During the early days of quarantine, I found myself checking my phone every few minutes in the presence of my wife and five children, or hiding away in my new home office (which is my closet, except with a chair) to read the latest news and reactions to the news on my computer. “Staying informed” was how I dealt with enormous uncertainty: keeping tabs on political leaders, processing data about the virus’s spread, checking tweets, watching press conferences, consuming COVID-19 memes for some very temporary relief.
All this meant I wasn't paying much attention to the only people I was actually allowed to be around. I changed some diapers, cooked some meals, loaded some dishes, bathed some kids, and swept some floors, but not as much of any of this as I should have. I kept my phone nearby at all times. Even when I wasn't looking at a screen, I was stressed and scattered, elsewhere. I didn’t want to keep approaching each quarantined day like this. But I couldn’t stop myself.
One afternoon, I decided to reread Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, one of my favorite novels. Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, the first in what has now become a trilogy (and soon to be a quartet), was published in 2004. For myself and many others who read Gilead soon after it arrived, it was a revelation, a religious novel both deeply thoughtful and deeply sincere, a work of high literary art that treats Christian belief without cynicism or irony, a piece of quiet and philosophical storytelling that concerns itself with the joys of existence as much as its sorrows. It’s also a novel explicitly about paying attention.
As I began to reread, I struggled with the book’s pace. I’d recommended Gilead to so many people over the years, some of whom later told me they “couldn’t get into it.” Too slow. This had always surprised me, until now. I kept wanting to retreat to my screens during the novel’s quiet digressions. But I tried to resist. I started leaving my phone in the closet, reading the book in the nighttime quiet after my kids went to sleep. And after a while, I felt myself slowing down, adjusting to Gilead’s pace and perspective.