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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Pulled Away By Expectation: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (10)

Now that I have pulled all the carrots with my grandson and hunted down the last of the red tomatoes, the gardening season is behind me. My sunflowers stand hanging their heads in resignation, but they’re still beautiful to me because I’m already thinking ahead to next year’s planting:  strategizing (No more eggplant!  I give up!); reworking the flower to veggie ratio (definitely more zinnias); planning for at least one more row of green beans.

Gardeners are just that way, so I completely identified with Jayber Crow’s delight in the “way fresh young plants had looked in the long rows behind the shop.” I even empathize with his waxing lyrical (and a trifle cheesy) that their beauty “had been art and music” to him. With Jayber’s move from the village barbershop, the furrowed ground and the planted seeds of a new location have served as a bridge from the old home to the new, and Jayber found he could leave behind 32 years of history because “expectation pulled [his] mind away.”

As I make plans for our unwieldy 2018 garden, I also want to leave room in my heart for the expectation of realities beyond this visible world. I’ve been grumpy today, tired of this particular set of challenges and disillusioned with the steady flow of projects and maintenance that go with living in the same house for nearly 24 years. Earth-bound and mired in the here and now, my expectation is paltry and my mind is preoccupied with temporal concerns. It’s time to take myself by the scruff of the neck and to let expectation of spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus “pull my mind away” from the heaviness of discouragement.

Gone!

One last time, Jayber hung the paper clock on the door of the Port William barbershop, but instead of its vague promise of a 6:30 return, he wrote GONE, and with that, came to another ending and a parting of the ways after having spent 32 of his 54 years on that piece of real estate. Leaving the land of loafing and wakefulness, Jayber is once again aided and abetted by his friend Burley who takes such “satisfaction in seeing [Jayber] well set up in the world.”

About Burley. . .
I found myself alternately charmed and repelled by this scalliwag, and Berry describes his common law relationship with Kate Branch and Danny’s paternity without commentary, of course, but I resent Burley’s lackadaisical attitude toward marriage. Somehow, though, the man who coined the term “Membership” as the descriptor for the featured families of Port William managed to settle into a very cozy domestic arrangement for himself years after Kate had passed away. I had a lump in my throat as Jayber laid out the beautiful collegiality there in the Branch household with its economy based on bootleg haircuts and family suppers,  “making something of nearly nothing,” and being “tight of pocket” but “free of heart.” Multi-generational households are challenging, but this fictional arrangement spoke to me about the importance of a sense of humor and good solid boundaries for everyone in making it work.

Good Fiction!

I smiled when Jayber described Danny’s stand-offish-ness as “favor[ing] Nathan more than Burley.” When an author has created a community and a cast of characters that can flow in and out of the books of a series and have me nodding my head in agreement over the hereditary traits of a fictional character, that’s GOOD fiction! I hope some of you will have the opportunity to read Nathan Coulter (the first in the series which I have still not read) or Hannah Coulter some time soon. (I’ve actually heard a rumor that there is going to be a group reading Hannah together next year, so I’ll keep you posted.)

Randomly Offered Observations

Jayber’s delight in his surroundings are likely an effect of Wendell Berry’s enjoyment of the outdoors as well as his keen observation skills. I found myself re-reading sections of his description of his surroundings there on the river:  the way new nailheads gleam in old boards; personification everywhere, but especially the way the “tree seemed to be offering itself to the use of the birds” — in much the same way Burley offered “the use of” the cabin to Jayber.

This section (I thought) was highly descriptive in many ways. When Jayber goes to find his boat in the fog:

“The boat takes shape at first as though it is floating in the air. And then, coming closer, I see its reflection on the water.” (322)

I could see this so clearly, but did you notice how Berry kept our attention for several pages at a time with zero action and nothing but cerebral meanderings and exquisite description? For instance, this wondering about reflections:

“When the air is still, then so is the surface of the river. Then it holds a perfectly silent image of the world that seems not to exist in this world. Where, I have asked myself, is this reflection? It is not on the top of the water, for if there is a little current the river can slide frictionlessly and freely beneath the reflection and the reflection does not move.”

How have I lived all these years and never wondered about that?

Jayber Crow the orphan was well-served by the Branch family’s warm welcome, and by the fatherly friendship Burley offered him for forty years. Is anyone else wildly curious about the last days of Burley Coulter? It’s hard to believe such an important character could “disappear clean out of the present world” without it being part of someone’s story. I’m wondering if Berry addresses his demise in any of his other books . . .

