what kind of person I was. We really only know our parents as our parents, and not really as people. As Robinson writes,
"You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutal incomprehension."

I am Zygote's mother, and this is how she will always see me. My parents have always been my parents, and even with glimpses here and there into their lives pre-children, I have no other real frame of reference for them. Everything they do -- every triumph and every horrible mistake -- is seen through the lens of me, me, me. This is the way of the world, and I don't mind being Just Mommy, but I do like the idea of leaving behind some record of what else was swirling around in my crazy head, and some context.

I write Zygote a letter in a journal we made for her every month. I had hoped to do more, but that never came to fruition. Neither did the Baby Book that you're "supposed to" keep, recording first teeth and laughs and smiles. File under: numerous parenting failures. YG is much more visual and fills the journal sometimes with cards and ticket stubs of places we've visited and pictures. He does the same for MG.

I've often wondered if my parents have done anything similar for me. When my grandfather died, we discovered that he and my grandmother had kept all the love letters they exchanged during World War II. Even though my grandmother was still alive, she had Alzheimer's and my father and aunt said they felt uncomfortable reading them, that it would be an invasion of her privacy. I wonder if they ever did get to reading them. I wonder whatever happened to all the letters and postcards I sent my family when I was traveling. I can't imagine that they threw them away (my tendency to hoard all my old letters and cards has to come from somewhere), but where are they? In some cardboard box in a closet, waiting to be rediscovered? My mother surprised me, the first time I got married, by giving me a scrapbook that she made, pasting old photos of me, awards and terribly bad, dark poems I had written into it. My aunt also wrote me a letter that was stuffed in there. My mom and my aunt are not, by any stretch of the imagination, crafters or scrap bookers, and knowing that she had saved that stuff was a better present than any of the other crap I got.

I'm a bit rambly, and there were many other plot points that I enjoyed, but this paragraph, stuffed right in the middle of the book where you almost could miss it, sums up why I loved it so much:

"I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."

That made me think of this quote, that both my father and grandfather, carry/carried around:

"A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank...but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child." -- Forest Witchcraft

Read this book.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

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