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Meditating with Marilynne


I’ve been spending the past several weeks preparing for a Books Sandwiched In presentation on Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is this year’s Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award winner. More accurately, she was the 2020 recipient who agreed to postpone her visit to 2021 when things were safer for everyone. The “Books Sandwiched In” talk will provide an overview of Robinson’s life and work in preparation for a Gala on the evening of December 3 and a public presentation the following morning.

How fitting it is that Marilynne Robinson is our Distinguished Author recipient of 2020/2021, the time of our Great Pause?

Her work embodies the virtues of solitude, self-reflection, slow conversations, deeply rooted relationships and connection to our natural world. Robinson’s prose is jarring in that it applies the brakes to my racing thoughts. Her sentences surely must slow my breathing rate and lower my blood pressure. Reading a Marilynne Robinson novel may be difficult in the same way that meditation is difficult: it demands you pay attention or risk missing something astonishing.

Housekeeping is easily one of the most influential and meaningful novels in my life. Published in 1980, Housekeepingis a coming-of-age novel narrated by Ruth Stone. When Ruth and her younger sister Lucille are young, their mother Helen leaves them at their grandmother’s house in Fingerbone, Idaho and drives her car into a lake. A series of female relatives try to care for the girls, but it is ultimately their Aunt Sylvie who comes to stay.

Sylvie is not made for domestic life and is uncomfortable in the confines of the house. She sleeps on top of the covers with her clothes on if she sleeps inside at all. Her housekeeping is sporadic and haphazard. She is enigmatic—fascinating to a few but a cautionary tale to most others. As the story continues, Ruth begins to identify with Sylvie while Lucille longs to separate from the chaos of her home.

The concept of housekeeping represents a futile effort to bring order from chaos—to exert control over a world that makes no sense. Lucille believes in housekeeping. She is a quick study in proper fashion, social interactions, and etiquette. Sylvie and Ruth reject the illusion of order-to the point that nature begins to overtake the house. Lake water floods the floors, and animals make their nests indoors. The sisters’ diverging paths are two distinct responses to tragedy and loss. Lucille’s response is to counter despair with order; Ruthie’s is to clothe herself in loss.

Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the winner of the Pen/Hemingway award for best first novel. It is a book worthy of thoughtful reading and re-reading for its poetic language and deeply spiritual themes. I am joyfully anticipating hearing Robinson talk about her unique, distinguished career, and I hope you will mark your calendars to join me! Click here to discover and request more of Robinson’s award-winning fiction and nonfiction.

Rebecca Howard is the regional manager of Tulsa City-County Library. During her 15 years with Tulsa City-County Library, Rebecca launched the readers advisory service Your Next Great Read, and served as TCCL’s county-wide Literacy Coordinator. Rebecca writes Public Radio Tulsa's monthly column Imprint.
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