Tuesday, April 26, 2011

All the Heart Says (A Thank You to Gilead)

A confession: when I was a freshman in college, in the first year seminar class (then called "Christianity, Character and Culture"), we were assigned Gilead by Marilynne Robinson as our last major text of the year. This was the one book in CCC I did not read word for word, page after crisp page. This was the one book I skimmed right before class. 

I had never done that before. Even if it meant I stayed up late or got up early, I loved the work and I did the work and even when I didn't like it I always read it.

And I don't remember any reason I did not pour my heart into the pages of Gilead, let its rich words wash me clean of too much philosophy and too much theory. But I didn't. I walked into that class with the strange and uncomfortable attitude that, well, I was a pretty good student, and I could fake it well enough. I'd skimmed it, I had gotten the main part of the story and read what I thought were a few key passages.

But last night, I sat down and curled up tight in my blankets, because I had to read the book word for word, because the class I help teach is reading it for today, and I made the most beautiful discovery:

Gilead is the language of my heart. 

She writes what I wish I could write, what I imagine in the fury of clicking computer keys, I might be able to write someday when I have lingered long in wisdom and spent time loving what seems ordinary and flames into miracle right before us. She writes awakeness into her pages, a gentle coaxing out of laziness, into the wonderful unrepeatability of the world. She writes about all the moments I realize now I should have watched for. She writes about all the fleeting silences and dazzling sparks, the moon rising over a prairie, light dancing with water.

She teaches me to put words to the ache deep in my heart for England. Even when we do not want words, when we crave silence, thinking we are beyond words, beyond the ability to describe, craft images and analogies, beyond whatever words in their mess and beauty communicate. Perhaps we are not. Perhaps even our most tremulous moments are the moments for words. Perhaps our biggest feelings are the ones we should write into being. 

Some days I dream of being a writer, spending my lifetime cultivating a love for languages and the cadence of grammar. I dream of painting pictures like Marilynne Robinson, writing characters who breathe like John Steinbeck, a story that aches with reality. I dream of books who grow on their own, so that each time I go to write, the characters teach me what they are thinking, feeling, doing. That I would write to discover the ending. That I would write to make beauty. That, in writing, I would say all the heart says. 

Hear my favorite passage so far (I'm only on page 115):

"I can't tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world - what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn't understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you're filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn't matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need. Who would have thought that the moon could dazzle and flame like that?" (pages 48 - 49)

To write like her is all my heart wants today. I don't know how life might have been different if I had read Gilead with watchful eyes and humble spirit my freshman year. I don't know how that whole conversation would be different if I had let her words, and his words (for the main character, John Ames,  is as much my teacher as Marilynne), soften and clean and dazzle me. I don't know that the change would have been noticeable. 

But perhaps it is a good thing, because today, as I listen close to my own heart celebrating the Paschal mystery, and as I realize how good it is to listen to other people's hearts - today I am allowed to soften

Today, as you listen to your own heart, what do you dream of? What dazzles and flames in your life? What do you ache to become? 

Love, from my softening heart,


  1. Is it really that good? I skimmed it too...

  2. Yes, it is really that good. Better, in fact, than my words can describe. If we all wrote, thought, lived a little bit more like the book... I am just imagining the wonders of it.

  3. "Gilead" was my favorite book in CCC. I was my professor's favorite, too, but in my class full of boys we were the only two who loved it. Thank you for so clearly expressing why it is such a wonderful book. I think if I re-read it, it would again be balm, deep, cleansing, and alive. I'm so glad you're reading it!

  4. Hilary, so glad I found your blog! You do write from the heart, and I love how you paint how you feel. I'm waiting for the day when I have enough life experience to write a novel.

  5. Mariah! So glad that you found me, too! Oh for the day when we can write novels from our lives. Your pictures paint how you feel too - they're such works of art. I love your work. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  6. I'm so glad to be reading it with you, Hilary. The writing does astonish. Two bits to note: first Glory saying, after watching the girl and the baby play, "I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one." And later this: "There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world's mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true."

  7. I just found your blog, and am very excited about it!! I am trying to work on writing more, and I love books that express feeling and thoughts beautifully. I was reading "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard, and it was great that way. I am requesting "Gilead" from my library to read it, now. Very excited to read it!!! Of course, it'll be a little crazy with all the other books I 'have' to read, but much worth it, I'm sure!!

  8. Yes, Hilary, yes! The tremulous moments...my host mother predictably commands that I "say something" in those moments. "You want to say me something?" she often asks. Generating words is work. I so admire your work.


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