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)

//

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

//

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.

Advertisements

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.