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That Common Heart

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Finding unity and faith in the fiction of Marilynne Robinson

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By Amanda Parrish Morgan

March 14, 2018


 

Years ago, against advice from skeptical colleagues, I taught Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, to a class of high school juniors. We needed more contemporary novels in our AP Language and Composition curriculum, as well as more writing by women. Housekeeping would also be a perfect way to introduce the dense, wandering Transcendentalist essays of Emerson and Thoreau. The novel’s first sentence, “My name is Ruth,” reads as a modification of Moby-Dick’s famous “Call me Ishmael,” and Robinson time and again cites Melville as an influence. But the real reason I wanted to teach Housekeeping was because I wanted to read it again, to spend the kind of time with Robinson’s words that teaching the novel in an advanced class about language would require. I also suspected that the isolation the narrator, Ruth, feels from everyone she’s ever known would resonate with my students. The novel is difficult, there are no significant male characters, it’s an unusual high school choice, and yet I felt intuitively that my students would connect with the story.

I first read Housekeeping in 2004before her later, more widely acclaimed Gilead, Home, and Lila were published—and I read it without any knowledge of her nonfiction or any notion of her as a Christian writer. The novel tells the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille’s upbringing. Orphaned after their mother’s suicide, the two are raised first by their grandmother and later by their strange Aunt Sylvie in the Idaho town of Fingerbone. I’d loved Ruth’s eerie narrative voice and her understandable frustration with her conventional sister: “In spring I had begun to sense that Lucille’s loyalties were with the other world.” I was awed by a scene in an abandoned orchard, delightedly confused by exactly what happened when Ruth and Sylvie crossed the railroad bridge out of Fingerbone in the dark of night. By the time I taught the book, though, Gilead had won the Pulitzer Prize and Robinson seemed to have taken a place in the popular imagination as a Christian writer.  Now, the allusion of Ruth’s name, the orchard, the symbolism of the river, the suggestion of rebirth at the novel’s end all seemed too obviously Christian to ignore. The vague, detached description Ruth gives of herself feels set in an inverted Eden: “Once there was a young girl strolling at night in an orchard. She came to a house she had never seen before, all alight so that through any window she could see curious ornaments and marvelous comforts. A door stood open, so she walked inside. It would be that kind of story, a very melancholy story.” My students and I read the Book of Ruth, with its wandering and family loyalty, and tried to parse out how allusion added meaning to the novel. We wondered if Ruth and Sylvie had died crossing the bridge, if that metaphor of crossing over might also be read literally, explaining the otherworldly quality of Ruth’s narration.

In December 2014, my mom, a devout Christian, and I, then a Carl Jung–obsessed humanist, drove to New Haven together to hear Robinson give a lecture at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. I was pregnant with my first child, already on maternity leave, a week past my due date. My daughter’s heel was wedged painfully under my right rib cage, and I felt out of breath sitting in the small hard chairs. Robinson’s presence was commanding and her language beautiful, but her ideas were elevated beyond what I could digest while distracted by physical discomfort and mounting anxiety. I’d brought my 10-year-old coffee-stained paperback edition of Housekeeping for her to sign, and the whole time I was in line, I tried to think of what I might say in the few seconds we’d have to talk. I watched divinity students and middle-aged academics hobknob in front of me and finally, when it was my turn, I just handed her my book and smiled nervously, apologetically, appreciatively, hopefully.

Robinson’s lecture that night was, in part, about Jonathan Edwards, the famous Puritan minister whose sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” I’d often used to teach rhetorical strategies to my students. My understanding of Calvinism was elementary, drawn from grammar school lessons on predestination. There are places in my copy of Housekeeping where I’ve written, predestination? trying to talk myself into reconciling the interviews with Robinson that I’d read about her Calvinist faith with Housekeeping as a Gothic novel about women both haunted and haunting. How did the compassion for these dark, complicated, lonely women fit into a society I’d understood to be at fault for the Salem witch trials and opposed to any sort of nonconformity? It was only years removed from teaching the novel, after reading Robinson’s most recent collection of essays, that I started to make sense of what it might mean to be a contemporary Calvinist.

