THE PHYSICS OF TIME AND HEAT – AND OUR SURVIVAL AS A SPECIES

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The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli tells us in his international bestseller, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, that “there is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is the flow of heat.” The flow of time, he writes, is a matter of thermodynamics, subject to the vagaries of probability. Building on Einstein’s amply verified theory of relativity, Rovelli says that just as there is no definitive “here” in relation to other points of reference, neither is there an objective “present” in terms of time. Our sense of passing time, he explains, arises from “microscopic interactions within the world” that are part of “systems” such as human consciousness and memory. That about wraps it up, I guess, if you’re a physicist.

Time remains a mystery, Rovelli admits, but he does a formidable job reducing it to a blur of subatomic particles perceived within the limitations of human consciousness, including the finest of scientific calculations. Given the limitations of my non-physicist consciousness, I think he’s on to something beyond physics when he identifies heat as the sole detectable factor separating our past from our future.

Put in more human terms, is heat rather akin to attention? If we put our attention on someone, are we not transmitting an immeasurable but sometimes detectable impulse of energy towards them—such as when we sense someone looking at us? Keeping things strictly materialistic, our brains consume energy, so can we not consider mental impulses that require the brain’s energy as some version of heat? Looking at it another way, isn’t attention what enables us to distinguish what has happened from what is happening?

What, though, about things that have taken place in the past but linger in our minds so that they remain alive in the present, events and people we still care about, puzzle over, continue to study, imitate? Lingering objects of attention give force to Faulkner’s famous line, perhaps alluding to the South’s role in the Civil War, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The parts of the past that do not die are those that draw enough of our attention for them to stick in our memory. The elasticity of human reactions allows for widely differing perspectives on past events. The pioneers’ brave expansion and settlement of the American West looks very different from the standpoint of Native Americans, whose tribal lands were overtaken, treaties broken, burial grounds desecrated, and so on.

We give certain experiences more attention than others because they elicit some form of psychological heat – curiosity, fear, admiration, humor, regret, love, resentment, hope, etc. From what I’ve read about how the human brain works, items that stay in our memory are glued to or associated with emotions of some kind. Otherwise they are not retained, at least in that person’s memory.

Think of what an enormous effusion of, shall we say, attention quanta, human beings (not to mention other beings) emit daily. From the homeliest impulse to get up in the morning, to numberless types of effort put forth by multitudes throughout their day’s labor—to serve others, to deal with all manner and size of interpersonal conflicts, to keep informed about what’s happening around us. Within this huge output of attention impulses are, say, quarks of different types of attention—from the keenest concentration required for original work of any kind, to the tedious forms of labor done solely for a paycheck, to routine tasks of personal hygiene, transportation, shopping, housekeeping and so on.

Good luck trying to fathom the myriad attention units devoted to sexual desire, romantic love, and the equally vital efforts of friendship.

Attention quanta may also differ in terms of age and stages of consciousness. The very young survive by focusing on those who take care for them, because their lives depend on whether they receive nurturing attention. Children soon face the demands of schooling, and meet various degrees of success fitting into so-called peer groups, developing their personal identities by trial and error.  Hopes and dreams for making a difference in the world extend far beyond youth, of course.  Many of us do not fulfill our desires and others’ expectations, and must learn to be thankful for whatever we have.  As they age, many find it necessary to calculate the energy we will need to give our full attention to the tasks before (another strange quark of attention) and what to put aside when running on fumes.

For any age, let’s not leave out the unfathomable attention quanta humankind expends on—to paraphrase Zora Neale Thurston—licking the pots in sorrow’s kitchen. Enduring physical pain, illness, disability, abuse, loneliness, trauma, shame and grief are as demanding in terms of attention as they are unavoidable to those afflicted. Oddly, those who suffer through such things are not precluded from moments of happiness as fine as any experienced outside sorrow’s kitchen.

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil considered attention to be the purest form of prayer. She believed that “attention is the only faculty that gives us access to God.” Whether or not one believes in God, the power of attention is something undeniable in human experience and seems essential to any manifestation of love. There would be no works or art, scientific discoveries, technology, perseverance through hardships, heroism, civilization or survival of our species without it.

