Wednesday, December 08, 2004
Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides with me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man. And of course that is exactly what he is. "For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?" In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable--which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
Maybe I should have said we are like planets. But then I would have lost some of the point of saying that we are like civilizations. The planets may all have been sloughed from the same star, but still the historical dimension is missing from that simile, and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us. I am old enough to remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center, and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression, and people were hungry, and we did what we could. I am not finding fault. . . . There were people eating groundhogs. The children would go to school with nothing in their lunch buckets but a boiled potato or a scrap of bread with lard smeared on it. In those days the windows of the church used to get so pelted with dust that I'd get up on a ladder and sweep them down with a broom so there would be light enough inside for people to read their hymnals.
The times were dreadful, but it was just how it was, and we got very used to it. That was our civilization. The valley of the shadow. And it might as well be Ur of the Chaldees for all people know about it now. For which I thank God, of course, though, since it had to happen, I don't regret having been here for it. It gives you another look at things. I have heard people say it taught them there is more to life than security and the material comforts, but I know a lot of older people around here who can hardly bear to part with a nickel, remembering those hard times. I can't blame them for it, though it has meant that the church is just now beginning to come out of its own Depression. "There is that scattereth, and increaseth yet more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth only to want." Much in this very town proves the truth of that proverb. Well, the church is shabby for the same reason it's still standing at all. So I shouldn't really complain. It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.
--Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
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