The Problem of Belonging: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (6)

When it comes to friendship, to a confidence of our place and belonging to a group, all of us have at least one toe in Middle School. The sense of being outside looking in is ubiquitous enough that it has its own acronym (FOMO). In a speech delivered to a young adult audience in 1944, C.S. Lewis referred to it as the quest for “the inner ring,” and had this to say about it:

 ” I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

“Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

Whether by fear or by conscious choice, Jayber, the bachelor barber of Port William, Kentucky, describes himself at several points as an outsider, even after he has cemented his place in the social structure as gravedigger and caretaker for the local church. He takes his position very seriously — in spite of his claim to be “by nature a lazy person” (159) — wearing the mantle of responsibility like a vocation.

Ever a contradiction, Jayber confesses to a feeling of being “outside even when inside,” while, at the same time, claiming to be possessed by a deep love for The Membership and describes poignantly how this love became clear to him through a dream he had while napping in a back pew:

“I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any farther) . . . I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there . . . [and] I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

“When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears.” (165)

The Professionally Devout

With his theological bent toward universalism (161), Jayber’s issue may have been doctrinal as well as social, but it is his position as an “outsider” in the church that make his observations so valuable — in my opinion. Like most small churches, the Port William assembly had endured a succession of young and inexperienced clergymen who are looking for the next step in their resume development. I feel sorry for any pastor who has to face a congregation who “prefer(s) to hear what it has heard before.” However, with a glass-half-full mentality, Jayber finds the good even in a bad sermon being preached from “the mantle of power, but not the mantle of knowledge.”

“In general, I weathered even the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander. Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.”

The same thing happened to C.S. Lewis during a boring sermon one Sunday morning at Holy Trinity Church in Headington, and the idea for his book, The Screwtape Letters was born from the imaginative overflow.

Jayber notes, once again, the insistence of the faithful in splitting the world into “sacred” and “secular” categories, a “religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world.”  He seems to be most astonished by it here in this land of “good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs.” Living close to the land breeds a love for the particular which seems to be expunged by walking into the nave.

As much as Jayber manages to miss, theologically, his thoughts on death and resurrection are thought-provoking:

“. . . I am mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not seen.”

The Port William Zephyr

Taking possession of an old green Dodge sedan, Jayber enters into an uneasy relationship with progress. He enjoys the freedom of traveling to Hargrave for dancing, drinks, and carrying on with Clydie. However, examining his response to the freedom that comes with speed, he was abashed to find himself succumbing to the same impatience he despised in Troy Chatham:

“Ease of going was translated without pause into a principled unwillingness to stop.”

Jayber’s love for Mattie and his resentment of Troy’s role in her life gets interspersed with Jayber’s ponderings on farming, land management, and the effects of “progress” on farming, all learned from his ties to Athey, but clearly conveying William Berry’s thoughts and voice on the topics.

What Do You Think?

Was anyone else puzzled by the figure of speech describing Uncle Stanley Gibbs?

“[He] had no more sense of privacy than a fruit jar.”

Looking at my abundant canning jars, all clear glass, I’m concluding that he meant a fruit jar would not afford much privacy as a dwelling.

Back to Jayber’s on-the-job thoughts on the dead: 

“The people [in the graves] had lived their little passage of time in this world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy.”

Rendered changeless by death, the people who live in our memories still, in some odd way, require our mercy, our forgiveness, for while it cannot, ultimately, change who they were or who they allowed themselves to become, it most certainly will change me. This is particularly true if I can join Jayber in the wanting for a “heart as big as Heaven.”

May we find that we, too, are “moved by a compassion that seem[s] to come to [us] from outside.” Could this be one of the benefits of reading good fiction? 

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I found these three chapters to be the most difficult to write about so far because they cover so much territory. If I left out the theme that stood out to you, or if you feel that I missed the point entirely, be sure to let me know in the comments.

And, as usual and customary, you are welcome to share blog posts (or comments) with your insights on all things Jayber or Port William.

It appears that we have already crossed the half-way point, so thanks for hanging in there!

Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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The Membership: Jayber Crow Discussion Group(4)

  • He shows up every Sunday morning with a big smile and a small canvas bag full of candy. Swarms of children greet his arrival with joy, but it’s his warm handshake and sincere delight in their lives that keeps those relationships alive as the kids become teens and then move on to adulthood.
  • She is a widow, rattling around in a big, white New England farmhouse with a rescue dog and any number of semi-feral cats. Only a few people know that she is a member of the Cycling Hall of Fame. Even fewer know that she hires eager young boys to work hard, pays them well, and then gives them solid counsel for wise future choices.
  • Her husband lived well into his nineties, a World War II veteran who sat around our marshmallow fire one evening sharing stories of lunch with Ernie on the streets of Paris. (We later found that Ernie’s last name was Hemingway.)

And behind every door, seated in every pew in my world — and in yours —  lives another story. Whether dazzlingly unique or quietly mundane, each story is one part of the membership that enriches our own stories.