Science has not gone beyond the Big Bang theory of how our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, when there was a great burst of heat, light, energy and eventually matter. Only recently we’ve learned that visible matter, including us, is about 3.5 percent of the universe, whereas invisible or “dark” matter and energy constitutes all the rest. What are these unseen constituents?  We have no clue. All we know is that dark energy propels the universe to expand, while dark matter provides the gravity that keeps the stars, gas and dust in all the galaxies from flying apart.

Rovelli the physicist directs our attention to an amazing thought, that the flow of heat makes possible our experience of the passage of time. An attending metaphysician might extend this idea further: that the heat of which he speaks includes immeasurable quanta of attention. The energy source of this attention possibly connects us to that which brought our universe into existence and keeps it from dispersing into chaos.

How we experience time—and how we try to affect what is happening in present time—may determine whether our species will experience a future.

Rovelli’s book closes with a scientifically valid, hard-nosed assertion that our human species will probably not survive the damage we have already done to our environment. He hardly needs to exemplify this prediction with reference to global warming, widespread pollution, loss of habitat and mass extinction of other species due to our overuse of natural resources, and the extinction of earlier human species and civilizations.

It begs the question, in the most total way a species can beg:

Why can’t we apply more of our heat to the flow of time? Can we put enough attention into saving the biosphere so as not to destroy human civilization? Are we not capable of exerting more, stimulating more, innovating more, doing more of whatever it takes to save our future on this beautiful blue sphere on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions? What better goal would humankind have, exactly now?

 

 

 

RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.

EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?

 

 

ATTENTION LEAPING FROM THE MODERN LOVE SECTION OF THE NEWS

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Hundreds of comments, millions of hits and Facebook shares resulted from the New York Times Styles Section piece called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” by Mandy Len Catron.  Tons more responses resulted from the paper’s followup publication of the 36 questions Catron used to test whether she could fall in love with the man she agreed to try the psychological experiment with.

Catron admits she fell in love with this man, without confirming that it was due to the series of Qs.  Many responded that they definitely did not fall in love when they tried the questions, but that is not my point.  I want to refocus the discussion on the source of attention—and motive—of the originator of these questions so carefully crafted to induce feelings of love.

The first 12 Qs are more catchy than invasive, a gently powerful hook.  They show exceptional focus on what is entirely particular about the person questioned.   Whom would you have as a dinner guest if you could invite anyone in the world?  What for you would constitute a perfect day? Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?  and, If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

The Qs probe progressively deeper once the door has been opened:  Why have you not done something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  What is your most treasured memory?  Your worst memory?  How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?  When did you last cry in front of someone, or alone?   –  No wonder one commentor planned to use the list to increase her number of meaningful interactions in a day!

This list is no idle compendium, but the product of an extremely high quality attention arising from a professional study of human nature.  As Catron acknowledges, it was  compiled over 20 years ago by the psychologist Arthur Aron, who used the Qs successfully to make two strangers fall in love in his laboratory.  Although Catron’s piece received much feedback from people who failed to fall in love after answering the questions, certain factors stand out that might have triggered the love interest of those who found themselves “falling.”

First, the questions are not mere pretexts to put forth one’s own views, mainly because each participant has to answer the same questions.  They are also crafted to induce two people to become more open, honest, and vulnerable to each other—in a challenging but not too threatening way.  They do not ask, for example, about income, past sexual relationships, politics, or people the subjects hate.  They are also a primer for how to draw someone out while paying respectful, truly interested attention to them.

Still, you don’t need a clinical psychologist to give you a fine tuned list of inquiries.

Sometimes an opportunity arises that does not lead to falling in love, but a lasting bond gets created anyway.  One such opportunity arose when I was in college, when I found myself sitting in a car full of students driven by a Caltech professor named Max Delbrück.

Carl, my date, was a Caltech student who sat in front next to the door, with me in the middle.  The back seat held three or four more students, chattering loudly as we traveled toward a social event I’ve forgotten.  But I never forgot my quiet exchange with the driver, whom I’d never heard of.  (He was quite an influential biophysicist, I learned later.)  I didn’t feel comfortable sitting next to the driver in silence, or ignoring him by talking with Carl.  I was curious about his accent, so I asked where he grew up.  Germany, he said.

