Abide with Me

I read Olive Kittredge in November and fell in love with Elizabeth Strout’s writing. Kathryn suggested that I read Abide with Me, claiming that it was even more beautiful. The book has been sitting in my stack for a while, and contributed no doubt to my having that hymn in my head in December.

And, wow. The book is, as promised, beautiful. It’s sitting here now on my desk next to me, a used copy with slightly beaten-up pages, and I keep looking at it, wondering at the marvels that can be contained in a slim volume of fiction. In many ways the book reminded me of Gilead. Maybe that comparison is obvious, since both describe in detail the inner lives of religious men, but I think it goes beyond that. Like Marilynne Robinson, Strout’s prose somehow manages to be straight forward and exquisite at the same time. She doesn’t tangle herself in wordy sentences, but her images rise off the page with the power of mirages: I can’t stop thinking about certain lines (“…by summer he seemed like a big tractor being driven by a teenage kid, slipping in and out of gear.”)

Abide with Me draws vivid parallels between the New England seasons of its small town setting and the internal landscapes of its main characters. We go from the splash of late-summer sun on a barn, to the heartbreaking blue of the autumn sky, to the barren, bitter spiderweb of bleak winter branches against a steel gray sky. The book is about nothing so much as it is about the transformative power of grief: the way that loss can change us. The main character, Reverend Tyler Caskey, moves from loss to numbness to powerful redemption. He navigates his relationships with his lost wife, his daughters, his mother, his housekeeper, and, perhaps above all, his committed and challenging congregation.

The book reminded me, actually, of Kelly Diels’ post yesterday about relationships. My favorite lines in her post:

We are all, fundamentally, mysteries to each other. Sometimes we are mysteries to ourselves.
But, I believe, we want to be known. To speak the same language as our loved ones. To be heard. Understood.

This confusion, the deep loneliness bred by the inscrutability of even those closest to us, animates Abide With Me. And when those intimates pass on, leaving us alone with our confusion and loneliness? Then we are left to parse these emotions, often blinding in their mute, dense power, all by ourselves. How to forgive someone when they can’t answer our questions? This is the challenge of Tyler’s life – and, by extension, of all of ours. How can we free someone from the prison of our expectation, of the snap judgments we form about them? Especially someone with as critical and larger-than-life presence as the minister of a congregation? It is not simple, Strout asserts, but it is critical: it is the only way to truly know and be known.

Abide With Me is a melancholy book, shot through with moments of brilliant joy and truth. Strout’s vision of the world is about forgiveness, and about how the inability to give those we love room to be fully themselves hurts us most of all. It is about wounded people struggling to look each other in the eye, and about moving to a new kind of joy once life has handed us great pain and disappointment. A set of lines in the last chapter say it better than I ever could, in Strout’s incomparable language:

Finally, George said, “No one, to my knowledge, has figured out the secret to love. We love imperfectly, Tyler. We all do… I suspect the most we can hope for, and it’s no small hope, is that we never give up, that we never stop giving ourselves permission to try to love and receive love.”