Danny’s understanding of The Depression is similar to Jayber’s characterization of The War — as something that’s always present, underground, and waiting to burst forth. There’s a fine line between “preparedness” (which is a good thing) and a scarcity mindset based in the notion that there’s always another boot of adversity waiting to drop. I grew up in the era of long lines at the gas pumps and dire predictions about the availability of oil. How about you? Can you identify with Danny as a “child of the Depression?”

As Jayber shares his dreams (good and bad) and as we read pages and pages of his internal dialogue, we get even more insight into the intrepid bachelor in his bootleg barbershop.

I’ve enjoyed this particular tendency in Jayber:

“I try not to let good things go by unnoticed.”

And there is so much good.
Annie Dillard joins Jayber in this paying attention, and she says it so beautifully:

“We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”

I look forward to reading your insights, either in the comments section below, or in your own blog posts. Please share links so this party can reconvene at your place!

I’ll be here next Thursday (November 16) having finished the book one more time!

 

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The Necessary Work of the World: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (9)

My grandson likes nothing better than a good project, so on our days together, he and I are a force to be reckoned with. He has saved me many a bend in the tomato patch, and when he pulled orange carrots out of the ground with quivering joy, each fistful was a miracle to behold. Even at three, he enjoys meaningful work, and I think that Jayber would approve of the way we spend our time when we’re together.

In Chapters 24-26, Jayber the “married, ineligible bachelor barber” shares his favorable opinion of Athey Chatham’s relationship with his grandson, and treats us to his reckoning on many other topics as well:

  • the beauty of little jobs and the prideful air of a man who is too big to “fiddle around” with them;
  • the instinct for complaining which requires the knack for “making much of oneself” (263);
  • the “Ceceliafication” of the world in which one despises any place she can afford to live.

Perhaps it’s because I read the complete works of Dr. Seuss on repeat when my children were little, but Jayber’s lamentations on the modernization of the farming industry, the impact of the interstate road system and school consolidation on small towns, and the vicissitudes of  growth in The Economy brought to mind these lines from The Lorax:

“I, the Once-ler, felt sad
as I watched them all go.
BUT…
business is business!
And business must grow
regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering… selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered by money, which everyone needs.”

Writing from the vantage point of 1986 when The War had gone underground for a few years, Jayber reminisced on the loss and small-town sorrow that came to Port William when The War “broke out” again, “this time in Vietnam.” (286) Jayber was feeling the loss of a foundation and a cutting loose from historical moorings in which “the necessary work of the world” was always done in the same way with predictable outcomes and according to the “dignity of continuity” in which what was known to one generation could be passed on, known, and loved by the next.

Unfortunately, with the “biggering and biggering” of barbershops in America, Jayber was once again subject to the whims of “the man across the desk.” Again, he came to a parting of the ways, and his friend Burley was there to ease the transition.

Unforeseen Blessings

When Mattie came to Jayber asking for help, he rose to his secret calling and rejoiced in the doing. His involvement in her family life, ministering to Athey, providing support to Mattie with her wayward son, “was something [he] might have prayed for, if [he] had thought of it . . .”

I am also the recipient of many unforeseen blessings I didn’t have the sense or the optimism to pray for, and maybe that makes them all the sweeter. Truly, I find Jayber’s thoughts on prayer to be refreshing and helpful, and as the plot unfolds following his having prayed “the terrible prayer: ‘Thy will be done,'” (252) we can see the wisdom behind his also having prayed for strength.

After Jimmy Chatham’s death in Vietnam, Jayber found himself unable to pray while at the same time imagining prayers for restoration that demonstrated incredible faith in the power of God to make things right. He recognized in himself the terrible tendency to “advise God” and likened it to the kind of mockery that Jesus received from the lips of the chief priests and scribes: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”  Jesus did not take them up on their dare because, in mercy, He saw my sin, but also “from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then.”

Jayber’s words are a corrective to my desire for a “vending machine” God who responds in predictable and controllable ways to my requests.

Another Great Moment Lost

After delivering a zinger to his despised rival, Jayber could have rested on his laurels and made favorable comparisons between his own repartee and Athey Chatham’s hammering comeback to Hiram Hench, the racist. (214)

Troy had just finished a tirade against the communists when Jayber stopped cutting hair, looked at Troy, and said:

“‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.’
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. ‘Where did you get that crap?’
I said, ‘Jesus Christ.’
And Troy said,’Oh.'” (287)

A stunning triumph for the Sermon on the Mount. However, Jayber is learning to see himself; he is being schooled in the self-awareness of love. And so, standing in the momentary spotlight of our admiration, he comes clean:

“It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.”