It went on from there.  Did he have any siblings?  He was youngest of seven.  Did he get along with them or were there conflicts?  What were his parents like, and what brought him to the States?  He answered everything with a no frills, eloquent candor.  I don’t remember what he asked me, except that I replied just as frankly.  He was not a professor at my college so I had nothing to lose, and I was terrible at small talk.  Carl told me afterward that he couldn’t hear what Dr. Delbrück and I were saying over the din in the back seat, but he knew it was special because he’d never heard Max—who was known for a rather gruff manner—speak so personally.

After that outing Carl reported that Max made a point of asking him how I was doing.  When Carl told me that Max was always helping others with their research—offering ideas that won them win Nobel Prizes while never winning one himself—I sent up a fierce prayer that one day Max would get the recognition he deserved.

Years later, when I picked up the New York Times and read that Max Delbrück had received a Nobel Prize, my heart glowed with joy and pride for my once and ever friend.  That is the power of simple, honest attention.

THANKFUL FOR MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S LILA

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A week before Thanksgiving the National Book Award winners were announced. Previously I’d paid little attention to this event. Then I heard that Marilynne Robinson was being nominated for the year’s best work of fiction—her third nomination. So I was hoping the third time would be a charm. Sadly, Robinson was passed over again for an award she richly deserved. As luck or topicality would have it, the award went to a collection of short stories by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No disrespect to this year’s winner, but it goes to show that there should be no winners or losers in the realm of great writing. In my view, Robinson’s work goes beyond the scope of a National Book Award. Hers is Nobel Prize material.

I’d no idea of Marilynne Robinson when I bought a copy of Gilead in 2005. The title caught my eye. I wondered whether it referred somehow to the mysterious balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. Instead I was entranced by the voice of a country preacher, 77, with heart disease, writing a long letter to his seven-year-old son who would not grow up knowing him. This old man, Rev. Ames, had fallen in love with the boy’s mother when she appeared one rainy Sunday at the back of his small church. Here was the kind of literary figure considered impossible to make interesting: a sincerely good man. Even worse in terms of narrative challenge, he was a man of the cloth, with no checkered past, no addiction to booze, no action-packed city or frontier life to pepper the plot. Except that as a young man he’d lost his wife and son in childbirth and we find him after he’s spent 40-odd years a lonely widower. Ironically, his best friend, whom he has tried mightily—and at a crucial moment fails—not to envy, is a fellow preacher with a loving wife and eight children.

The most inspiring moment for me is when Ames tells his son how he fell in love with the boy’s mother, his much younger wife, who had stepped into his church simply to get out of the rain. She was a total stranger, and he didn’t even know if she was married. He admits that he flushed shamefully, lost track of what his sermon was about, and was only too well aware that he was doing everything in his power to hold this woman’s interest. If there is anything greater in modern literature about the mystery of love and the surrender of all pretense and dignity to the gaze of the beloved, I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t surprised when Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for that novel.

Then came Home, set in the same place and time, but told from the perspective of a peripheral character in Gilead. This inimitable character is the youngest daughter of Rev. Boughton, Rev. Ames’ best friend, who—unlike her father—never passed judgment on her beloved youngest brother, Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the family and godson of Rev. Ames.

Jack Boughton is a different kind of prodigal son. He comes home to the little town of Gilead no longer young, only to find that his father is frail and dying, and his godfather likewise. He’d been hoping to ask Rev. Ames to marry him and his common-law African American wife, whom he’d met after completing a ten-year prison sentence for a crime he had no memory of—perhaps it happened during a drunken black-out. He’d dared to hope that his wife and child might be accepted there, since the state, unlike its neighbors, had no anti-miscegenation laws. But he quickly finds that the community still holds him in deep suspicion, that his father cannot understand why the colored people have to riot in Birmingham and elsewhere (this is the fifties). And while he is there he gets a letter from the woman he loves, that seems to say she has succumbed to the wishes of her father—also a clergyman—to marry a black man who has promised to adopt the child she conceived with Jack.

