Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash

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.


Our days have the potential to offer sacred visions.

Gilead takes the form of a long, digressive letter written by the Reverend John Ames, an elderly, ailing preacher in a small Iowa town, to his young son, a letter that he intends for him to read in adulthood. Ames wants his son to know family stories and the surprisingly radical history of their nondescript town (during Ames’s grandfather’s time, it hid escaping slaves and provided a stopping-off place for abolitionists like John Brown). But he also wants to share his worldview, his beliefs, observations, and memories: “When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.”

Ames doesn’t always stick to his purpose, though. As the novel goes on, he also uses the letter to think through his own past and present, his struggles and regrets. (“I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what he’s struggling with.”) To that end, there’s also an actual plot (although it occurs well into the novel) involving the return of Ames’s godson, a now middle-aged man who has caused his family and Ames himself quite a lot of grief over the years. His arrival makes Ames struggle to honor what he values most: love, forgiveness, mercy, grace.

Hanging over the entire book is Ames’s awareness that any day could be his last. He has heart problems, and has been told he doesn’t have much time left. And so he wants to spend as much time as possible observing everything he has loved about this life: letting no beauty go unnoticed, no joy go unremarked, from the sound of his wife and child’s voices in another room to the sight of two grease-covered mechanics laughing at a private joke. He watches his wife and son blowing bubbles in the yard, laughing together as their cat chases after each “fat and wobbly and ripening” bubble, and he finds himself nearly speechless with the loveliness of it all. “Ah, this life, this world.”

How often have I overlooked similar moments, maybe even more so in the past few weeks? If we’re all ultimately living lives as finite and precarious as Ames’s, then shouldn’t we be paying attention to those minor miracles of creation that occur all around us, even when we’re stuck at home?

Here’s a very Amesian line, one that might seem almost comically sincere: “I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice.” Have I given any attention to the miracle of light, not counting the LED variety? I started trying to do some justice to the wavering sunlight in our backyard. “There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight,” Ames observes. “There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes.” When the sun was out and my children were in the backyard, could I notice the way Ames notices?

In one passage, Ames describes his son and his son’s friend playing outside in the sprinkler, “dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.” Shortly after I read that passage, my wife happened to turn on our sprinklers for my own kids to whoop and stomp in (except my youngest, who would build up the courage to run through the water, then veer away at the last second). It did seem pretty miraculous. As did the tiny chrysalis my kids found one afternoon growing on the side of our trash can, with a little gold band around it that almost looked like a wedding ring. As did the sundials my kids made out of paper plates and Play-Doh and chopsticks.

Ames doesn’t just find beauty in the present; he finds it in his past. Even in memories of sadness and deprivation, he recalls brief moments of astounding beauty. “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it,” he says, “or it opens to you over time.” Many of us give ourselves to the outside forces clamoring for our attention, conspiring to convince us that our time and our lives themselves aren’t holy. It’s striking to encounter this perspective, instead—our days have the potential to offer sacred visions.


Even in our own homes, so much may be required of us. We can’t afford to be distracted.

Robinson’s novel isn’t all sunlight and sprinklers. It’s also about families divided and estranged, inexplicable cruelty, difficult forgiveness; about slavery, race, injustice, violence, radicalism, apathy, forgotten graves, forgotten histories, droughts, wars. Ames has seen great sorrow in his life. He finds himself awed by his son and wife not just because he’s dying, but because he was married decades earlier, as a young man, and lost both his wife and his child during childbirth. In the dark, lonely years that followed, he never imagined he would watch a child of his own play in the yard. Even now, as he writes his letter, he grieves another future loss, knowing he’ll never see his son grow into adulthood.

The references in the novel suggest that Ames was born in the late 1800s and writes his letter in the 1950s. More than once, he describes life during the Spanish flu epidemic: “It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all.” He describes young soldiers suffering from the illness at Fort Riley who “couldn’t even speak for the blood in their throats, in their mouths. So many of them died so fast there was no place to put them, and they just stacked the bodies in the yard.”

Having witnessed and experienced so much grief, Ames struggles with questions about suffering and God’s will, questions posed to him for decades by his congregation, although he’s never been satisfied with his own answers: “Whatever they may have thought, I have not succeeded to my own satisfaction even once.” My own children have asked us similar questions lately: “Why did God make the coronavirus? Why does God let people get sick?” I haven’t been at all satisfied with my own answers, either.

Like many of us today, Ames finds himself awake in the night, struggling with fears: “I just lay there, helplessly subject to my anxieties.” He notes that there is a “wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all.” But he is also a man of faith who believes in the ultimate providence and care of God. “He will wipe the tears from all faces,” he writes, quoting a verse that appears more than once in Scripture, and then adds his own commentary: “It takes nothing away from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” The beauty in the world doesn’t cancel out the sorrow but, the novel suggests, neither does the sorrow cancel out the beauty. Every moment contains the possibility of suffering, and yet this doesn’t negate “the exquisite primary fact of existence.”

We can easily lose sight of this exquisite primary fact: not just because of suffering, but because we aren’t paying enough attention. “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration,” Ames observes, near the end of the novel. “You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

And yet, as the end of the novel suggests, even attention is not enough. Seeing is still solitary. Attention is only the beginning. In one of the book’s very last sentences, Ames offers his son these very simple words: “I will pray you find a way to be useful.”

In my obsessive attention to the latest news, I’ve not only failed to see the miracles around me, but I’ve also been useless for large stretches of time. Being informed is necessary, but using this as an excuse for distraction helps no one.

The next few months—and possibly much longer—could be very difficult. Even in our own homes, so much may be required of us. We can’t afford to be distracted. “One great benefit of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate,” Ames observes, early in the novel. “It gives you a basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore. If I have any wisdom to offer that is a fair part of it.”

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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