‘I have been thinking about existence lately…’

I have been thinking about wonderment and amazement, and I came, again, across this rich passage from Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead. The Reverend John Ames, writing to his son, recalls an early morning:

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial–if you remember them–and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There were all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, it is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees still can astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.

What does Reverend Ames wonder? He does not say. Perhaps: ‘How could a row of oak trees, so ordinary otherwise, evoke such awe in me today?’ Perhaps: ‘This human existence–what is it all about?’ Perhaps: ‘How come I walk past the oak trees so often and only today and as I remember do they crackle and burst with terrible life?’ Or more aptly: ‘How can I be so full of admiration for existence that I cannot enjoy it as much as I would like? I am beset, pleasantly so, by paradox.’

What astonishes Reverend Ames? That he can be so old and still feel like a newborn. That the beauty of the world still–after all this time observing and beholding–still cannot be fathomed by him. That the things of the world perceived as if once could so dazzle the eyes that the mouth could not speak of them. What language could say such singularity! I see and see and something still escapes me.

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