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Making a blessed nest out of Marilynne Robinson’s words

In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgements of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of servings its best interests. (Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 30).

I have half an hour, really 25 minutes, before I must pack up my stuff and head downstairs to clock in. I am sure that this bit of writing will take much longer than 25 minutes, but even so I try to capture this moment. I am sitting on the floor in the Teen Area of the library, my back against the wall, my laptop in my lap. Next to me is my brand new bike pannier- the white still is bright, unscuffed by my travels. To my right, sitting at a hightop table are a man and a woman, both middled aged, whispering as they, with no small amount of frustration, try to figure out how to do something online. The man’s voice rises out of the whisper on a huff of exasperation. I hear “I don’t know how to,” before he pulls his voice back down to sacred space soft.

On the floor, near my left knee is a book, 5×7, a rusty orange brown, with black images of what I presume is a farm house. Across the yard from the house is a low tree with bushy branches. The text on the book is in black and pale yellow. The yellow is so pale that it makes me think of a yellow curtain that has been bleached by the sun. This book, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is by Marilynne Robinson.

Years ago, I read half of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I did not finish it because it was the last book at the end of the semester of Women Writers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. We read Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Chopin’s The Awakening. None of the stories were happy; they were sad, bleak and after a while despite their importance I just could not take another story in which women struggled, often in vain, against the limits culture placed on them and their gifts. Homecoming may end with hope; I do not know because by the time I came to it I needed hope to come much sooner. I do not think I got past the first few pages.

Edgar Allan Poe began to matter to me in what might fairly be called my childhood, my early adolescence. I more than forgave him his febrile imagination. In fact, I loved the dark gorgeousness of his mind, and the utter, quite palpable, almost hallucinatory loneliness of it. (“Cosmology,” p. 183).

[A break as the drafting of this dose slips into a second day.]

I picked up When I Was a Child I Read Books because the cover caught my eye and the title drew my interest. I am drawn to books by those who define their childhood in relation to books.

When I was a child I read books. My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists. (“When I was a Child, p. 85).

I checked out the book because Robinson now teaches at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where a dear friend attends, and because much of her understanding of the world is shaped by her religion, Christianity. As my faithful and faithless followers may suspect, I have a fondness for well-shaped words about the world that let their faith flag fly, regardless of the particular faith, though I am interested in how a particular faith shapes particular words.

I was traveling from Iowa to New York with my son not long after September 11. We passed a great many of those tall highway signs that usually advertise hardware sales and dinner specials. Most of them then said, GOD BLESS AMERICA. Only one of them said GOD HAS BLESSED AMERICA. Yes, he has. He has blessed us with one another. We have had an extraordinary experience here together. I don’t think anything is more emotionally stabilizing, more clarifying in every way, than gratitude, especially in dark times. And we have more reasons for gratitude than we could every count, or even be aware of. ( “Wondrous Love,” p. 138).

I have not finished this book by Robinson but not, as I hope I have shown in my quoting, because of a lack of hope. Some months, I devour book after book, finishing an astonishing number in a few weeks time. There have been months when I have read 50 books, perhaps not with great comprehension, but read and at least mostly digested. Other months, my reading is well balanced; it nurtures my intellect, it stimulates my art appetite, it feeds my soul. I read with care whether I am reading genre fiction or theory. Some months, I am a picky reader, reading the parts that seem the tastiest, leaving the rest on my plate.

I have come to understand that these reading cycles are valuable; the less balanced readings, the indiscriminate or the finicky, do important work. Being a picky reader for a few months at a time is a sign that I am in magpie mode. Magpie mode means the world is full of shiny magic waiting to for me to collect. The trick for me is use my finds to make creative nests for others to inhabit. My art house is full of half-built nests. Some of this is a necessary part of my creative process, but too much of it has been fear that what I want to say is not needed in the world.

But the worst of it is that so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives. (“Imagination and Community,” p. 32).

Thankfully, Robinson works to the level of her powers. Her book has enriched my life. I choose to see it as a blessing, of sorts, on me and my work. I imagine that I eventually will read When I Was A Child I Read Books all the way through, though probably not anytime soon. My picky, magpie reading of Robinson’s book has given my courage to build this nest. Perhaps you will live in it for a while, make something new out of it, and so Robinson will bless us all.

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