“A Pretty Stem Bowed Down from Neck to Bloom”

– A line from a poem I wrote when challenged by my creative writing students to participate in writing a ghazal with them.

“It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good” (259, Robinson).

Sometimes it’s really hard to love my students.  Sometimes I need a constant reminder to be their champion.  It was especially hard last week after having a conversation with a child so bright that the earth could tilt the other way if she just knew how to get it spinning on her fingertip.

The day before we had been having a conversation about her goals and about how she couldn’t write essays on things that bored her (i.e. The characters in A Raisin in the Sun).  She had told me that her future job would “be fun” because she “got to work with bodies and such.”  We talked about what it meant to be a doctor and what a proud profession it would be. The next day, she refused to do ten vocabulary in context questions.  I immediately rode in with “You know to be a doctor, you’re going to have to determine, figure out, and use in real-life situations, thousands of words that you never even knew existed, with roots that span centuries of language.”  (It was probably less eloquent than that).  I was not a knight that day, I was letting the knife shave at my thread of hope.

She said, “I don’t want to be a doctor,” immediately, with head shaking and an imagined finger snap.

“A nurse then?”

“No, neither. I don’t want either of those things.  I could just as easily live off of the government.”

I didn’t have the right words to respond to this so I moved on to the next child with their hand up and watched as she worked out the meanings of the words based on the synonyms or antonyms or just clues in the sentence and life moved on, as it does.

But it frightens me.  Because there are days where my sympathy is worn out for their ideas about the world.  It’s not fair to judge them for this as they’ve only seen a small kernel of yellow daisies along a highway, and watched as the kids who can afford polos can afford college, and the kids who don’t get to choose a latchkey become Carolina red dust before someone can even sigh at their poorness.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

And then I came to Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  And for some reason every time I open a Marilynne Robinson book I immediately want to hate it, but I also know that I must finish it because the answers won’t come unless it is done.  I read somewhere that it was a like a triple crown winner of the publishing world, critics hoped it would win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (it didn’t, but it was expected).  The last thing I read by her was Housekeeping and I wasn’t the same after coming around it.  Robinson writes books that must be chewed on slowly, and then stewed about for a few days until the full expanse of what just happened to you can come alive and you can feel something.

This was not the case with Lila, I felt it precisely.

Lila is the story of Lila Dahl and her upbringing as a traveling (maybe migrant worker) in a group of lost causes after she is stolen from her family by a woman named Doll. Doll does her best to take care of Lila and throughout the book, Lila is eternally grateful (if she believed in eternity) towards Doll although the reader finds that Doll has pockmarks on her character, as does Lila.

That’s actually not even right.

Lila is the tramp of society, always on the fringes, the person you see in church but whisper about their ripped jeans at a Sunday service.  She is always coming out of the rain.  She is never accepted, or rarely.  And the people she travels with will have dirt under their nails, and a hunger that goes beyond bellies.  My grandmother would call them “unsavory.”  But she’s beautiful, and worldly, and conscious of the way her words work so she listens rather than speaks.  She’s curious and smart, and a bulb of good fortune to the people that meet her even though in her growing she knows nothing about the expectations of the Christian God.  She’s just genuinely good, and it isn’t often that this character pages up in literature, but I’m thankful I was able to read her grace on the page in this moment of my life.

I talk a lot about the way books come to me and about the way that I believe timing in books, like love, is everything.  Sometimes they come like a tiny children’s chime in a large choir, and sometimes they come like an old cartoon anvil.  I’m not sure how Lila came to me, but I needed her.

Allsbrook, W. (2014). Lila (New York Times)  [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/lila-by-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

Allsbrook, W. (2014). Lila (New York Times) [Drawing].
Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/lila-by-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

This book is also a love story between an old preacher and a lost girl.  It’s an adult Peter Pan story almost.  Reverend Ames makes eye contact with Lila in the last pew, and although it seems unlikely, their love is nestled between the hair of a gap where her head nuzzles his shoulder.  The entire story the reader wonders if Lila will do as she daydreams and leave the Reverend, go back to the shack in the woods where she’s left a sharpened knife and a few half eaten dandelions.  I think the reader knows the whole time that with this kind of love story, there is almost nothing to wonder about.

