Finding a Network of Life-Giving Friendship

The layers of life, in all their overwhelming proportions, call for a large God. The unexpected diagnosis, the many ways in which we disappoint ourselves, and the messiness of the generations all seem to come home to roost during middle age as parents depart this world and adult children come into their own. Margie Nethercott elected to manage all these complications by carefully selecting a large rock, tying it to her ankle, paddling to the middle of a lake and letting the rock pull her to the bottom.

Her plan would have been flawless except for low rainfall and high temperatures which put the water level at about neck high on a medium height middle-aged woman, leaving her tethered and stranded in the middle of the lake. Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel by Katherine James faces head-on the emptiness, weariness, insecurity, and discord of small town life in Trinity, New York where the Nethercott family and a constellation of their friends seek appropriate ways to struggle.

We all need a web of supportive friendships, and in mid-life finding our tribe can be a real challenge. How are you managing it? Have you found it at church, through small groups? Are you discovering fellowship by proactively going in search of it? Is your home a gathering place? Today, I’m pointing you to one on-line source of encouragement and fellowship:  The Perennial Gen, and I’m sharing my review of Kate James’s excellent novel there today. Click on over, and be sure to share in the comments the fellowship-building strategies that are working for you.


Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book.

Rejoicing in the Glory (so very big!),


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel simply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

 

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content 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.

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The Amazing Gift of Volunteer Love

Whether it was pessimism or lack of imagination, it never once occurred to me to ask God for a husband or a family. Maybe that’s why I value them as I do, for they are gifts that came to me, even though I lacked the good sense to pray for them. Cheryl Anne Tuggle calls this “volunteer love–so unlooked for, and yet so insistent.” (59) The love that found Jess and Gracie, their marriage and their life together, is only one strand of the story Tuggle has knit in Lights on the Mountain: A Novel.

As a young man, Jess was summoned into a contemplation of the numinous by Glory Light that rent the sky on a  distant peak, but tragedy changed his trajectory. He began to walk through the husk of his life half-asleep, placing one booted foot ahead of the other. Reading the borrowed adventures of Lewis and Clark by evening lamp light, he observed his own life from a careful distance, unable to feel either wonder or sorrow, but Gracie and marriage sharpened his blunted feelings.

Through Jess’s eyes, readers experience the peaceful labor of farm life in the mid-twentieth century, the tipping point between the old ways and “progress.” We are invited to roll up our sleeves and work alongside him as he tidies the barn. We nod good evening to the cows as they line up peacefully in early winter darkness, bags full of milk, awaiting the symbiotic ministrations of our hands. Becky the workhorse nickers her hard-working way into our hearts, showing up as a character rather than a prop in a life in which God is pondered more in the barn than in the church.

Subtle Characterization and Delightful Similes

With a pen like a paint brush, Tuggle has fashioned a cast of unique players, knit together by the rigors of agriculture and the accident of shared geography. The community observes and explains Tsura by their own terms, the girl who lives on the fringes but sees and knows the invisible and unknowable future. Margit and Opal practice casserole caring and lasagna love to fill in the gaps where words fail.

In a collision of cultures and in an era in which diversity was neither sought after nor discussed, western Pennsylvania farmers lived alongside Amish neighbors and navigated in-law dynamics with Russian immigrants.  In a mingling of faiths, prayer and worship, piety and ethics come on a bandwidth ranging from Jess’s rational materialist father to Gracie’s deeply observant Eastern Orthodox family.

Tuggle’s writing is enriched by subtle characterization and delightful similes that underscore the close connection between the words simile and smile:

Describing Pat the farrier:  “The man had to be tapped like a great old tree, and the sap ran very slow.” (15)

Jess’s concerned mother of his anxiety:  “You’re perspiring like a sinner at altar call.” (49)

Of Gracie’s ability to move in hope:  “[Jess] marveled at it from a distance, the way a man with no legs admires a circus acrobat.” (80)

The view of the Old Smiley place:  “An ancient wood frame, large and gaunt and set way back from the road as if it disliked being seen.” (94)

A comparison of the heart’s welcome:  “Gracie’s heart was a five-star hotel, had a smiling porter out front waving folks inside. His was the one-room shack.” (201)

Transformative and Purposeful Sorrow

Orthodoxy from the lips of everyday folk clarifies and enlivens truth, and sorrow suffered long and with patience leaves a road map for our own grieving. As Jess “abides” in grief, he sifts out the difference between a seasonal sorrow and one that comes to stay. He met himself on the road to healing, and readers will find themselves tracing and assessing their own path to wholeness. What if our suffering is transformative and purposeful, something to be learned from rather than something to be sidestepped or muted?

