I had the great fortune of hearing Marilynne Robinson read yesterday morning at the MLA conference here in San Francisco. This exchange from the last pages of Gilead feels so resonant of the circumspect way I frequently receive the generosity of existence:
The narrator, John Ames tells us, of his exchange with Jack Boughton, Then I said, The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you. He shrugged. What would that involve?
My friend Vajra offered me an orange as I was leaving the other day. No thanks, I just had one, I told him. I didn’t feel I had room in my backpack to carry anything else. He said, you shouldn’t be so stingy with these satsuma oranges. And I remembered, Yes, part of generosity, or maybe even, not stealing, is actually receiving what you’re offered. He agreed. I still didn’t take the actual tangerine, but did take the tipoff it had prompted.
The satsuma exchange felt like a warm-up so I wouldn’t miss it when the subject came up again that evening when Lou Hartman gave a dharma talk. He spoke of his sense of dealing with the cognitive changes that come with being 92 years old. He talked of how when offering someone a newspaper article, he’d had something clear in his mind to say about it, but in his estimation, hadn’t managed to say it.
He may not have been talking about the exchange he and I had just had, standing at the bottom of the stairs a few days before, over a book review he’d set aside for me. I hadn’t noticed any struggle on his part, only my own mix of appreciation, overload, and hurry, again, on my way somewhere. Where? And the familiar feeling of having too much in the backpack that is my mind, and so I didn’t receive his offering with the space or appreciation it deserved.
But later I went and got the Book Review from his mailbox where he’d left it for me, and sat there and read it, in the strange and comforting light of reading something a friend has given you, puzzling through, what was it, that of everything that passes under his eyes, he wanted to pass on to me? It’s you, the friend, and whatever you’re reading, sitting there together. Lou, Carolyn Chute, Stacy D’erasmo, and me, sitting on the bench by the courtyard. So much tenderness always there.
In Gilead, a few lines later, John Ames tells us,
“[Jack] took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are.”
“Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave–that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
In this, I heard articulated my greatest ongoing operational problem as a writer, how to respond, with anything but overwhelm, to this constant sense of “receiving more beauty than our eyes can bear.”
Having asked Robinson countless times for instruction in this problem through reading her exquisite novel, Housekeeping which turns these “precious things” into sentences that keep opening and opening with, as Anatole Broyard says “a fondness for human beings we thought only Saints felt,” there in the Q &A, I could ask her in person for help. I can’t remember her exact words, what I mainly felt was the recognition in her face when I posed the question, the encouragement of that, the feeling of being blessed. And what I took from what she said was, Yes, it’s impossible, but we try, and we’re always writing something other than what we intend.
And as the sculptor, Elizabeth King told me once, we’re always doing more than we think we are.
What can we do, but work to “the limit of our powers, whatever they are?”