Amen and amen.
How easy it is to love “the world.”
How difficult it is to love the annoying person who stands before us in the moment.

Questions to Ponder and an Invitation for Your Insights

I will confess that I am often grumpy about technology, but I am determined to persevere, knowing that the other option is to become obsolete. As I read Jayber’s observations about the building of roads, I remembered my annoyance at highway noise around many of the places we have gone camping. I guess if we want to tent in the company of crickets and owls, we have to do it in our own back yard. How are you managing change and progress? Even with all its obvious blessings, is there some aspect of life in the 21st century that particularly rankles you?

Have you ever found yourself “listening to yourself with some interest” as you shared a dream or a plan out loud for the first time? (296) This was an example of Wendell Berry’s brilliant characterization alongside his clever turn of a phrase.

A quick mention of Troy at his son’s graveside service was poignant and cautionary:

“Afterward, it seemed for a while that Troy had been almost unmade by his grief, but then, having nobody else to be, he became himself again and continued on.”

How sad if we do not allow ourselves to be unmade and then remade by the hard things that come into our lives. Reading this observation of Troy leads me to pray for grace and strength not to waste any of my grief — past, present, or future.

And so with Burley passing on “the use” of his little camp house to Jayber, we’ll spend the next two weeks following Jayber’s observations from the banks of the Kentucky River.

I’ll be listening for your thoughts “with some interest” as I look forward to reading themeither in the comments section below, or in your own blog posts. Please share links so this party can reconvene at your place!

I’ll be here next Thursday (November 9) having read Chapters 27-29.

Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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Let It Trouble Your Heart: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (8)

The most recent natural disaster spreads itself across your news feed while coverage has preempted the day’s programming on NPR. A grizzled, rheumy-eyed man reeking of alcohol sticks out his hand and cobbles together a story of need. A blog post about the refugee crisis sets you to wondering if there’s anything practical your family, your church, or your community could be doing.

Human need on repeat.

By the end of the day, numbness has wallpapered itself over urgency, and a few chapters from a novel or an hour or two of Netflix-valium convinces you it’s impossible for one person to respond to it all. You have work to do, a life to live. Is it even wise to let the stories of others trouble your heart?

In Chapters 21-23, Jayber Crow makes the choice to let his heart be troubled by events in his community. He reaches into the past for backstory while also taking notice of the continual narrative arc of the Port William Membership. He takes a good hard look at his own role in the community and then follows through on a decision to enter into the heartbreak of others.

Who’s the Main Character in this Story, Anyway?

Athey Keith?  The eponymous narrator disappears from the action for a time as Chapter 21 follows hard on the heels of Athey’s stand against racism and his soft-spoken conclusion that “if we can’t live together we can’t live atall.” It provides insight to the kind of home that produced Athey’s character, and also sheds light on the awakening of empathy in a young boy who had just had the pudding scared out of him, but still managed to feel sorry for one of his persecutors. We begin to see how Athey became the man who could put a stop to a loafer’s persecution of “Woger Woberts” but who decided to brook the antics of his abrasive son-in-law in order to preserve family harmony.

Troy and Mattie Chatham?  Troy’s unfaithfulness to Mattie is chief among the happenings Jayber allows to trouble his heart. In the spirit of “know your enemy,” Jayber has pegged Troy as a man with no margins and is able to pin point with confidence the event that likely precipitated Troy’s adulterous choice. (232) At “the cold downward end of 1954,” the story of Jayber and Clydie’s romantic evening is swallowed up in Jayber’s sickening realization that he is no different from Troy in his philandering ways. The story’s flow returns to Jayber as he repents at leisure on the long walk from Hargrave to Port William, and Part II comes to a close with Jayber’s momentous choice that shapes the remainder of the book.

The Way of Love

Jayber was unsure at the outset whether the way that was opening up before him was more like a door — or a wound. Trying to convince himself that he knew who he was, he devised a dubious syllogism as he ruined his dress shoes while  keeping to the “darker side of the difference” on the slushy path home:
(1) Mattie has an unfaithful husband;
(2) She needs a faithful husband;
(3) Jayber will be the faithful husband Mattie deserves.

In effect, Jayber made (and ended up keeping!) a vow of celibacy for Mattie’s sake. When Jayber referred to himself as “an ignorant pilgrim crossing a dark valley” (133), who would have suspected that the bachelor barber of Port William would embark upon a pilgrimage that would, for him at least, transcend time?

