On the value of paying attention: An excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

The following is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead (New York: FSG, 2004), pp. 28-9. The narrator, Reverend John Ames, is 76-years-old and dying. As his final word, he has decided to write a letter to his 7-year-old son.

The year is 1956. In the excerpt below, he refers to Feuerbach, a prominent atheist living during the second half of the 19th C. in Germany, to Boughton, a friend since boyhood, and to his hometown Gilead, a place he has spent most his life.

The mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word “just.” I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed–when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge-. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

I am also inclined to overuse the word “old,” which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say “old Boughton,” I say “this shabby old town,” and I mean they are very near my heart.

In this excerpt, Robinson invites us to consider whether a life’s having gone well would be identical, in the end, with a person’s having paid attention.

Some Examples of Attentive Writing

Andrew Taggart, “On Walking Home from School”

Andrew Taggart & conversation partner, “Childhood… Tire Swings… Growing Up”

Andrew Taggart, “On Anne Page’s Courage”