Learning to trust his love for his baby daughter, discovering that prayer may be nothing more (or less) than the release of a wordless ache, and realizing that often the reason God seems silent is that we have failed to listen with honesty sends Jess down a road toward the Light that is neither fleeting nor distant. As we grow in our understanding of where God is at work, the rear view mirror reveals that His presence has been seeded all along the path, and the place we have longed for is, after all, the place we most belong.

Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Rejoicing in Hope because of the Light,

michele signature[1]

Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Lights on the Mountain: A Novel simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content 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.

How Do Stories Increase Your Empathy for Others?

Time has a way of eroding the sharp edges of a story. Details become foggy and the setting becomes indistinct. Fully alive, three-dimensional characters may lose their identity in stereotype, becoming mere placeholders in their own story.

This was the case for Lucy Walter, the heroine in Elizabeth Goudge’s Child from the Sea. Born in 17th century Wales, Lucy met the young prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and young love blossomed. History has cast Lucy in the role of Charles II’s mistress, but Goudge dove into the historical record and reached a different conclusion:

What if the lore that Lucy and Charles had been secretly married is true?

In a context in which the dalliances of royalty were accepted as a matter of course and the marriage of a royal to a commoner was so unthinkable that Lucy would have been without recourse if the young king had been advised to renounce the connection.

Read New Books. Read Old Books.

Published in 1970, The Child from the Sea is part of my 2018 intention to read more fiction and to make time for older books alongside the new. C.S. Lewis offered this advice to readers:  “I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.” Clayton Kraby of the Reasonable Theology blog has applied that advice to his own personal formula:  “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

Without sounding like “an old book” author, Elizabeth Goudge has anchored Lucy’s story in a Christian world view against continually shifting geography and through the introduction of well-developed, often deeply flawed, but heart-warming characters. Vivid description and dialogue, and the use of charming Welch terms transport the reader to the banks of “Brandy Cwm” as characters breakfast on “a bit of bara ceich and a drink of buttermilk.” Superstition and the darkness of theological error plagued clergy and laity alike in this era when religious loyalties shifted according to who was on the throne, and citizens did time in The Tower for landing on the wrong side of the high church/low church see-saw.

Every Life is Shrouded in Mystery

Blogger Jody Lee Collins has written a biographical post on Elizabeth Goudge and shared what I also noticed — that “sacrifice, kindness, faithfulness and selflessness are just a few of the many biblical themes woven through the characters and story in Goudge’s work.” And while exploring the thought-provoking and inspiring elements of story-telling, Elizabeth also included intriguing descriptions that set the story firmly in time and place. For instance, did you know that the winding staircases in castles at that time were built with a “trip step,” a step that was “shallower than the rest so that a man running up the stairs with evil intent would stumble at it and give warning of his approach.” Goudge won the Carnegie Award in 1947 for The Little White Horse, J.K. Rowling’s favorite children’s book, so even though I am arriving late to the party, clearly others have been enjoying Elizabeth Goudge’s considerable writing talent for a long time.

With careful research and considerable grace, Child from the Sea is a masterful tale woven around a life that was shrouded in mystery. The words of Proverbs 14:10 are undoubtedly true:  “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” And yet, through skillfully written stories, we are able to inhabit the heartaches and the joy of an other person to a small degree, and perhaps, through this, we are better equipped to face our own real-life sorrows with greater grace and to celebrate the joys that come with greater gratitude.


Many thanks to Hendrickson Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Child from the Sea, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you, as always, for reading and for your continual encouragement,

 

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content 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.

A Glorious Bustle of Life

The layers of life, in all their overwhelming proportions, call for a large God. The unexpected diagnosis, the many ways in which we disappoint ourselves, and the messiness of the generations all seem to come home to roost during middle age as parents depart this world and adult children come into their own. Margie Nethercott elected to manage all these complications by carefully selecting a large rock, tying it to her ankle, paddling to the middle of a lake and letting the rock pull her to the bottom.

