I don’t want to be the fool who asks too many questions among these wise, jacketed academics ringing the table. I’m the mama and the farm wife who realizes halfway through this lunch that I’ve got a heart-shaped sucker in the back pocket of my jeans. And I remember too late that I wore clunky Merrill slip-ons here instead of something with a little class.
This was a luncheon with a Pulitzer-Prize winner author, for heaven’s sake. And I was a hick in the corner. I label myself like that.
We’re asked to introduce ourselves, and I tell novelist Marilynne Robinson I’m an instructor of journalism here at the college. “But mostly, I’m still a student. I’ve come to learn.”
She nods, and I remember silently that I’m the only “professor” at the table without important letters behind her name.
Marilynne sits two seats away, leaning over her potato soup for the coffee pot. I worry her charcoal scarf will fall into her soup. It doesn’t. Mine would have.
“Would you please pass the cream?” she asks.
She’s talking about book titles now, and how, if she had it her way, her books would have no titles at all. I write this down because it seems important, though I don’t yet know why: No titles.
I listen, ask a few questions. But mostly I get tongue-tied here.
A professor is sitting between Marilynne and me. She sees I’m taking notes. She asks if I’ll write about it later, and I blush, stammer. I tell her I’m not sure yet.
Mostly, I scribble words when I don’t know what to say with the mouth. I speak silent with the pen, curving letters because life feels more comfortable when it wears ink instead of sound waves.
I’m watching Marilynne now, as she stirs her soup. She speaks of beauty. And I think she seems otherworldly, like maybe she can see things I can’t. She tells us that the world holds more beauty than our eyes can bear. I wonder: How does she behold it?
Do I see it? Is this seeing a learned behavior? Or was I born with this capacity, only to have unlearned it over time?
I sketch Marilynne in my journal, silvery strands curving just below her chin. She’s wearing chunky bracelets. She’s all gray and black and charcoal, yet she carries herself with regal color. I give her a title, because that’s what we do in life.
And I name Marilynne this: Elegant.
I remember now how I called myself a fool in the first paragraph, a hick in the second.
I think of Marilynne’s passage in Gilead, where a boy and father stand in a cemetery, with nameless markers in crooked rows of tipped, stone dominoes. The father and the son put things to rights. And there, in a repository of corpses, the boy beholds the beauty.
“What I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. … And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.
“My father said, ‘I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.'”
Earlier, at the podium, Marilynne asked us to consider the cosmic significance of the underused and underfed human mind. Writing, she says, gives us access to a part of our minds that we didn’t otherwise know existed.
These minds, strange and beautiful, hold a cargo of stories. I think about how I’ve given too many of my stories titles. And I remember again how Marilynne says she’d rather have title-less books. The people who market these things, though, demand them.
Have I shrunk the capacity of my humanity by drawing boxes around the self? Have I assigned too many titles?
I know that I have given myself names. (I once called myself “just a mom,” when someone asked what I did for a living. I haven’t made that mistake since.)
I’ve worn other titles, ugly labels.
Marilynne sips from her cup, delivers a three-point sermon in a campus dining room: “We live most of our lives in false narratives.”
I make a note of that.
Four days later, I open the journal today and re-read her words. I ask myself:
What if I lived life untitled, letting God inform the story one page at a time? What if I would access the part of the mind that saw beauty in the ordinary, not just the thing hanging on the museum wall?
What if I saw me — even me — as an untitled masterpiece?
“You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be
understood as ‘beauty.’”
— Marilynne Robinson, in an interview with The Paris Review