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
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I like this author you interviewed. She has a lot to say, and I'll look up her book immediately. But I like the author who interviewed her and wrote this post, too. She seems closer to me, more of my stride length — one post, one thought, one discovery at the time. Step by step maneuvering down the path, and holding on, hoping God meets me around each bend.
Wonderful post, for so many reasons.
Did you know my husband is transitioning into teaching journalism? He is an online instructor for a community college right now. For which college are you teaching?
Cassandra, What you've said speaks God-care to me. Thank you, friend. It's good to be "understood." 🙂
Marilynne is a fantastic author, and I was so intrigued by the quiet, regal way she carried herself. She has a new book called "Absence of Mind" that I'd like to read. Here's a link to a Washington Post review of the book:
I teach at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. Where is your husband teaching?
You always bring me so deep into my thoughts with your posts. I love the way you weave a beautiful picture with your words…
I will be pondering this all day. Resonating in my mind and heart………………
Oh, what a lovely post on a multitude of levels, Jennifer. Thank you for taking us with you to lunch with the "elegant" Marilynne Robinson. I would have been speechless and my scarf would most definitely have been in the soup.
It's altogether too easy to label ourselves and not let God do that work…to shun away from thinking of ourselves as masterpieces because we allow the world to define things such as masterpiece and beauty for us.
It is a hard thing to find God even in the most mundane moments, but I am trying my best to learn how. Seems as if you are, too. Blessings on your journey.
How wonderful to ponder these things, Jennifer! I'm afraid I would be sitting right next to you, pasting titles over everything in sight :). I'm still trying to read Marilyn's latest nonfiction book, Absence of Mind. It's based on a series of lectures she did at Yale on religion and science and a lot of other heavy stuff.
She is brilliant. It's taking me a long time to read this book :).
But I just love when people make me think and today you are doing that, my friend.
Oh, I'm so jealous! You got to meet her?! And have your photo taken?! She looks ancient, wise and sad. Beautiful.
Thank you for turning your scribblings into a post so I could enjoy. My life definitely feels "untitled," especially since my mom died. I'm approaching the one-year anniversary with fear and trembling.
Megan, I'll add another title to myself: NERD. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in the room who requested a photo with the author. 🙂 …
Also, I am praying for you, Megan, as the one-year mark approaches. How can we title these things? It's so unknown. Much love …
Jennifer, I loved what you took from this author. Deep questions and much soul searching. Thank you for wearing your jeans and being concerned about her scarf! I would have done the same thing!!!
I thought about you at school yesterday!! I'll email you!! 🙂
I love "Gilead." Extraordinary book. I also liked "Housekeeping" but not as much as "Gilead." She writes so much truth about fathers and sons that you wonder how someone who's neither can do it.
I too like this author. But I really like the way you did a "real" interview — through your own eyes and soul. Like Cassandra, I like the author who wrote this post!
Seems I find beauty in your words every time I visit here …
"How does she behold it?" This I don't know, but I do know something about how you behold beauty… with knowledge and humility and a love for Christ. And that counts for way more than titles in front of or letters after names.
Personally, I am leery of "cosmic" talkers because if someone cannot recognize &/or accept God as the Maker of the universe (and the cosmos), then what do they have to say that will help me? Really. Golly, I intend for that to sound so ornery, that's just me being simple and forthright…
Hey, come speak to me whilst we eat soup. We'll dribble and spill together and the whole while, I'll think of you as a sister.
"Untitled masterpieces." I love that thought. Beauty is so different for each of us and being able to see it all is amazing. So many don't. As an artist I have discovered a lot of people don't really see the world at all. They have no concept of the kaleidoscope of colors in nature alone.
Sorry I sort of got on my soap box for a moment. The idea of not labeling ourselves is one that I really like. Lovely post.
"life feels more comfortable when it wears ink instead of sound waves."
Sometimes I feel the same way. Sometimes I know it's better for me to write it than speak it.
Thanks for sharing.
we are all hicks at heart.
Nance? I love you.
You got me thinking, Jennifer. I've realized that as readers and consumers how much the media has trained us to look for and expect titles. In books, movies, music.
Wow, a world with no titles. That's a cool idea. 🙂
Oh wow–she's deep. I think all the time about not labeling my children for fear that they'll seek to fit only that label. But myself? I'm too quick to apply those negative labels.
And you? You look like you fit in perfectly well right beside that interesting author.
I don't know this author at all…I've never read her books. She may be a good person, and the message she shared that day may be full of wisdom.
What I do know is that you have a wonderful heart, full of love and compassion. Your posts are always inspiring and challenging, and I always feel you are speaking directly to me. We've never met, yet you feel like a close friend.
You're the real deal, Jennifer. And, from one hick chick to another…I wouldn't want you to be any other way.
I am going to be chewing on this one for a while…
You see the beauty Jennifer and you share it. Thank you.
Keep up the God Work.