I sit on a log at the bay, seek words for a strange and unexpected time. I’ve resisted words until now, words on paper, that is, — real or virtual — for there are many words already. Into a new kind of silence, a constant bustle of noise. It’s like everyone is talking at once. News, zoom meetings, invitations to Ted talks and re-configured choirs and spoken poems, virtual museums to visit, prompts for writing, prompts for art, tips for productivity, soothing reminders that productivity is not required. Words for information, words for grief and uncertainty and craziness.

The daily cacophony of pot-banging and honking and shouting at 7 p.m. seems about the truest we can do, word-wise. And the constant true refrain: we’re in it together.

Except that this is hard to believe. We can’t touch. We veer away from others’ breath. We’re in it together, we say, but each of us is keenly, separately Body now and our individual skin aches for contact and disbelieves assurances of together.

The tide is out. There are people on the mud flats. Putting floaters into distant water. Walking dogs. Everyone careful in their social-distancing zone. I step on to the flats, walk water-ward too. I have new shoes, grey Skechers with pink laces, blissfully comfortable, no breaking-in necessary, and then I notice their imprint in wet black sand and suddenly I notice many marks of other shoes. (Bare feet too). Crisscrosses, vertical lines, circles. Each brand unique. Who knew the underside of shoes had such variety? For a while I am thoroughly absorbed in the moment.

But eventually one needs to find language for the moments we’re in.

Waiting, that’s the word. That’s the sum of it. No wonder it’s hard to read or write with any kind of focus. The kind of waiting you undergo in a waiting room, like maybe the doctor’s office, some place where you have an appointment and you pick up a magazine and browse, listlessly, for you can’t concentrate, you’re alert to your name being called and everything is running late and it’s a watchful waiting laced with anxiety.

For about a week, I wasn’t well. I was afraid then. The inspiration of well people irritated me then. In my fear I wondered what I needed to still do or say. Just in case. Do: nothing. Say: a note in my journal to my children and grandchildren. I’m halfway embarrassed about it now, halfway ashamed. I was tested for Covid. The test was negative. In retrospect, I had an ordinary flu, an ordinary migraine. This time is strange and unexpected and I couldn’t see my ill-health clearly for what it merely was. I was continuously conscious of my breath. All I needed was air in my lungs, and I had it, but what if I lost it?

I’m surprised now how desperate I was over the possibility of not having it. Haven’t I considered myself a person of equanimity?

Waiting. It’s not the present that disappears, but the future. The main question on our lips is when?


With the granddaughter. Before Covid.

The nine-year-old granddaughter texts: “COVID-19 is a nightmare, it is the worst thing in the world I’ve ever heard of. [Weeping emoji] But I’m somehow surviving it all. [A cluster of happier emojis.]” In her short world, definitely the worst. No school, no playdates. Yes, I say to her, the worst thing in the world.

But I’ve lived longer. I make myself read, make myself think into the past. If the future is failing us, or the assumption, at least, that the future is ours for the taking, perhaps I can be wiser, more robust, about the past. I read Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set in the time of the terrible influenza plague after the First World War. I finally read Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, and think, that was worse, a siege so long, and hatred woven into it. Hatred and killing is worse. I have to find my reading among the unread books on my shelves, so I also finally read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and I’m touched by the old couple Axl and Beatrice and their tender love and the courage it takes to remember. The courageous necessity to remember. 

The lives of we two in our apartment aren’t, ultimately, so very different than before. We haven’t lost jobs, don’t have a house lively with children to teach and console. Nevertheless, we’re in it, we too, even though our skin, scrubbed clean more often than ever before, aches and finds it hard to believe together.

I remember Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s words and they orient me: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

And these, encountered in an interview at Paris Review with Marilynne Robinson: “One thing that comes with the [religious] tradition is the idea that you’re always being posed a question: what does God want from this situation? It creates a kind of detachment, but it’s a detachment that brings perception rather than the absence of perception.”




The experience of reading “Gilead”

I may very well be the last on the block to have read Marilynne Robinson’s hugely popular Gilead (HarperCollins, 2004). But I’ve done so now — and I enjoyed it too.

Gilead is a novel told in the voice of John Ames, an old man, a minister, who sets down in diary form what he wants his young son to know about him. It’s a story about fathers and sons — several sets of them. Since so much fine commentary has already been expended on this book, I’m going to simply recommend James Wood’s review in the New York Times, which calls it “a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid.”

Although I found myself sometimes impatient with the narrator’s style, which mirrors what we perceive as the faults of the elderly — a slow and meandering speech, and something of a preoccupation with the past and one’s own wisdom — Woods says, “Gradually Robinson’s novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.” He’s right.  

I will also recommend Debra Dean Murphy’s reflections on re-reading Gilead, which reminds of its theme of blessing, and will pass along a friend’s assessment: “This is a great book for pastors.” (She’s pastoral care coordinator in a local church.)

Gilead being what it is, however, so attentive to life itself, I thought I might also share two “extras” that the experience of reading it gave to me.

1. I read a library copy, so others had been there first. I began to notice that occasionally a word was circled. I went back to find them all. Insouciant, effulgence, susurrus, bodacious, probity, caviling. And then lines in the margin beside this sentence: “…age has a tendency to make one’s sense of oneself harder to maintain, less robust in some ways.” Since these markings were in pencil, I didn’t mind finding them. (Erasure is possible — it’s the folded-over corners that always hurt a little on behalf of the page, because their scars cannot be healed!)

Who was this other reader? Someone sad at their own loss of the self? But still keen of mind, determined to look up the hard words in the dictionary? It was good to contemplate another person with this text, to know that reading is not just about a book but about people at the practice of it.     

2. At one point, the Rev. John Ames talks about Hagar and Ishamel. There was something about what he said that sent me off to that story — in Genesis 21. I simply plunged myself and my concerns into it, and was startled, and — to use Gilead vocabulary — blessed. The Genesis storyteller refuses to favour one character more than another. The clash between Sarah and Hagar is dramatic and difficult, Abraham’s dilemma heartbreaking, and the wilderness for Hagar too, but everyone in the story gets their loving due before God. What a good lesson for a fiction writer, or anyone for that matter. It reminded me of something Mary Anne Isaak said in a recent piece about the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet, that “meaning is created by the way others narrate the story…”

Then, back at Gilead later — second last page, in fact — the old man remarks, “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child.” I think that’s what Genesis 21 is saying too. (I also notice I seem to be bumping into Augustine everywhere lately, which is probably my just desserts for becoming tired of his Confessions when I read them!)

No, reading is not just about a book, but about the places we go because of it. 

Now found wanting

Here are some lines from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, which I’ve just finished reading (emerging from it as from a marvellous dream). I find them evocative — within their context, but without it too.

Imagine that Noah knocked his house apart and used the planks to build an ark, while his neighbors looked on, full of doubt. A house, he must have told them, should be daubed with pitch and built to float cloud high, if need be. A lettuce patch was of no use at all, and a good foundation was worse than useless. A house should have a compass and a keel. The neighbors would have put their hands in their pockets and chewed their lips and strolled home to houses they now found wanting in ways they could not understand….