[L]ove, sooner or later, forces us out of time…. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive…. I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show…. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. That was why, as she grew older, I saw in her always the child she had been, and why, looking at her when she was a child, I felt the influence of the woman she would be. (248)

With Jayber’s vow in mind, we begin to see the art behind his choosing when he selected “the proper handful” of story elements from the “granary full of wheat” that comprised the details of his life. (29) This is what he meant when he referred to Mattie as part of his “future,” not yet imagined (62), and when he knelt beside her at her young daughter’s grave and called this “his calling in this world.” (207)

Whatever your opinion of Jayber’s devotion to Mattie, one thing is certain: We become like what we behold. While he was obsessed with Troy’s annoying qualities and his hold over Mattie, Jayber began to realize that he and Troy were brothers in a way that was horrifying. Once his attention was turned truly toward the object of his devotion (rather than his rival), Jayber’s heart opened up to all the things Mattie loved, and he seemed to find a new sense of belonging and a settledness that had escaped him before:

Before, I had yearned for company, especially the company of women, and gone seeking it. Now I no longer went seeking, but taught myself (and not always easily) to make do with the company that came…. Now, finally, I really had lost all desire for change, every last twinge of the notion that I ought to get somewhere or make something of myself. I was what I was. “I will stand like a tree,” I thought, “and be in myself as I am.” And the things of Port William seemed to stand around me, in themselves as they were. (254)

And this:

Though I was divided from the female society of Port William as much as before, I did not feel estranged from it as before. I was involved, a participant. The community I lived in and served by my unillustrious yet needful work was Mattie’s community also…. We were thus joined. I lived as I thought she did: hoping for good, reconciled to the bad, welcoming the little unexpected happinesses that came.” (259)

Jayber becomes rooted in the community through borrowed family ties that could never become more than a longing.

Questions to Carry with Us

Has the desire to be different from someone you despised ever served as a powerful motivation for a change in your own life?

A self-giving love that can never be declared to its object is a death to self that would be unthinkable to me. Jayber’s prayer to “know in [his] heart [God’s] love for the world” is his gateway to suffering. Is this why we shelter ourselves, averting our eyes from the pain of the world? How much courage would it take to love the world as God loves? I believe Jayber was on his way to truth with this insight: “. . . [A] man might so love this world that it would break his heart.” (254)

Did you notice that Jayber seized another opportunity to expand upon “barbership” as a “privileged position?” (231) As the man behind the chair, he became privy to details that served as puzzle pieces in putting together the story of the Port William Membership.

I found his observations on the connection between woe and comedy (231) to be particularly poignant, and especially accurate for that post-war era — and maybe our own? Further down the page, he notes that trouble served to bring a tenderness to Athey, “a suffering he neither complained of nor denied.” I confess to being weak in this area, with a low tolerance for suffering, for woe, and, particularly, for silence. Maybe we citizens of the 21st century need to join Port William in savoring our own comedy?

Now It’s Your Turn . . .

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts as we forge ahead into Part III. Be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics. Last week, the conversations were both lively and insightful, and I loved finding threads that continued over at the shared posts.

I’ll be back here next week having read Chapters 24-26.

Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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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.

When the Time Comes to Look Back — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (7)

I listened to hard words today from a dear woman I’ve loved and admired for nearly twenty years. We were seated in her small room in a nursing home, my grandson was exploring every nook, cranny, and light switch (and eating one of the cookies we had brought for her!), and I asked her how she liked her new home.

“It’s hard,” she said. “They’re good to me here, but I’m at the end of my life. It’s hard to realize — emotionally.”

The words hung in the air, and I wanted to deny them, to beautify them with a neat little bow of comfort and joy. But that would not be fair, because she is right. At ninety-plus, she is unsteady and unable to care for herself or live in her own home. This is hard. She is nearing the end of her life. So I was quiet and nodded, waiting for her to go on. She did, sharing some of her concerns, repeating herself and circling back around. But then, she stopped and smiled and touched my grandson’s small hand, declaring:

“I have wonderful memories.”

My sweet friend has come to the point in her life when looking back is so much more satisfying and encouraging than looking ahead. That’s a treasure when the time comes to look back,  and Jayber Crow does his own share of looking back in Chapters 18-20, particularly concerning his relationship with Mattie — or, more accurately, his observations of Mattie.