The Port William Membership

The matter-of-fact unfolding of Jayber Crow’s story is set against the backdrop of a small town along the banks of the Kentucky River, and it is acted out in manifold stories of the citizens of Port William, referred to by Jayber as The Membership. They range from the sublime — such as Mr. Mat Feltner who “looked right through your eyes, right into you, as a man looks at you who is willing for you to look right into him”  — to the ridiculous, personified by Cecelia Overhold who landed in Chapter 10 in a blaze of fury, insults, and rock-throwing rage.

Burley Coulter is such a well-developed character that I found myself wondering about his Enneagram type. Anyone have a theory? I’m thinking that his caring acts on Jayber’s behalf reveal him as a 2, but I’m open-minded.  I liked Burley the minute he picked Jayber up and deposited him safely on the banks of his future home town, but the way he stood with his hands inside the bib of his overalls on the Feltner’s door stoop, then his “conscientious sense of humor” and the way he filled Jayber’s plate at the “Worter Dranking Party” completely won my heart.

Loafers and Customers

Both Jayber and Burley seemed to consider that “loafers” were standard equipment for a small town barbershop.  And it’s clear that Jayber spent some time thinking about barbering as a profession — or a vocation? I’d stop short of saying that he had a “theology of barbering,” but he certainly had the rudiments of an epistemology:

“I don’t mean for you to believe that even barbers ever know the whole story. But it’s a fact that knowledge comes to barbers, just as stray cats come to milking barns. If you are a barber and you stay in one place long enough, eventually you will know the outlines of a lot of stories and you will see how the bits and pieces of knowledge fit in. Anything you know about, there is a fair chance you will sooner or later know more about. . . I am amazed at what I have come to know, and how much.” (94)

Some of Jayber’s loafers eventually became customers, and it seemed to be their responsibility to keep him humble. The barber, apparently is just another inevitable part of nature:

“The growth of hair called forth the barbershop. The barbershop called forth the barber. I was there as expectably as the furniture and the stove, as the town itself and the river down at the foot of the hill.”

With conversations flying around Jayber, and customers paying him without even looking at him, it’s no wonder that Jayber was privy to so many of other peoples’ stories.

What always takes me by surprise with Jayber is his compassionate heart, and this next observation will only resonate for those who have also read Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy about the Reverend John Ames, another of my favorite fictional theologians. Rev. Ames spoke of baptizing his membership with a special tenderness, touching their heads with a kind of knowing and intimacy that endeared them to his pastor’s heart. I see this same tenderness in Jayber.

Doing some unauthorized looking ahead to page 231, Jayber refers to the barbershop of Port William as “a privileged position,” and he admitted that people confided in him “deliberately; sometimes, almost forgetfully.” While Jayber stopped short of his ministerial aspirations when he fled Pigeonville, he certainly fulfilled a crucial role for his congregation of loafers and customers who filled the seats in his shop.

Belonging

I was happy to read that Jayber felt as if he had found a home and place of belonging. In typical small-town manner, it took two years for the old guard to invite Jayber to his first “worter dranking” party, but he took the invitation in the spirit with which it was delivered, realizing that his inclusion in that group would work alongside his bachelorhood to give him a role he described as “bystander.” He was not a stranger, but not a “good catch” for their daughters, either. Having settled into the niche of Port William barber as both home and identity, Jayber stopped wondering what he”was going to make of ” himself and, instead, decided to settle into the “perquisites of that office.”

Some Questions to Ponder

Sam Hanks is a man of studied perversity, apparently clenching his pipe (“as if he expected to be picked up and swung by it”) and his opinions with the same tenacity. We see this trait in Jayber’s shop in the way Sam argues a point for the sheer joy of it. But what could be his motive for the way he responded to Jayber’s attempt to thank him for and to repay the $5 gift from years before? Is it humility? Does he really not remember Jayber from their previous meeting? Is it possible that he’s playing with Jayber’s brain the way he antagonized John T.?

Did anyone else notice that when Jayber introduced himself by name for the first time in Port William (page 98 with Mrs. Coulter), he called himself Jonah? It seems as if the Port William Membership is also in the business of re-naming, but do you sense a difference between their methods and motives and those of Brother Whitespade?

Can you identify with Jayber’s need for geographical proximity in order to live his way into his losses? As I write today, I’m preparing for a visit from my sister who has not been back home since our mum passed away. She’s got that process ahead of her as she experiences a visit to the State of Maine that does not include a visit with Mum.

As we all grow older and as the people we love age alongside us, it is inescapable that we will begin to see our world “populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead.” (132) I’m thankful that Jayber (and Wendell Berry) concluded the time of mourning and remembering with this thought: “The world as it is [will] always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.” (132)

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I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, and your psychoanalyses of the Port William Membership in the comment space below!

There is much in these three chapters that I have not mentioned, but which is worthy of a good many paragraphs:  Jayber’s observations on the Overhold marriage, the role of remember-ers in a community, and the fact that Mrs. Coulter reminds me of my dear mother-in-law. However, I’ll keep this under 1500 words and will be here again next Thursday (October 5) having read Chapters 12-14.

Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.