The Congregationalist church I grew up attending is a direct theological descendant of Puritan churches like the one Edwards led. In her lecture that night, Robinson challenged our popular conception of Edwards and Puritans in general as angry, fear-mongering, draconian conformists. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is an angry, frightening sermon, but Robinson makes a convincing case that Puritanism has been widely misunderstood. Instead, she argues it was the most progressive and free religion of its time, citing the religion’s central belief in freedom of consciousness as inspiring a colonial New England society with a rich, deliberate history of universal public education. From this society came the Transcendentalists, the Abolitionist movement, and the current, relatively liberal, and accepting United Church of Christ (to which Robinson’s and my own family’s church belong).


 

I was confirmed in eighth grade, though I didn’t want to be. It seemed I didn’t really have a choice, that to question was to reject, that to say I needed (perhaps an indefinite amount) more time before confirming a belief so complicated would be to leave the only religious or spiritual community I’d ever known. In the years since, I’ve gone to church irregularly—for Christmas, Easter, the classes my husband and I took together before we got married, our wedding. My struggle seemed to be between skepticism, my own oddness, and belonging. Belonging felt so uncomfortably close to conforming.

When our infant daughter was a few months old, people began asking if, or more often when, we planned to baptize her.

We didn’t. I knew enough about my own faith to believe that if there is a God, he does not punish babies for their parents’ decisions. I also knew that the sacrament of baptism is serious and solemn, and it felt cavalier to make a promise, in front of family and congregation, to raise my children in the church when I was not sure what that could mean for me.

During this time, labor, delivery, and the visceral vulnerability of my tiny daughter were making me breathless and heartbroken over my awareness of how fleeting our time here on this earth is. Trite though this realization may be, I began for the first time to understand that I, and everyone I’ve ever loved, will eventually die. Sometimes this made me so sad that I couldn’t sleep. The kind of love I experienced for my daughter after becoming a mother really was otherworldly, and it deepened the love I had for my own parents, my husband, childhood friends, former students I’d watched grow up, even for strangers. It was a force. I wondered if I was becoming religious. I wondered this sometimes with hope and sometimes with the fear of toppling everything I’d thought I understood about my own nature, my politics, and my reluctance to declare myself a member of anything. Was it selfish to take this cautious first step because I thought it might make me less afraid?

A former colleague once asked me if I was aware that “Marilynne Robinson is, like, an evangelical Christian?” No, I snapped, defensive and annoyed, she’s not. Although I certainly hadn’t understood everything Robinson had written about her faith, I understood that she was not evangelical in the sense my friend meant. What Robinson offered—a way between my own stubborn nonconformity (so central and celebrated in Housekeeping) and the role of community and faith of her later novels—had begun to feel personal.

Part of what I loved so fiercely about Housekeeping, and identified with so intensely, was the tale of outsider women who never could, even if they’d wanted to, figure out how to adhere to society’s expectations of them. Skepticism of a secular sort. That same wariness of belonging is at the heart of what makes it hard for me to make the jump from an interest in faith to regular attendance or making a public vow to raise my children in the church. Vow is a big word.


 

I know, at least intellectually, that there are feminists, activists, introverts, and skeptics at church, yet my notion of myself as all of those things somehow still feels at odds with belief. Instead, I imagine that singing in the women’s choir with my mom and daughter is about togetherness and tradition. That having my kids participate in the Christmas events at church is an important antidote to Santa and rampant consumerism that otherwise threaten to define the month of December.

This past Christmas, my three-year-old, Thea, asked me who Jesus is. I didn’t know what to say. We’d been to church for the Christmas pageant where her one-year-old brother, Simon, played a hilariously large baby Jesus. “He was a man who lived a very long time ago and helped teach people how important it is to be kind,” I said. When I told my husband the answer I’d given, he laughed and said, “Some people would have said ‘a deity.’” I was taken aback. Deity is a word with such little room for doubt. Later, my daughter asked my mom the same question when they were in the car alone together. My mom told me that she thought hard about how to answer in a way that would be both fair to us and honest to her own beliefs. “Jesus was a very special baby,” she explained. “He lived a long time ago and he was the son of God.” Thea was silent for a moment and then, no doubt thinking of her little brother propped in a manger, asked, somewhat perplexed, “I thought he was Simon?”


 

I read Emerson’s “The Over-Soul” in high school, though I didn’t understand it then. I taught the essay to my students, too, and even after several readings still find it difficult to talk about without feeling as though Emerson’s words are always just out of my grasp. The essay’s structure feels circular, his definition of the Over-Soul feels Christian, but also not: “that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart … which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.” Emerson’s notion of the soul being within each of us is familiar, but his notion that the best of our world comes as a result of unity, is more mystical than anything I’d considered in confirmation class all those years ago.