His pivotal memory of Mattie, what he calls “the most deciding event of my life,” took place at a Vacation Bible School. He was there in his role as church caretaker. She was there to care for and play with the young children. As a long-time VBS war horse, this scene warms my heart, because it was not Mattie’s skillful use of curriculum or her wow-factor pedagogical methods that won Jayber’s heart. It was this one thing about her dealings with the children:

“She was just perfectly there with them in her pleasure.” (191)

Jayber makes mention of Mattie’s ability unique ability to be present to her people as he pondered and lamented her troubled marriage with Troy:

“She never made reference even by silence to anything she suffered. But in herself she was present. She was present in her dealings with other people. She was right there.”

And with this arrow piercing his heart, Jayber moved into a secret room of devotion to a woman who was completely unaware of his feelings, unlikely to reciprocate even if she had been aware, and unavailable to him in every possible way.

Jayber devotes a fair amount of time to his obsessive scorning of Troy Chatham, (Mattie’s husband) making special note of Troy’s loneliness. (194)
I wonder . . .
Unrequited love is pretty lonely, too.

“The visions of the mind have a debt to reality that it is hard to get the mind to pay when it is under the influence of its visions.”

Once Jayber worked his way through these “visions of the mind” and became free from his “glandular logic,” he saw the folly in his obsession, but held fast to his love for Mattie. Good, however, did come from this in the form of a renewed seeing:

“If you love somebody enough, and long enough, finally you must see yourself. What I was was a barber and grave digger and church janitor making half a living, a bachelor, a man about town, a friendly fellow. And this was perhaps acceptable, perhaps even creditable in its way, but to my newly chastened sight I was nobody’s husband.”

The Community’s Remember-ers

A day spent with Mat Feltner became a day of looking back, and it would seem that Jayber, with his patient listening and his eager interest, might be in training for a future role as one of Port William’s remember-ers. In my own remembering, when the time comes to look back, I want to bring to my remembering — and to the people I have loved — the grace Jayber brought to the membership:

” . . . I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

Did You Ever Think About That?

Jayber had only to let his tongue play over the notch in one of his front teeth to remember that Cecelia Overhold held him in “joyous dislike,” even though a lot of years had passed since “the little worter dranking party” where the war began. Jayber can’t seem to free himself of this, but, then, there is something so contagious about unhappiness that Cecelia would be especially virulent:

“Cecelia thought that whatever she already had as no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it.” 209

These are cautionary words in our present era of acquisitiveness — and throw-away relationships.

From the ashes of this sadness, Jayber salvages some deep and poignant observations about love and community:

  • “Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole — self-explanatory, you might say. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.”
  • “There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”

There’s no way Wendell Berry could have anticipated the electricity that would remain in the air seventeen years after he wrote Jayber Crow (and half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act), but Athey Heath defuses a barber shop bully with words of tweetable brevity and piercing strength:

“It might prove out to be,” Athey said, “that if we can’t live together we can’t live atall. Did you ever think about that?”

Other Questions to Ponder

Does Jayber’s infatuation with Mattie warm your heart — or creep you out?

Can you point to a “newly chastened sight” in your own experience of loving or having been loved that has made you see yourself in new ways?

I’m puzzled by Jayber’s presence with Mattie when he finds her crying in the cemetery. His words are true and kind: “You can’t stay here.”
But what of this:  “I knelt beside her, according to my calling in this world.” What’s he talking about here? Do you see a connection between this and his earlier statement: “[M]y 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” (62)?

Whether Jayber’s love for Mattie proves to be idolatrous or life-affirming will be borne out in future chapters, and our final judgment, I think, should be based on how his devotion to Mattie affects his response to others in the Port William Membership. I’m thinking of a quote from Madeleine L’Engle that bears on this:

“If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don’t like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.”  (Circle of Quiet p.8)

I look forward to reading your insights, either in the comments section below, or in your own blog posts. Please share links so this party can reconvene at your place!

I’ll be here next Thursday (October 26) having read Chapters 21-23.

Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

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 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? 

//

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

//

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.

Stepping onto the Common Ground — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (5)

I’ve spent the past week reconnecting with my sister.
She lives in Alaska. I live in Maine.
She has one grown daughter, while I’ve spent the past 23 years living in a boys’ dormitory.
She has lovely nails and her wardrobe demonstrates an awareness of the comings and goings of  style. My hands and my clothing reveal that I have a big garden and are consistent with a life that is lived close to the ground.

For this week, my sister and I have stepped onto the common ground of a shared childhood, a common faith, and the glorious dance of genetic material that rendered her a soprano and me an alto. Geography, being deeply rooted in opposite extremes of the continent, has presented its challenges to our relationship, but isn’t it true that even those who share a zip code can struggle to find common ground?