Her plan would have been flawless except for low rainfall and high temperatures which put the water level at about neck high on a medium height middle-aged woman, leaving her tethered and standed in the middle of the lake. Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel by Katherine James faces head-on the emptiness, weariness, insecurity, and discord of small town life in Trinity, New York where the Nethercott family and a constellation of their friends seek appropriate ways to struggle.

My favorite character, Etta Wallace surveys Trinity’s comings and goings from a white Cracker Barrel rocking chair on her front porch and makes a quiet commitment to Margie’s well-being and recovery. Prescribing banana bread (with nuts) and Crock-Pot dinners, she serves up grace in the evangelical tradition. Their unlikely friendship grew out of the rich soil of Etta’s resolve to “do the opposite”:

” . . . when people are struggling, it seemed to Etta, the people around them run away–embarrassed, uncomfortable. She would do the opposite and introduce herself.”

Finding the glory of God sufficient to carry her down the hill and away from her safe fortress, Etta also found herself walking beside Margie through her adjustment to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and a tragedy on the banks of the Weekeepeemee River that rocked the town.

Those who struggle with mental illness either personally or in their family tree will rejoice to note that Margie does not immediately bounce back from her depression and begin spouting Hillsong lyrics. Pixie’s fraught experimentation with drugs and sex are portrayed as ineffectual methods for taking the edge off the bleakness that had become normal for her. Readers who are sensitive to triggers should know that there’s a good bit of vivid description around a young woman’s habit of self harm (cutting) and the internal dialogue leading up to Margie’s attempted suicide.

Can You See Anything Now? is a complicated read and the winner of Christianity Today’s 2018 award for fiction. The believing community needs fictional accounts of family life set in the raw details of walking this broken ground that do not require a happy ending to be redemptive. If you are disposed to tolerate some obscenities and profanities in your reading, James’s lyrically written prose will encourage you to look for the thread of hope in your own story.


Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book.

Rejoicing in the Glory (so very big!),


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel simply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

 

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content 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.

Blessing Management: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (Conclusion!)

Last week a huge windstorm felled both trees and power lines, leading to widespread power outages throughout the great state of Maine. By some miracle of grace, we came through the storm with our lights still burning, but my oldest son was without electricity for several days. Since he and his family came here to shower and do laundry, I invited them to stay for supper. This time with much-loved family (and time to hold my baby granddaughter and visit with the adorable grandson) felt like bonus-time, completely unexpected, and owing to something that was a trial for them, but the end result was a gift to me.

Loving adult children seems to require a measure of this kind of blessing management — a rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation. I would rather pine endlessly for my sons than be the nagging and needy mother, so when these serendipitous visits happen with no real planning on my part, it’s a source of joy — or as Jayber Crow would say:

” . . . these meetings must not be planned, expected, depended on , or looked forward to. They [are] a hope seen afar, that must be with patience waited for.”

A Book About Love

And so, Jayber found that he also was able to practice blessing management in his happenstance meetings with Mattie in The Nest Egg over the course of 14 or 15 years. In this respect, then, it seems as if  Jayber Crow is a story of how one man learned to love. He denied himself any expression of that love toward its object (other than his immediate and generous response to Mattie’s requests for help in difficult situations). However, his outflow of love toward the Port William membership can certainly be traced back to the commitment he made to Mattie, and, therefore, a commitment to remain as The Membership’s “married ineligible bachelor barber.”

Several chapters ago, Jayber remarked that Port William would break your heart if you let it. I wonder if that is true of any community if only we would  be willing to see the neediness that lies only just beneath the glossy surface. Perhaps Jayber’s commitment is an invitation for the jaded and the “been-burned” to begin handing out second chances to family, friends, community, or the church.

When Jayber reflects on the benefit of this sacrifice to himself, asking himself what possible good he could have derived from the arrangement, his response is deeply moving:

“What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart.”

Listen well, O, my soul, for herein lies much wisdom for loving without strings attached.

A Book About Belonging

This outcome of Jayber’s internal argument is consistent with his value system expressed elsewhere in the story. For instance:

“To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.”

