Friday, March 28, 2014



“We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet; what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything—the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.’” Shall We Dance?

Have you met Rueben, Swede, Davy, and Jeremiah Land? John Ames of Gilead? Jayber Crow? I would love to introduce you.

Rueben, John, and Jayber are witnesses.

In Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River (every sentence, from first to last, a masterpiece), eleven-year-old Rueben says this:

My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed—though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.

I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.

Make of it what you will. Yes.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a novel that struck me to the core. In a way similar to Peace Like a River, it is a profound look into the essence of life. What it means to live. What it means to be present. To be a witness to one’s own life as well as the lives of others. To be a being in time and yet part of eternity. To be filled with awe by the miracle of life. To have faith in times of grief. To see beauty in the ordinary. To wrestle with questions. To have grace for the human-ness of others.

But rather than seeing it all through the eyes of youth, John Ames of Gilead, Iowa, is reflecting over seventy-six years of hard life. This is a man humble, gracious, and profound. He sees eternity in a human story.

“I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all be changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

While both novels are works of fiction, they contain truth that is often inaccessible in works of non-fiction. Analogical truth. As G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“Fable is more historical than fact because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.”

My friend Jessye and I read A Handmaiden’s Tale about the same time we read Gilead, and she remarked on the surprising coincidence (due to the extreme differences in theme and purpose) that both books have a Gilead. She discovered that Gilead means “hill of testimony or witness.” Knowing the definition brings a new depth to both books (words matter!).

In telling our own stories we must, whether intentionally or inadvertently, tell the stories of those whose lives are inextricably entwined in ours. We are witnesses to the lives, the stories surrounding us. [This blog is my Gilead, my hill of testimony. These pictures, my witness.]

And then I met Jayber Crow. He was my introduction to Wendell Berry.

I won’t pretend that I was sucked in from the beginning. Though well-written and full of interesting anecdotes of life and people, I spent the first two-thirds of the book wondering where it was going. I remember Andrew Kern talking about his "non-linear brain" and that he liked to think that he was seeing things from the perspective of eternity, which is exactly how I felt about Jayber Crow by the end (and Gilead in retrospect). It was outside of time, looking down at all the completed threads at once.

While I am decidedly a linear-thinker who connects best with a beginning, a straight, chronological line through the middle, and package wrapped with a bow at the end, I am learning to embrace the non-linear tapestry of eternity as well as questions without answers or formulas.

Jayber writes his story as he is looking back on his life, as non-linear as John Ames. In the early chapters of the book, Jayber has a little exchange with a teacher soon after he feels called (or obligated) to the ministry.

I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

And then we are invited to live out the questions with Jayber as he observes life as a small-town barber. A little at a time. In stories of community and nature. Of soul-wrenching grief and loss and beauty and laughter. Of integrity, or the lack thereof. Of exquisite human-ness.

Berry allows his characters to be what they are, without manipulating them to be what they ought. Not white-washed. Not vilified.

I have no desire to spoil the unfolding of the conclusion, but I wish to share a few favorite quotes.

p 126

“They were rememberers, carrying in their living thoughts all the history that such places as Port William ever have…”

p 127

“I came to feel a tenderness for them all. This was something new to me. It gave me a curious pleasure to touch them, to help them in and out of the chair, to shave their weather-toughened old faces. They had known hard use, nearly all of them. You could tell it by the way they held themselves and moved. Most of all you could tell it by their hands, which were shaped by wear and often by the twists and swellings of arthritis. They had use their hands forgetfully, as hooks and pliers and hammers, and in every kind of weather. The backs of their hands showed a networks of little scars where they had been cut, nicked, thornstruck, pinched, punctured, scraped, and burned. Their faces told that they had suffered things they did not talk about.”

p 329

“It is not a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that the world is always passing and irrecoverable, to be known only in loss. To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain. It is a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that you are a human and therefore joined by kind to all that hates the world and hurries its passing—the violence and greed and falsehood that overcome the world that is meant to be overcome by love.”

p 353

“I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go.”

p 49

“Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins—hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust—came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world.”

p 51

“But now I was unsure what it would be proper to pray for, or how to pray for it. After you have said “thy will be done,” what more can be said? And where do you find the strength to pray “thy will be done” after you see what it means?”

p 71

“The university thought of itself as a place of freedom for thought and study and experimentation, and maybe it was, in a way. But it was an island too, a floating or a flying island. It was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what it was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life.”

p 204

“Time, which is supposed to heal, only made them old.”

p 205

"History overflows time. Love overflows the allowance of the world. All the vessels overflow, and no end or limit stays put. Every shakable thing has got to be shaken. In a sense, nothing that was ever lost in Port William ever has been replaced. In another sense, nothing is ever lost, and we are compacted together forever, even by our failures, our regrets, and our longings."

p 210

“Theoretically, there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have. But then this person must meet herself coming back: Theoretically, there always is a better inhabitant of this place, a better member of the community, a better worker, spouse, and friend than she is. This surely describes one of the circles of Hell, and who hasn’t traveled around it a time or two?”

p 249

"Hate succeeds. This world gives plentiful scope and means to hatred, which always finds its justifications and fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things of time. That is why war is complete and spares nothing, balks at... nothing, justifies itself by all that is sacred, and seeks victory by everything that is profane. Hell itself, the war that is always among us, is the creature of time, unending time, unrelieved by any light or hope.

"But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here. It is not explainable or even justifiable. It is itself the justifier. We do not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive. It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.

"Maybe love fails here, I thought, because it cannot be fulfilled here...

“She was a living soul and could be loved forever. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity."

p 322

“The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?”

p 356

“I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.”


Jessica Stock said...

Yes. One of my very favorite books!

Renee said...

We love Wendell Berry. Had a date night and went to hear him speak at a local college a year or two ago. Speaking engagements are rare, and I was starstruck!