My Current Copy is a Dog-Eared Paperback
Today I am thinking about missing people. The thought pattern can be tracked back pretty easily, both the the many (many...many...) visitors who've been through Chicago lately and to the fact that I'm re-reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. The first time I picked that book up was, I believe, in 2005, not long after it came out. It was summertime, and people were leaving. The class directly ahead of me at Grinnell was wrapping up their graduation pomp, I was mildly ill, and overwhelmed by all the comings and going. And there was Gilead, on sale at the tiny Grinnell bookstore.
What else was happening? I ask to jog my own memory. I remember Dave's house (erstwhile nicknamed LeSchwArk for all its illustrious residents) during a picnic, almost cracking my tooth on a crawdaddy, crawling upstairs and hiding in Dave's room because I was sick and I just wanted to read. I remember Vanessa in a dress, maybe the first time I had seen such an outlandish thing. I remember the long, lush fields of green.
I was leaving too, although not permanently. The next semester would see me in St. Petersburg, in a tiny apartment on Goroxovaya Ulitsa which smelt of my grandmother's coat closet (there are old parasols in there. I was quite taken with them when I was younger, because they made me feel I was a lady. Little did my proto-feminist brain know). It would be months before I returned to a cold and frozen Iowa tundra, and by that time I would be different, and a significant number of my close friends would be gone. So we were reveling/reckoning that summer.*
My first copy of Gilead was hardbound and expensive, and I think that one Ms. Rachel Pierce is still holding it hostage somewhere. At the time I wasn't as taken with the story as I had hoped to be, after hearing so much positive outpouring from friends who'd read it. My experience with epistolary novels was limited, and so perhaps I got stuck on the form, or on the protagonist.
In a sense, it's reasonable that I would relate to him (the protagonist, that is) more as I am than as I was. At that time, I was surrounded by people in motion. I was actively leaving Iowa, seeking out the greater world, which is exactly what John Ames does not do. After his brother leaves to study German philosophy and goes prodigal, Ames reasserts his faith in the small town of Gilead, his vocation to stay and minister to the sheep in that byway of a place.
Here I am, three years later, and it must be said that I am not in Iowa. However, the action and aims of my life aren't what they once were; I'm no longer thrusting forward quite as violently, and I've come to feel the vital importance of winnowing. By that I don't mean that people should live narrow existences, or that every soul on earth would benefit from spending all their time in the space of a few square miles. But I do think that people tend to overlook how much choices free and shape them - if you leave all possible doors open, you never really get to test your strength in any particular area. You never form the bonds that you would if you moved forward in a definitive direction, and you never achieve the level of creativity and perspective that comes from working within a field of boundaries.
This is why I've always like writing poems within a form.
Gilead is the story of a man who is living with his choices, and who has come to see the light, the beauty, the formlessness of forms. That is something that I am thinking about. And how, you might ask, does this relate to missing people? Why in god's name did I bring that up at the beginning of this little post, only to let it fall by the wayside?
Well, in a sense I am thinking of that wordless nostalgia that tugs on me whenever I meditate on the happy past. Even people who have fallen away from me, run away from me, been pushed away, are attached to memories I will never be free from (even if I wanted to be). I think that the more you sift through the dross of things, the more you shave bits and pieces off, the more acutely you feel the need for what matters.
*Yes, ok, that's the title of an Ani DiFranco album. But it's appropriate! I swear.