One of the places Jayber came to love and feel connected to was The Nest Egg because “everything there seemed to belong where it was.” (346) Unlike Troy, he did not have to possess something in the traditional sense in order to enjoy it. Although they were never his, the Nest Egg, the little cabin Burley gave him “the use of,” and even Mattie were all a source of joy. They also anchored him in a community which gave him his first (and only) set of roots since he was orphaned for the second time as a boy.

A Book About Calling

In his informal role as the “bootleg” barber at the edge of the river, Jayber continued to receive the words and confidences of his customers “as water draws to low ground.” For Jayber, it seems as if the minute he stopped trying to “make something of himself,” he became what he was intended to be.

It’s hard to miss the continual contrasts between Jayber and Troy who never did cease trying to make something of himself (336, 341). I wonder if some of the ceaseless striving came because he required so much fuel from outside himself in order to feed his voracious ambition.

Jayber’s calling that transcends even barbering is his love for Mattie, the wife of another man.  Even so, he makes no effort to interfere with the marriage. He never tells anyone else about his love for her, and the “marriage” he initiates in his heart changes him to the core.

A Book About Ending Well

There’s a phrase that occurred earlier in Jayber Crow‘s meanderings and with its second mention, it continued to gnaw at me. I’m thinking about “the leftovers.” In spite of his efforts to avoid living “an unexamined life,” Jayber still had some leftovers (355) which he defined as the “things I might once have done that are now undoable, old wrongs, responsibilities unmet, ineradicable failures — things of time, which is always revealing the remedies it has already carried us beyond.”  He has borrowed the term (268) from our friend Della, Athey Keith’s widow, and it was these “leftovers” that brought her to tears after Athey’s death:

“There are leftovers, Jayber. There are things I did or said that I wish I hadn’t, and things I didn’t do or say that I wish I had.”

These are cautionary words from fictional characters from whose story arc I want to learn and benefit.

Jayber calls himself a man of faith even though “faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark.” (356)  Faith does not exempt the faithful from pain, Jayber says, but assures that “there is a light that includes our darkness, and day that shines down even on the clouds.” (357)  Faithfulness, for Jayber, is not about getting something for one’s efforts but is in itself its own reward.

It is not until the last paragraph of the book that we see any ray of hope for Jayber’s heart in his poured out life, and I can’t resist sharing his words of longing for this “good-good-good” life:

“I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.”

May I ask, when is the last time you read a novel in which the culmination was a chaste and selfless love? In fulfillment of I Corinthians 13,  Jayber’s love “suffered long,”  did not “seek its own,” as it “hoped and endured all things” rather than allowing the weight of his desire to crush the beauty of its object. With the careful paintbrush of a poet, Berry suggested rather than described the understanding between Jayber and Mattie in the book’s final paragraph, and I expect (because, I ask you, who can resist thinking about a fictional character’s life beyond page 363?) that Jayber lived the rest of his days with the memory of that “smile that he had never seen.”

Looking Forward to 6:30 . . . 

This is a bittersweet moment as we come to the end of our discussion. When I’m in the middle of a series, I am convinced that I’ll never survive to the end and make all kinds of rash vows that include the words “never again.” I guess I’m a little bit like Jayber with the hands of my clock permanently pointing at 6:30, keeping things open-ended. However, I’m already starting to think about books for the next round, so stay tuned!

As ever, be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics, especially if you decide to throw caution to the wind and write about “texts” and “subtexts” you’ve found, or if you attempt to “explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand,'” because then we can all be exiled together and enjoy “the company of other explainers.” Wherever the exile ends up, I’ll bring a thermos of English Breakfast Tea and some disposable cups.  See you there!

Many thanks to all who persevered to the end! It’s been a great experience to spend some time as honorary citizens of Port William with you!