I adapted a lullaby and have been singing it to Thea each night before bed since she was six weeks old. One of the lines, sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” is: “Inside, outside, Thea my best girl.” She went through a period of a few weeks where she liked to ask, “What does outside mean?” and I’d list her nose, her toes, her mouth, her tummy, tickling and kissing her. Then she’d ask, “What does inside mean?” and the first time I heard myself answer, “Your heart, your mind, and your soul,” I felt like I’d gotten myself in a little over my head. When she asked what a soul was, I told her, navigating toddler-appropriate concepts and my own uncertain theology, “It’s how you treat other people.” Missing from this explanation is the parsing of, among other things, morality and consciousness, a notion of what it means to be human. That common heart. I still don’t know if I will start to go regularly to church or make a public vow about how I’ll raise my children, but I think the force that sparked my tentative faith might be close to that unequivocal conception of what makes a human being.

In her just-published collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here? Robinson defines a soul as something both specific and universal, particular to each of us and connecting us as human beings—a thing incompletely understood by science, psychology, or economics alone. She writes that “the word soul authorizes a scale and seriousness in the conception of the human being that has no equivalent when the subject is broached in any other terms.” This conception of a human is at the heart of all Robinson’s novels. Rereading Housekeeping now, I see things I missed even when I taught the novel, and I also notice things I may have misunderstood about what it means—or can mean—to be a person of faith.

Maybe because I was young the last time I went to church regularly, I’d imagined nonconformity and faith to be diametrically opposed. I see now that Ruth’s voice is otherworldly and transcendent not in spite of her loneliness but because of it. At the novel’s end, Ruth and Sylvie leave behind the life that generations of women before them had accepted and cross the railroad bridge out of Fingerbone. The novel is dark and lonely and haunted, not reassuring. This is why I love it. But I’m starting to get my mind around the possibility that dark, lonely, and even haunted may not be at odds with belief. In her essays, Robinson writes often of the disservice we do to ourselves in our desire to limit our understanding of humanity to phenomena explained by economics, evolution, chemical reactions. In the concluding paragraphs of Housekeeping, Ruth says:

I believe it was the crossing of the bridge that changed me finally. … Something happened, something so memorable that when I think back to the crossing of the bridge, one moment bulges like the belly of a lens and all the others are at the peripheries and diminished. Was it only that the wind rose suddenly, so that we had to cower and lean against it like blind women groping their way along a wall? or did we really hear some sound too loud to be heard, some word so true we did not understand it, but merely felt it pour through our nerves like darkness or water?

I’ve reread the last few pages of the novel many times, and at some point years ago, I wrote ghosts? next to this passage. Ruth has been describing all the places she and Sylvie are and aren’t (at home in the quiet domestic life they’d have led in Fingerbone, in cities around the county where no one would ever have known them), and this particular mention of “something” happening to change Ruth is the closest Robinson ever comes to hinting at Ruth and Sylvie’s potential death on the bridge. Wondering if the narrator is telling a story from the point of view of the living or dead sounds like the kind of pseudo-deep conversation teenagers might have, but in Housekeeping it really is an unresolved question. Now, when I see my red ink ghosts? I think about my students and I breaking apart Robinson’s language in search of clues. I wonder if we’d somewhat missed the point. Perhaps the end of the novel is less about ghosts and more about souls, transcending geography, time, death. Specific and universal.

I don’t know if I’m naïve enough to think Housekeeping was a good summer reading assignment for 16-year-olds now, but I’m glad I did then. The novel is difficult to grasp firmly, but no more so for an adult than for a thoughtful teenager. Ruth herself is a high school student when she crosses that bridge, and the questions she’s considering are much the same as those my students would have been facing, both in and outside of school. I’m still in touch with some of the students from that class. I was a young teacher, and we spent a lot of hours in my classroom after school, talking, debating, wondering, learning together. They’ve grown up to be engineers, artists, teachers, musicians, therapists, marketing strategists, academics, and back when they were 16, we got to spend hours together grappling with questions of belonging, unity, faith, that common heart.


Amanda Parrish Morgan lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children. For eight years, she taught high school English and is currently working on a collection of essays examining motherhood through literature.


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