Both Jack and Rev. Ames’ wife are present when the two old preachers discuss the topic of greatest torment to Jack: the religious doctrine of predestination—whether or not a person is doomed from birth to be destined for hell, no matter how mixed his or her life is with both selfish and goodhearted acts and intentions. The same conversation occurs in both Gilead and Home, and in both cases it is Mrs. Ames who ends it by declaring, “People can change.” In each case her words come as a shock, because she is a person of few words. All they know is that she arrived out of nowhere and that Rev. Ames loves her and respects her completely. If anything, she and Jack are almost equal in their isolation and outsider status. In fact, the only time we hear her name is when Jack says, “Thank you, Lila,” after she utters that resounding truth.

The high point of Home for me is the awkward, soulful talk Jack finally manages to have with Rev. Ames, when his godfather, who has long judged him as a disgrace to his family and his own name (he was baptized John Ames Boughton), sees that his seemingly ne’er-do-well namesake is actually a good man. He has given his whole heart to a good woman who loved him and bore him a son, whom he won’t be able to marry given the prejudice of society.  They both have sons who will grow up not knowing them.  Ames’ bitter disappointment in his godson is washed away in a flood of compassion and regret that he won’t live long enough to help Jack reconstitute his family. In that regard there will be no balm for them in Gilead. But there may be some when the reader pieces together the possibility that Jack was not doomed by God, but by the judgments of his own family and the secretly animosity of the man chosen to be his godfather. No wonder Rev. Ames longs to rechristen Jack as he leaves Gilead for a life of exile.

Lila is a novel written from Rev. Ames’ second wife’s point of view, and it is a masterpiece.

Why? Hard to say without sounding superficial. You see, this Lila is about as homeless as a person can be. She doesn’t know her real name, first or last. As a child she was stolen away from her natural family by a homeless woman called Doll who’d survived a near-fatal knife fight with a man. Doll may have done some housework for the girl’s family, or simply noticed that they had a daughter who’d been allowed to starve, whose legs were too spindly to walk on. Doll, by kidnapping her, saved the girl’s life, pulling her out from under the table where she slept in rags, carrying her away one night.

Over several years Doll had protected this girl, naming her Lila after the deceased aunt of a lady who’d let them stay with her while Doll nursed the child to passable health. Eventually they joined a small group of migrant workers, making their own campsites and sleeping out in the open or staying in occasional work camps, picking up whatever farming or other jobs they could find. For almost a year Doll took a job cleaning house so Lila could attend school and learn to read. With Doll and the others Lila learned the dignity of solitude, hard work, honesty, and not to trust anyone. In time the group disbanded, Doll got into another knife fight and this time killed her attacker, was badly cut herself, and probably went off somewhere to die. Lila was sent to work in St. Louis, unaware that the job was in a house of prostitution. It was after she’d left that place and went on the road by herself that she passed by the town of Gilead and stepped into Rev. Ames’ church to get out of the rain. She has no religion, no understanding of why people bother to go to church, and cannot understand why this kind old man (she does recognize that he is kind) would think twice about her.

What a love story.  She can’t believe or trust Rev. Ames’ love, and wishes she could be free of her love for him. They can hardly talk to one another. Lila carries an ocean of sorrow and untold indignity and destitution within her. Yet she has built a ship of self-reliance and inner dignity on which to navigate it.  She gives honest work for fair wages–cash or food–and when she feels overpaid out of charity she finds a way to work extra, unpaid. She catches her own fish and guts them with the knife she inherited from Doll.  She washes her body and her clothes in streams. There is deep beauty in how she sees things. I’ll offer just one quote:

She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean. It might be a little brown after a good rain, soil from the fields, but the silt washed away or settled out. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.  (p. 60)

Lila had been taught to walk past shop windows in towns, not to look inside, because Doll had told her not to want what she couldn’t have. She hated charity, and people’s pity. What she liked best about Rev. Ames was that he was well acquainted with loneliness. It was something they could share. Barely able to read, her vocabulary is modest, and she has to ask Ames what he means by “existence.” She quickly understands that it is something she knows from the ground up.

I could go on, but words are failing. Read Lila. It’ll give you a whole new dimension of the art of paying attention.