When Eve and Eve Bit the Apple

Originally published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times.

When you are raised to be a good Christian girl, you don’t just go to church; you date the church. Church is the significant other with whom you spend weekends and evenings, the boyfriend whose friends become your friends, the girlfriend with whom you share all your dreams.

I was a really good Christian girl, so I didn’t just date the church; I married it.

After graduating from a Midwestern college whose motto is “For Christ and His Kingdom,” I moved to New York City. It was my first time out of the evangelical cocoon, and my priority was finding a church I could love, commit my life to, and make my spiritual and social center.

My search ended in Brooklyn, where I found a church of young creative people and fledgling professionals who, like me, were looking for a faith less burdened by fundamentalism. We forged a quick camaraderie, including with our pastor, who was as much friend and peer as spiritual leader. We hung out in the pews on Sundays, but also in bars and each other’s living rooms throughout the week.

Marilynne Robinson and Hymns to the Miracle of Existence

"It seems we never do have quite enough rain," John Ames muses. The narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead is not bemoaning the parched town as much as he is relishing its showers. Reflecting on an ordinary Sunday, he writes: "It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it."

Marilynne Robinson is just such a rain—warm and rare—on the literary terra of contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Even more, she has tilled a plot where deep, lyrical Christian reflection teems. Her output comes from both below and above, from the dust of humanity and the grace of divinity. She is a dream-catcher of sorts, stationing each work between the ordinary and sacred, weaving sinews of sentences that capture the lovely and true.

Marilynne Robinson was born on November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, a small town for whose intellectual and spiritual piquancy Robinson has expressed gratitude. After moving east to attend Brown (at the time it was the women's Pembroke College), she returned west and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1977. Three years later, she published her first novel, Housekeeping, and is now the author of seven works of fiction and nonfiction, all of which shine a bright beam on something it seems much of contemporary thought has ignored: the soul.

"Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word 'soul,' and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought, and to every human pursuit," Robinson writes in her newest work,When I Was A Child I Read Books: Essays (scheduled for release in April 2012). "The soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token of signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations."

Housekeeping, in one sense, rescues the dislocated soul. It is the vulnerable story of Ruth and Lucille, two sisters whose lives, hemmed by tragedy, grow and shift in the care of various guardians—first their grandmother, then two great-aunts, and finally their eccentric, train-hopping Aunt Sylvie. In exquisite terms, Ruth narrates her own metamorphosis, a patient and passive waiting for selfhood, a slow acquaintance with her soul.

Seeing the Birds Through the Trees

I thought the world would look different at 7:30am. I had Thoreauvian visions of untainted nature, Dillardesque hopes for remote reflection, Emersonian fancies of transcendent scenery. Instead, Prospect Park was just Prospect Park, albeit sleepier. I didn’t find a transformed world by waking up at such an ungodly Saturday hour, but I did find the group of birders I would spend the morning with. (Bless their hearts, birders are very identifiable, with their conspicuous binoculars, chunky boots, tan vests, and ball caps or fishing hats.)


Thoreauvian? Dillardesque? Emersonian? My apologies. Birding has turned me into a romantic and made me prone to hyperoble. It’s also given me very high expectations. I blame Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, for this. In the title essay of his collection Farther Away, he writes, “I understood the difference between [David Foster Wallace’s] unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.” He even regretfully wonders if, had he started birdwatching sooner, it would have saved his marriage.

I am new to birdwatching, and I came to it obliquely, via a research divergence. But one cannot just lean casually into the feather fray. You must be immersive. So suddenly I heard myself saying, “I need these Eagle Optic binoculars. I need Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification. I need to watch The Central Park Effect documentary and read John James Audubon’s collected writings.” Then, before I knew it, I was perusing theProspect Park Bird Sightings blog, studying up on patterns, habitats, and behaviors on the subway, and lacing up my L.L. Bean Boots for my first birding adventure.

“I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision,” J.A. Baker writes in The Peregrine. I too never gave birds their due. Before my interest in birding was piqued, my observed natural world was so small it could fit inside a terrarium. My knowledge of birds was little more than the scattering of black “v’s” behind the bubble clouds of my childhood drawings, the seagulls hovering on the beach when I dropped a Dorito, and the city pigeons disarming me with their boldness. I could identify a robin, a blue jay, and the other obvious culprits, but beyond that, I didn’t have the eyes to see something that deserved a name, a genus, or a journal entry. My ignorance was so pervasive that as a child, I frequently asked for the name of the black birds that murmured through the sky and sat on phone lines. I never got an answer. These birds were anonymous yet ubiquitous. No name, no distinctive traits, barely even a shape. To me, they simply existed as shadows of the idea of a bir-dah.My learning curve was as steep as Bambi’s. Birds were just flying, pecking, perching creatures, uniform and unassertive upon my consciousness, the monks of the skies. And this is why I embarked on birding: to watch the richness of these feathered creatures unfurl like the beauty of a monk’s interior life. Birds “know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” J.A. Baker continues. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse we can never reach.”

Curious George at the Jewish Museum

A young couple secures their meager luggage and mounts their bicycles. They are fleeing Paris, and they are escaping just in time. Two days later, the Nazis march in. The couple pedals quickly, covering seventy-five miles in three days. When they board a train to Lisbon, they breathe a sigh of relief. That is, until the authorities pull them aside. An official asks to look in their satchels, expecting to find stolen documents or smuggled goods. Instead, the searchers find the couple’s work in progress: a book called Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey that will become better known to Americans as Curious George.

Self-trained illustrator H.A. Rey (Hans Augusto Reyersbach) and formally trained photographer Margret Rey (Margarete Waldstein) had begun to work on Curious George just before the outbreak of the war. The book was the pair’s fourth collaboration. The two had met in Rio de Janeiro, married, and honeymooned in Paris, where they continued to live in their hotel room for the next four years. During this time, they worked together on charcoal sketches of a motley crew of loveable animals, eventually producing Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys—the story in which the character of Curious George first appeared—as well as Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World and How Do You Get There?

Selections from these works, along with eighty original drawings, watercolors, journals, correspondence, homemade greeting cards, and even photographs, developed in 2002, that Margret took in Paris in the 1930s, are all on display at the Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s upper Fifth Avenue. Browsing the exhibit—entitled “Curious George Saves the Day”—children and adults are swept into the Reys’ drama of escape and carried away by the charm of the wide-eyed monkey who sits at the helm of their flight.

For decades, Curious George has had the reputation of a buffoon. This exhibit sets out to change our perceptions, earnestly presenting George as a hero. According to history, when the official on the Lisbon-bound train pulled the Reys aside and searched their belongings, George came to their rescue. After finding nothing but drawings of a harmless simian, the officer let the couple go. “Have had a very narrow escape,” H.A. telegrammed, soon after, to a friend in Brazil.