//

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Like the Sound of Many Waters — Jayber Crow Discussion (3)

As I write today, Houston is well into the long rebuilding that follows a hurricane and flooding, and Irma has raged through the Caribbean islands and through Florida, leaving a wake of destruction and death. In an odd sort of coincidence, those of us who are reading Jayber Crow according to the schedule have been following our protagonist’s progress through the flooded region that borders the Kentucky River on his journey toward home. Then, to add a third strand to these braided images, the patient husband and I have been reading in the book of Ezekiel these days, and we encountered this word picture in one of the wild-eyed prophet’s visions:

 “Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate that faces toward the east.  And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. (Ezekiel 43:1,2)

Calling and the Voice of God

Scripture portrays the voice of God as still and small; as fearsome and emanating from the midst of fire; as a commandment-carrying instrument which must be obeyed at all cost.  And God’s usual means of communicating to His people is through Scripture; however, God (being God) can speak to us in any way that pleases Him.

Whether it was the voice of God or the voice of his own longing for home rising up in his heart and finally being heard, one thing was certain:  the river flooded and it brought Jayber back to Port William. The River was rising on that January day in 1937 when Jayber packed up his belongings and left behind his first barbering job, the first room he’d “ever had in his own right,” along with his pursuit of making “a theoretical something of himself” through education. For him, at least at this point in life, his calling is all about leaving. It’s not until he reaches the bridge in Frankfort, Kentucky and is stopped from crossing by the policeman (and the raging flood waters) that his journey seems to turn toward something.

” . . . If that barn breaks loose and hits this bridge, she’s a goner, and you too if you’re on it.”

And then I said something that I had never thought of saying, that I didn’t even know was the truth until I remembered myself saying it. Right then I only felt all of a sudden so lonely and homesick I could barely talk. I said, “I’ve got to get to my people down the river.”

Of course, it does complicate things that none of Jayber’s “people” know he exists yet . . . but enter Burley Coulter, and suddenly Jayber is known. The un-naming that happened back at The Good Shepherd has been reversed and the calling and the blessing of life as a barber begins to unfold.

The Calling and the Being

” . . . I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have — and, beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber. All my real opportunities have been to be a barber, as you’ll see, and being a barber has made other opportunities. I have had the life I have had because I kept on being a barber, you might say, in spite of my intentions to the contrary.”

I can’t resist asking this question:

What do you “keep on being” that has resulted in blessing — maybe in spite of yourself?

Another question that bubbled to the surface as I read was, “Who is this guy?”

On the one hand, he’s lived a solitary life since Aunt Cordie died. On the other hand, he risks life and limb to cross a bridge to get to his people (“as surely as if [he] had a home to be on the way to”) and then stands in the capitol building on his way out after having spent the night there, looking at all his fellow refugees and longing to “tiptoe around and just lay my hand on each one.” He seems capable of feeling more tenderness toward people he doesn’t know than people he knows. Wendell Berry has certainly crafted a character full of contradictions.

Looking Ahead

The rising of the waters, the guilty feeling that he wants to repay the $5 bill Sam Hanks gave him on the basis of a lie, and Burley Coulter’s rowboat all worked together to bring Jayber back home.  As chapter eight comes to a close we see the beginnings of Jayber’s future, and so does he, but his narrator’s voice on page 82 draws our attention to an unknown quantity that would, eventually, have a powerful influence in his life — an influence as powerful as a calling:

“But my future, as it turned out, proved to be elsewhere. I hadn’t even glimpsed it yet. I had imagined no future. Who she was who would have my heart to own I had not imagined.”

So after three stories completely ended, Jayber begins a new story in an old setting.

How has the voice of God come to you in the past?  And how are you hearing Him today?

Have you experienced any hair pin turns in your sense of calling? Does Jayber’s experience help you in thinking about vocation?

I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, and stories from your own experience in the comment space below!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 28) having read Chapters 9-11.

And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
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

//

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.

Jayber Crow: Welcome to the Discussion!

The house where I grew up is gone, and I haven’t returned to pay homage to the empty space.  For me, home — the place of belonging and permanence — is this country hill which has created in me a deep appreciation and understanding of the importance of place.  Expecting to live solitary and transient, I have been amazed to find that I’m content in a long-term zip code, but, as usual, I’m just catching up with what God has been doing all along.  He has always worked within a context of place, choosing a backwater Palestinian setting as ground zero for His arrival and as the backdrop for His earthly ministry. The incarnation brought dignity to the mortal body and to the notion of occupying a particular time and a beloved space.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is a book about a man, but it is also a book about a place. Chapter 1 introduces Jayber as the barber in Port William, and then goes on to introduce the reader to the town he called home, employing six vignettes which feature various members of the Port William Membership.