Be a Conscientious Objector

The combined effects of war and grief formed the common ground of 1940’s-era Port William. When the indignity of a 4-F classification prevented Jayber from “sharing the fate” of his community through active military service, he “felt disgraced by [his] failure to be able to do what [he] did not want to do.”

In a world slowly being populated by special snowflakes who make much of their preferences and feel entitled somehow to special handling (I am not without guilt here), Jayber’s stance on the war effort is remarkable. He did not want to participate in the war, but . . .

“I had a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”

This is the kind of conscientious objector I long to be. By contrast, I have an uncanny ability to read the commandments of God and to apply them with skill to others — and then to find a loop hole that excuses my own disobedience.

Fear and Grief

Jayber joins C.S.Lewis in the observation that fear and grief are curiously linked.

From Chapter 1 of A Grief Observed:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”

And this from Jayber:

“There were many new things to be known and talked about, but nobody spoke of fear. And when grief began to come in and replace fear, the grieved, out of consideration for the fearful, did not speak of grief.”

In tragedy, we are forced to come to terms with seeing “everything as eligible to be lost.” Or, as dear Mat Feltner put it after his son Virgil was reported missing in action, “Everything that will shake has got to be shook.” We feel this as well, when the people and things we thought of as “permanent” begin to disappear. Even tragedies that come to us from a distance (Las Vegas, Puerto Rico) usher in their own brand of fear and grief. Our right response for banishing fear is the “reverence and awe” the writer of Hebrews recommends as we thank God for the reality of His unshakable kingdom.

For Worse — and for Still Worse

Jayber can’t seem to shake the feeling of being despised by Cecelia Overhold, and Wendell Berry gave Jayber an entire chapter to explore the weight of failure that surrounds the Overhold marriage. Oddly, the bachelor barber serves as a handy target for all Cecelia’s disappointment in her husband Ray.

And isn’t it interesting that in all the varied Membership of Port William, there are only two individuals who are painted with an entirely negative brush: Cecelia Overhold and Troy Chatham? Jayber’s resentment of Troy does not do him much credit, but, without giving anything away, I will defend Jayber by saying that events which are yet to come in future chapters have colored Jayber-the-Narrator’s memories of Troy. Our minds are tricky that way, for our knowledge of a person over time can throw a long shadow over what we remember about them from the past.

So, in spite of Jayber’s ambivalence about The War (and all wars) and his determination to come back to Jesus’ instruction to “love our enemies” (142-143), he finds this harder to live out with individuals than with theoretical enemies — who don’t rub him the wrong way in real life.

And so I find myself stepping onto common ground with our friend Jayber. I want to be hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Love your enemies,” and then choose to have “a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”

Questions to Ponder

What do you think of Jayber’s thoughts on Miss Gladdie’s grief? He describes Miss Gladdie as “the keeper and protector of the grief by which she cherished what she had lost.” There seems to be wisdom in this, particularly for those who want to hurry their way through a loss, to “get to the other side of it” so that life can return to “normal again.” Maybe it’s just my practical nature, but I enjoy thinking about grief as a means of cherishing, a way of saying, “This loss is worth this much sadness.”

On page 152, Jayber’s thoughts on the church are all tangled up with his strong reaction to Roy and Cecelia’s marriage, but there’s something of value in what he says about mis-uses of the church: as a venue for snubbing the “unworthy,” as a place of discomfort and ill-fitting piety, and as a “lion tamer’s chair.” (153) How’s your relationship with the local church? Does it inspire you to more faithful obedience? Have you walked through hard seasons with the church gathered?

Did you notice Jayber’s story-telling style changes on page 134 when he begins to share his Mattie memories? He goes into a very structured voice: “I will call back now and lay in a row some passages of my early knowledge of Mattie Keith . . .”  Coming where it does, it landed on my ears as a non sequitur. What does all this have to do with the words that comprise one of my favorite Jayber quotes?

“I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.”

I think that in making this connection here, Jayber is tipping his hand about his understanding of his own calling, but remember, he’s writing from the perspective of the future as a 72 year old man.

When I remember that the cloud and the fire led Israel into the wilderness, it helps me to view my own wandering path with a little more grace. And the truth is that sometimes we see the beauty and necessity of our pilgrimage best from the rear view mirror.

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

I’ll be here next Thursday (October 12) having read Chapters 15-17.

Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:

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

//

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.