For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘loneliness

Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.

LilaOh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.

Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.

Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.

As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.

She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)

The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.

I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)

“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)

‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)

I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin, 1940, 359 pp.

Heart is a Lonely HunterSomehow, I made it through an English major with multiple courses and a lifetime devotion to southern literature without reading Carson McCullers. My last trip to the library, I decided to rectify that vacancy in my knowledge. I want to say that I am glad I did, which is true, but The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was full of such pathos and sorrow that it feels ingenuous to associate reading it with anything resembling joy. Beauty, truth, the human spirit, artistry—yes. Gladness, however, is in short supply.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the story about loneliness and isolation, as situated in a small Massachusetts mill town in the Great Depression. The central character is John Singer, a deaf-mute, whose best friend, roommate and fellow deaf-mute has a breakdown and his family sends him to an asylum. Singer loses the only person with whom he can communicate openly, and he is thrust into silence.

The four other characters in the story are equally lonely, but each find their way to Singer and find in him someone who listens to them (he reads lips). Mick Kelly, a young teen girl whose parents run the boarding house, aspires to leave the shabby mill town and see the world. She has a gift for music that goes undeveloped because she had no access to a piano or lessons—only living for the occasional presence of a radio. Doctor Benedict Macy Copeland is the most educated man in town, and black. His education separates him from the African-American community that makes up his patients, and his race separates him from everyone else. His strictly-held political ideas about how to advance the good of his race have even alienated him from his wife and children. Jake Blount is a mechanic with a head full of ideas about Marxism and revolution. He visits with fellow laborers trying to get them to understand, but he presents as a blowhard and his frustration only grows that he cannot find anyone who can understand as he does. Biff Brannon owns the local café where Singer and Blount dine nightly. After the death of his wife, the business begins to fall apart around him, while he stands at the counter and watches other people’s lives and conversations, always apart from relationship with them.

Singer’s silent presence makes them feel as though they are not alone, as though someone listens and understands and cares about them. They begin to visit his room in the boarding house, pouring out their hearts and concerns in his silence. Singer does not find companionship in them, because they cannot read his sign language, but they find solace in him. As the novel unfolds, the reader hopes the four people coming to Singer might find companionship in one another—Blount and Copeland plotting together for revolution, Brannon’s compassion for Mick Kelly opening a way for her to escape her poverty.

Sadly, this story is not hopeful. Its ending is as sad and lonely as its beginning. Perhaps this is the reality of the world, which is regularly cruel and pointless—but I’ll admit to desiring a bit more hope in my novels most of the time, even if it’s only pretend. Sometimes, though, I turn to a novel because I feel sad and need to find a way to dive more deeply into that dark place. McCullers does that just beautifully, presenting the pathos and isolation of this world with grace and subtlety. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s a sorrowful glimpse into the loneliness of the world. It left me with my sadness, but what a beautiful sorrow it is. There is joy in that recognition.

*Side Note: I got behind in writing reviews of what I have been reading, so I caught up by writing these three novel reviews in a row, for All the Living, The Lost Mother and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I realized in doing so that all three of them are stories about people grappling with profound loneliness and isolation. I would not describe myself as lonely right now, but I am certainly contemplating what would draw me to these three books in a three week period.

The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking, 2005, 274 pp.

Lost MotherI keep going to the library and checking out Mary McGarry Morris books, but never getting around to reading them before they are due. (This is what happens when you are a book addict. I can’t leave a library with less than 10 books at a time. Three weeks isn’t long enough to read that many novels, along with my professional reading.) I’m so grateful to have finally made it into this one, and next time I won’t return them unread.

The Lost Mother is the story of the Talcott children surviving the hardship of the Great Depression in Vermont. When the story begins, Thomas and Margaret are living in a tent in the woods, because they have lost their home to debt. Their father Henry works butchering farm animals, but work is scarce and money even more scarce. The loss of their home, however, is a minor inconvenience compared to the searing loss of their mother, who simply abandoned her family, moved to a mill town, and started a new life. The children initially believe she has left to support them and will return when times improve, but slowly they are forced to confront the truth of her abandonment.

There are a host of other characters in the book who step in to take responsibility for Thomas and Margaret, either by choice or by force. The wealthy, greedy Farleys want to take Margaret and make her their own daughter, separating her from her family forever. Aunt Lena (their mother’s sister) and Uncle Max do not want to take the children in, and their alcoholism makes it an unsafe place for the children to be. Gladys is their father’s lifelong friend. She would step in to care for them, and does what she can, but she is caring for her ailing father, whose abuse for the children makes them unable to stay there.

The story is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. Thomas and Margaret have people who want to care for them, but can’t; people who want to own them, but are thwarted; and people who could care for them, but won’t. The plot unfolds as they spend a full year making their way from one terrible situation to another. As a parent, I wonder what it would be like to know you are unable to provide for your children. No one in the story is demonized for failing the children—it is just the way things are. The narrator most often tells the story from Thomas’ perspective, and we watch him grow from a child’s view to a wizened adult one through the course of the story’s one single year.

The Lost Mother was a fast read, and a great story. It left me pondering the millions of children all over the world who are alone in this world. Thomas and Margaret’s story is not unique. Just this week, there have been multiple news stories of unaccompanied children warehoused in terrible conditions having been picked up crossing the border illegally. What is it like to be a child alone in this harsh world? Morris’ novel imagines it in one time and one place, with sorrow and with hope.


All the Living by C.E. Morgan, Picador, 2009, 199 pp.

All the LivingAll the Living is a novel about two young adults alone in the world. Aloma was orphaned as a young child, and grew up in a mission school in the mountains of Kentucky. Her love is Orren, who grew up on a family farm, working the land passed down through generations. One day, Orren’s family is killed in an auto accident, and he is alone. Aloma moves to the farm with him, and the two endeavor to make a life together. Aloma misses her role as a pianist, longing for the music that completes her. Orren throws himself into the work of the farm, trying to make up for the absence of his family and hold on to their land. They battle their own loneliness by turning on one another instead of toward one another. The central story arc follows Aloma’s decision to stay or go, to make her life with Orren or leave the mountains behind.

This is a novel of tense feelings and clenched fists, of quiet suffering and unspoken grief. It embodies solipsism and our constant human questioning of our own choices. If we go one way in life, we wonder about the other. The story also grapples with the deep power of grief, the meaning of home, and the challenge of intimacy.

Aloma’s search takes her to church, where she finds access to a piano and human connection. She develops a relationship with the farmer-preacher, Bell, and they talk about her search for “the right feeling.” Bell responds:

I don’t think looking inside for a feeling is nearly ever the answer. It’s looking out. … Well, it seems to me the more attention you spend on the folks around you, the more right feelings you have even for your own self. Seems like the opposite might should be true—turn your mind on your own heart to straighten it out—but that ain’t how I see it. (138)

For all my introversion, I have found Bell’s words to be true over and over again. Looking inside and “focusing on myself” is exactly the wrong way to overcome grief, loneliness or just a case of the blues. Re-orienting away from myself and seeing the needs of others returns me to a “right feeling.”

At one point, Aloma and Orren finally begin to talk, and she declares her desire in the most beautiful of ways:

When I have you, … it’s not enough and I still want some more of you. When you say something, I want to hear you say more and when you go someplace, any place, I want you to come back more than anything. That’s pretty much been true for forever. (194)

What a beautiful description of love.

All the Living is a beautifully crafted exploration of an interior journey for Aloma, exploring the tensions between longing and contentment, loneliness and intimacy in the human heart. Even though it’s short, the novel demands to be savored, lingering over phrases and sentences that invite the reader into contemplation.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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