“And her life was just written all over her, she knew it without looking, because that’s how it was with all the women she used to know.  And somehow she found her way to the one man on earth who didn’t see it or maybe he saw it the way he did because she had read that parable, or poem, or whatever it was” (223, Robinson).

I am amazed at how Marilynne Robinson can make a story in the mind of just two or three characters, with barely any plot in the present tense and it move me the way pine needles bustle in heavy wind.  Lila is my students, Lila is anyone who has ever felt in just one instance that their whole life has just been one big kitchen sweep, Lila is me.

“I got feelings I don’t know the names for.  There probly ain’t any names.  Probly nobody else ever had ’em” (183, Robinson).

Rich fictional technique: Marilynne Robinson  Photo: Ulf Andersen @ Telegraph

Rich fictional technique: Marilynne Robinson Photo: Ulf Andersen @ Telegraph

And the Reverend is every man a woman might want to fall in love with.  He comforts in times of comforting.  He takes a few days after listening to Lila’s curiosities to think them over and then deliberately makes time to talk through them, without answering outright, but actually whispering his truths and attending to hers.  If there was ever a book that taught feminist theory in the way that I believe it to be, it would be this one.  Lila is herself.  She is strong and brilliant, but she has “shame like a habit,” and she never wants for a man, but when she meets the reverend it is like a letter written as an answer.

“She thought it was nothing she had known to hope for and something she had wanted too much all the same” (257, Robinson).

The first book set in Gilead (one of three)

And this brings me back to my student.  My student who is seventeen and unsure of the world, but has to act sure or else it will make her kneel to its wants and needs.  I think today, even more so than usual, we live in a society that looks down on the poor like they’re lepers.  The divide is growing between the super rich and the poverty poor and I’m not sure at this point what is being done to stop it.  And it’s easy to write them off, I know that.  It’s easy to say that they won’t amount to anything and not champion for them.

But then who would?

I think sometimes it’s hard to realize what a poor child begins with at eighteen.  One of my most cherished students has his name on most bills in his house because his mother’s credit is so bad that she has had to use her children’s names.  He said “Ms. M, I have to call and put my best man voice on this afternoon so the cable company will come out and install our cable.”  When his mother doesn’t pay the bill in a few months because she couldn’t get enough hours, his credit too, like hers, will be ruined.

The second book set in Gilead

And explain then how he will get loans for college and he’s supposed to push through when he’s taking care of his mother rather than doing your homework.  He, too, is Lila. We are all a bit Lila, but I look at my kids like soldiers, and then I look at them like slowly beating hearts.  They don’t know what way they’re going because everyday is a new day.  Sometimes they’re just bodies that think and talk and “seems to want its life one more day of it, you don’t have to know why” (179, Robinson).

And I needed that reminder, of the single human battle.  The battle to rise and be greater than you were yesterday even if you have all those yesterdays that say that you can’t do that, and you won’t amount to anything more than yesterday on yesterday.

Well, Lila argues that and values that and uses that.  So read her, like she’s writing you a love letter about how change doesn’t have to come from one decision, but a bunch of small experiences that don’t pile up, but are each presented, each their own small golden token.

4 thoughts on ““A Pretty Stem Bowed Down from Neck to Bloom”

  1. Bea says:

    I loved your take on this book, your students, yourself, and all of us jaded people of the world. Ellen ends her TV show everyday with the words, “Be kind to one another”. That is the beginning and the end. We all forget to be kind sometimes. We forget that the unwashed homeless man sitting next to us on the church pew is there for the same reason we are. Greet him. Shake his hand. He is a human being.
    I am so happy to see that my daughter has an open heart. Her students are so lucky.
    As for Lila, it sounds like a book that should be read by all.

  2. deborahbrasket says:

    Cassie, I am always amazed and humbled at how beautifully you write your book reviews which are always so much more than a review, but deep and moving pieces of your life, your heart and soul. What you love about particular books and how you reveal it is always so insightful–I feel nourished from that alone.

    I’d been wondering whether to read Lila and now I know I will. I hope the book is as interesting and wise as your review of it.

    • Cassie says:

      Deborah, I love her books because they’re so subtle and you have no Idea as a reader where she’s going to go. There’s something refreshing about that when I can’t even predict the next step. I hope you love it as well. It’s a strange sort of love, like forced almost because she just does everything so well even if I have to take my time reading it and you can’t physically rush through it. Ah! And thank you so much for your kind words :)

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