I have been re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead slowly, paying attention to individual sentences, noting the wisdom and beauty of so many of them, how seemingly careless she is as she tosses out surprising images, dazzling perceptions, strewing them like leaves on a windy fall day. Here’s Pastor Ames, for example:
Sometimes the very visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creation. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.
Pastor Ames believes, as I understand him, that sometimes the passage of time enables him to understand himself more fully as he reflects upon a particular event after having had the experience or when he repeats the experience.
I have been thinking about his idea of visions that come to us in retrospect and I have had glimpses of the truth of it in my own experience and heard of it from others.
Like my mother. My mother loved music, and if she heard that a great college choir like the St. Olaf choir under the direction of Olaf Christiansen was going to be in the area (this was back in the 1950s), she would make sure that we went to that concert, even if we had to drive 75 miles on a dark winter night in our ’47 Chevy to get there. I remember her saying, “I can go for a week on that” after hearing a St. Olaf Choir concert. I suppose she meant she continued to relish the music long after the concert was over. But perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps the “visionary aspect” of that music as she “re-heard” it in her memory over the next week, gave it a fuller, richer meaning.
I heard that same phrase from the mother of a North Dakota farm girl who accompanied her daughter to a college literature class I taught and which her daughter was taking. We had an animated classroom discussion of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” and after the class, she stopped to say to me, “Thank you so much. I can go for a week on that.” The same phrase.
Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is a subtle story of a strong, confident California farmer’s wife who is tricked by the flattery of an itinerant pot-fixer, and her sudden realization that she had been scammed by the man. What thoughts did this North Dakota woman have in the following week, I wonder. Did fuller visions come to her as she pondered that story and discussion in the days that followed.
Robert Frost has a perceptive little poem, “Carpe Diem,” which, I suspect, most people have never heard of but which has been one of my favorites ever since I read it in a Life magazine at a Barber Shop on Franklin Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sixty years ago. After seeing a young couple out for a walk, the speaker of the poem, who calls himself “Age,” says to them — in his mind — “Be happy, happy, happy,/ And seize the day of pleasure.” But then he begins to reflect on time — on past, present, and future — and concludes that
We live less in the present
Than in the future always
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine.
Or as Pastor Ames says, “ . . .there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.” Notice that Ames says, “I am comprehended in the experience more fully. . . .” What a strange way of saying it. He does not say “I comprehend.” Yet he clearly means he is comprehended by himself, has grown in his understanding of “the sacredness of the human creation.” And he understands more fully because “there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.”
I think I know what my mother meant when she said she could “go for a week” on that concert. A couple of months ago I attended a presentation of Mendelsohn’s great Elijah oratorio. In the weeks that followed, on and off, again and again, I re-lived, re-called parts of it I hear, almost, the Chorus—representing the Baal worshipers, desperately singing “Baal, We Cry to Thee.” Then I hear and see the bass soloist, Elijah, with a slightly scornful nod of his head toward the chorus, answer them in one of the most sarcastic lines in all of scripture, “Call him louder, for peradventure he sleepeth.” Why do I enjoy that so much, seeing the wicked getting their comeuppance?
Later, when Elijah is in absolute despair, he hears the angel singing “Oh, Rest in the Lord,” and in some small way, hearing it in my memory, I feel something of the peace that Elijah must have felt.
One final, quite different, example: While attending Florida State University in 1970, I happened upon African American civil rights activist Dick Gregory in the Student Union, chatting informally with students. I joined the students and many other students did also, so that soon we were a small crowd listening to Gregory.
I stood quite close to him and noticed his long fingers, noticed them especially because he smoked almost continually as he talked about civil rights. Still today, I see those fingers with the cigarette and hear his voice and hear this refrain as he quotes it from the Declaration of Independence:
When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce our inalienable rights under absolute Despotism, it is their [the governed] right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.
“It is their duty, it is their duty, it is their duty,” he said it again and again.
I believe these words have opened to me over time. Sometimes they have helped me empathize with people in my country who are protesting because their inalienable rights have been diminished or taken away.
My sense is that the rapid-fire, one-thing-after-another culture we live in can prevent us from having the “visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.” Sometimes I wonder whether Robert Frost’s and Marilynne Robinson’s perceptions about memory still apply in our fast-forward culture.
It’s something to think about, ponder, reflect upon.