What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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by Marilynne Robinson

Field-Tested by Scott Korb

in Brooklyn, New York

I've been to Iowa twice. One of the times was remarkable, which, for trips to Iowa, seems like good odds. Although, except for the tornados, I'm not sure that Iowa really had anything to do with it. My mom remarried when I was eight, and I know this was before that because my grandfather was doing all the driving and not my stepfather. So, I was either six or seven. Let's say seven.

I'm not sure what we were doing in Iowa. Although, if I know my grandfather, we were probably heading to the birthplace of Mamie Eisenhower, 15 minutes west of Ames, or trying to find the gas station owner who, he'd heard, kept a caged bear around back by the toilets. The man had to see everything.

Though he softened up in the years before he died, my grandfather was still pretty mean back then. He picked on waitresses a lot, though he tipped well, and once came to blows with my uncle Ted over his heroin addiction.

On a long stretch of highway in Iowa, with the rain beating down, and the sky turning red in preparation for some funnel clouds, he told me that, after much deliberation, he and my grandmother had agreed that I was their second favorite grandchild. When my brother, squeezed tightly next to me in the backseat, asked who the favorite was, eager to know, of course, that it was he, my grandfather did him one better: “Everybody else,” he said. I hated him for a long time after that. My brother, too.

Up ahead, he pointed out the jagged edges of the clouds, claiming that each dip was a tornado reaching for the earth. Knowing that nothing scared me more than storms, with severity, my mother told him to stop.

There were tornados in Iowa that night, and I hid under the hotel beds until the local news anchors cancelled the final warning. In the morning, my grandfather showed us his thick, yellowing toenails, telling us again that we'd better be ready, that when the last one turned completely yellow, he'd be dead. This time, it was my grandmother who gently told him to quit it.

I've read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead twice, both times in Brooklyn. Although, except that I got my copy from a guy who lives around the corner and works for Robinson's publisher, I'm not sure that Brooklyn really matters.

The novel is set in rural Iowa in 1956, written as the “begats” of the seven-year-old son of John Ames, an old preacher in a long line of preachers. I loved Ames the first time, mostly for his graceful quiet prose, his honesty, and the beauty I saw in his sadness: “If I live, I'll vote for Eisenhower. How I wish you could have known me in my strength.”

A friend I'd recommended Gilead to stopped me in a Brooklyn café one day and asked how I could possibly have loved Ames. This guy had hated him. My answers seemed suddenly empty, so I read it again.

The first time, I'd gotten to the end without realizing just how weak and scared and jealous Ames was, what his real regrets were, or how he'd failed his family, friends, and God. Ames' best sentences had earned my respect, and begged me to take him at his word: “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.” (This sentence alone could have won Robinson the Pulitzer.)

What Gilead teaches - and I've read no more edifying book in many years - is the opposite of Ames' claim: the people insightful enough to see right through you are the only ones doing you justice, and usually because they see in you the sins they know in themselves. Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in 1945 for his role in a plot to kill Hitler, writes with just such insight in language Ames would have well understood: “We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God's kindness and God's severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear? ... Do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition?”

I wasn't old enough on that trip to Iowa to know how weak my grandfather was, why he was mean to waitresses, hit my uncle, or took pleasure in scaring me to death. My mother had some idea, and scolded him for it. My grandmother, who knew it all and who also had to see everything, was gentle. Those toenails really did mean he was going to die before long. He was old, and he knew it. It was difficult, which is deserving now of some little notice.

Scott Korb is the co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us.

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