Somehow, throughout the book, Jayber manages to sidestep the spotlight and to relate his tale through the observations of others.  However, he describes Port William as a place that “repaid watching,” (5) and clearly, Jayber saw plenty through his barbershop window.  It’s interesting that Berry makes his introductions in this order:  (1) Port William culminating in the first mention of Mattie Keith; (2) Jayber’s early years; (3) the Kentucky River which, we will see later, is so active in the plot that it nearly becomes a character in the story.

This is as good a place as any to address Wendell Berry’s curmudgeonly preface to Jayber Crow:

“NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”

This makes me smile, but you will recall (if you participated in the book discussion group around Till We Have Faces) how we acknowledged that Orual and her associates provided a wealth of material to deepen our understanding of God and His ways.  However, C.S. Lewis was primarily a story teller, and the story superseded all the themes and character analysis we discussed.  So . . . . lest we all find ourselves banished together to a desert island, let’s acknowledge once again that Jayber Crow is first and foremost a story about the barber of the Port William Membership.

If there is really such a thing as a “fictional memoir,” William Berry has mastered the craft.  Through Jayber’s musings, we will explore themes such as vocation and calling; the blessings and bane of change; the idea of belonging; and the unfolding of time in a particular place.  Writing from the perspective of 72 years of life, Jayber ponders the lay of the land:

“Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory.  Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever.  And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

What Are Your Thoughts?

I hope that you are already beginning to fall in love with the people of Port William.  Have you noticed how Jayber describes in elaborate detail the characters’ background, temperament, and manner of living?  Some of these individuals will appear later in the story (or in other books that Berry has written about the Port William Membership), but some of them never appear again.  Even so, Berry has given gratuitous attention to them, like that of a painter to one tree in a landscape of forest.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Jayber himself.  I’ve never had a brother, but I think I love Jayber the way one would love an odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.

I hesitate to mention this at the outset, but I want to discuss it when it comes up, so I’ll front-load an observation from this read-through of Jayber.  Wendell Berry, in addition to being a poet and stunning author of fiction, is a farmer, an environmental activist, and a cultural critic.  I noticed several incidents in which Jayber’s monologues sounded as if maybe Wendell had jumped in front of the microphone for few paragraphs.  Not yet.  But bear this in mind as you read on.  I’m wondering . . . is it just my imagination, or do you notice it as well?

One of the reasons I have called Jayber my favorite fictional theologian is his ability to make observations about the faith which sound like an outsider and yet to be profoundly orthodox on so many points.  I’m hoping for some lively discussion on the state of Jayber’s eternal soul, but listen to this insight on God as Father from later on in the book:

“I imagined that the right name might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply:  the love, the compassion, the taking of offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death . . . Divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world.  Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death.”

And so . . . back to incarnation once again.

What are your thoughts on barber chair theology?
Is there a place in your history and memory that anchors you in the way Port William anchored Jayber?

Let’s Get Started

I would love to hear your thoughts as we read. If you do not blog, just share your insights directly to the comments, but if you have a blog, I hope that you will write a piece or two (or a post about each section!) and then share them here by copying the URL of the post into the comments section below.  It will be fun — and enlightening — to learn from each other’s insights.

Don’t feel as if you need to share earth-shattering observations.  Just write about what impressed you in the section we are reading. If something puzzled you, pose your questions to the group.  Let’s commit to reading the book and learning from it in community!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 14) having read Chapters 4-6.  I’ll share a summary to get us started, mention some of my insights, and then throw the door wide open for your input.
How do you participate?
Simply get a copy of the book and read along.  You don’t need to register or commit to anything other than just reading the book!

In the meantime, are you planning to read with us?
Will this be your first time through one of Wendell Berry’s books or are you a repeat reader?
What else have you read by Berry?  Do you have a favorite?
Where are you, who are you, and what do you love?
Do you plan to blog about your impressions?
Let’s begin to get acquainted in the comments below!
And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
SEPTEMBER 7………………..CHAPTERS 1-3
SEPTEMBER 14………………CHAPTERS 4-6
SEPTEMBER 21………………CHAPTERS 7-8
SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
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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