Marilynne Robinson and a red-tailed hawk – regaining inwardness

From a window where I sit with a coffee and Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind,” I see a red-tailed hawk making those wide circles that red-tailed hawks make—above Chile’s Texas Grill, Red Robin, Moxie’s, and the Cheesecake Factory. Is it confused? I wonder. Has it mistaken this flat-roofed nexus of homogenous hamburgers and fatty desserts for native scrubland? Is it stupid from riding a thick updraft of deep-fried air?

Quite suddenly, I’m sad. I love these hawks and when I was growing up on our prairie farm I would stop the tractor on the edge of the field and lay on my back in the brome and imagine myself a companion, flying perfect arcs. I would listen—past the grass giving away the wind—to the raspy scream that seemed to come from the infancy of time. A raspy raptor scream that would liquefy my spine, shutter me. Lying there like that I knew there was no other place on earth I wanted to be, or could be, for under that circle I was obviously already at axis mundi.

These are trying times. Trying times for hawks. Certainly for this hawk. I want to alert the coffee shop patrons, point to the hawk and ask the Sesame Street question about one of these things…being out of place. But I too have grown accustom to small deformities, heedless of their deeper signs. I too can sit within my-oblivious-self, within this middle-class pocket, comfortable and assured by my suggestions of concern and soft-core altruism, and allow the world to spin its spin.

That there is a Moxie’s beneath a spiraling hawk can be explained it in terms of human encroachment and tragic environmental shifts. But it’s too easy to blame all the machinery, technology, corporate grease that have brought these chickens home to roost on our own back decks.

I’m not ignorant of the complexity of fixing that which has taken long complexities to break. How, in fact, addressing quantum problems with anything of a reductionist understanding of who we are, can cause even more harm. Which seems intuitive. Consider the immediate ethical questions around curbing population growth—thought to be one of our environment’s major problems.

Who we are, is an important question here, because our means and methods of acting spring from that subconscious/conscious perception. I recall learning in grade-school science that I was a mere warm-blooded animal, a mammal, a relatively large one, yet, a mammal all the same. I was shocked. Perhaps it was because I had been religiously hauled off to church, and somewhere along the way gained the notion that I was more than a mammal, that there was always something more than what I could see and that there was always something more than anybody could see which meant that my nature was something more than a collection of self-preservationist cells. Of course, reading William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,” or anything by Rumi or the latter poems Denise Levertov will give you a similar metaphysical notion.

As we know, the idea of transcendence has had a rough ride of late. And to hold any form of it, after reading Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, may prove one irrelevantly quaint or quaintly irrelevant. Which is one reason I’m clutching Marilyn Robinson’s, “Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self” right now.

The belief that only science gives us reliable access to truth, in my mind, reduces us, to put it crudely, to gears and gauges. But it also bypasses a long estimable strain of literature, it bypasses John Donne and all the Sufi poets; as well, it bypasses Socrates, Gandhi, King, et al. More than this, it disregards our felt experience of mind. Robinson gives wondrous voice to this.

In the end, Robinson’s contention that, “it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses,” seems to me the critical corrective in these trying times for hawks and humans.

Well, it wasn’t only church that informed me (as at times it simply inflamed me). It was the hawk that showed me a something more as it traced itself against an onionskin sky—strokes of a pencil slowly revealing a shape beneath the paper.


  1. I’ve watched sea gulls and hawks circling to catch upward currents to experience the joy of “inwardness” in the buoyancy. I get a sense of inwardness when I realize the hawk gets its inwardness from the heat effect of human construction below.

  2. to our felt experience of mind, which must surely mean heart too, and to absurdly high estimations of human nature. yes. Que así sea…

  3. You have me reflecting on something I needed to do today in order to get paid for a counselling session – provide a number on a depression evaluation scale. On a scale of 1-50 , 30 is the cut-off for severe depression. So if you score 31, you’re severely depressed, and if you score 29 you’re only moderately depressed. There must be a chapter in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy about depression scales. So who we … the number obscures the story about depression that I’ve had the privilege to hear. The person who will pay me expects the number, but never has to worry about hearing a story. I get to soar a bit (if I can be so bold). I expect that the soaring hawk has a story to tell as well. Of course they go that high to get a better view of where their next meal is coming from. Well, I need to eat too….

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