Sunday, April 27, 2008

Home

It's a cloudy day, and as per usual, my mind is just as cloudy... not fit, perhaps, for inflicting my thoughts on others. My apologies in advance to those 2 or 3 fantastic, angelic folks who read my blog and after whom in gratitude I may well name my first child (or next cat, more likely). However, I just finished another Wendell Berry book, Remembering. I'm on vacation, and have a stack of books that I want to continue on in RIGHT NOW, but I can't until I write about this book.

When I first started reading Remembering, I was a little taken aback. It's dark. It's about Andy Catlett, the main narrator of A World Lost and a member of Berry's Port William community that is the topic of so much of his fiction (maybe all of it... I haven't read it all yet... yet :^) ). Andy has suffered a horrifying personal loss, and he is not handling it well. The reader is stuck in the middle of Andy's mental anguish, witnessing his struggles with the everyday as he lays in a motel room in San Francisco and thinks back over the events of the preceding day --when he cussed out a room full of progressive agriculturalists at a conference where he'd been invited to speak-- and of the preceeding months since he's suffered his loss.

This is not the gentle world of Jayber Crow, or even the traumatized world of A World Lost, painted in Impressionist fuzziness through the lens of a boy who experiences that particular trauma more as a metaphor for family loss and distance than anything else. The pain here is very personal, very close, and the reader is spared none of it. Berry shows here that his laser-sharp descriptive skills can be used not only to place you in a blissfully beautiful agrarian paradise, but also to place you inside the head of a person who is bearing many layers of pain and loss. The effect is just as precise, but not nearly as pleasant.

Then Andy gets out of bed and wanders the streets of San Francisco in the 4am pre-dawn... and as I've often found true for myself, so much gets cleared up by his just going for a walk. As in A World Lost, Berry moves back and forth in time through the memory of Andy Catlett, however Andy not only remembers the details of his life, but vividly remembers the details of the lives of his forefathers. This is as mystical as anything I've read so far by Berry, and the effect is really powerful. He returns us to the agrarian world, the world of Port William, by means of the relationships that have formed Andy, have made him what he is. As Andy "remembers" these snapshots of those who came before him, and of his own life at the crucial turning points who have made him what he is, he moves past his present grief and remembers his place in history... remembers who he is, and the basic goodness of that.

One of the more beautiful passages, at the beginning of the 4th chapter, sums this up:

"On the verge of his journey, he is thinking about choice and chance, about the disappearance of chance into choice, though the choice be as blind as chance. That he is who he is and no one else is the result of a long choosing, chosen and chosen again. He thinks of the long dance of men and women behind him, most of whom he never knew, some he knew, two he yet knows, who, choosing one another, chose him. He thinks of the choices, too, by which he chose himself as he now is. How many choices, how much chance, how much error, how much hope have made that place and people that, in turn, made him? He does not know. He knows that some who might have left chose to stay, and that some who did leave chose to return, and he is one of them."

The book ends with Andy dreaming/experiencing/envisioning a Port William Redeemed, as it would be one day in the new heavens and the new earth, and he understands that he is seeing what is the really real, his place in a community that someday will be redeemed in the presence of the Almighty. It is so so beautiful.

As with everything else that I've read by him so far, his writing pricks at something in me and right now I'm defining this as the struggle for Home. I mentioned a couple of entries back that I have a fair bit of confusion and angst about my right place in this world. Some of this is just drama --and maybe sometimes pms-- but some of it does have a place in reality. I don't remember where I heard the quote that a man's instability as a person increases in direct proportion to his distance from his homeland, but it has stuck with me. I'm not all that far from where I was born, but I'm still far... far from the way I was raised. My Personal South is the Blue Ridge Mountains... that's what I miss, that's what I remember. I don't really get Flannery O'Connor's South, or the South of many writers I've read, but I get Berry's South. It's about the people, but the people are all about the land. He's besotted with green rolling hills and the smell of earth, of feeling connected to what is pure, made by God and not by man... that which is unarguably only tended by man as God's caretaker of His creation. He's also quite fond of those who are respectful in their caretaking, mindful that what they tend isn't theirs and that they will pass it on in times to come.

This is not a world I know firsthand. I grew up in a quiet suburb of a small-ish Southern town. However, Roanoke is the biggest town for a ways around, and people come from as far away as Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina to shop there and hang out there. It's kind of the Big City that way. You don't have to drive far to get into The Country, and we used to go on rides out there a lot when I was a kid. So I don't know that way of life, but I used to long for it, because it was all around us and it looked so beautiful. I used to feel like our little suburb was way more urban than I ever wanted to be. I wanted to be out in The Country, and to learn that way of life that no one in my family had a clue about, the way of life close to nature.

Obviously my choices didn't lead me there, but my longing for a simpler way of life, closer to nature, has never gone away. I've made a difficult (because expensive) decision to move upstairs in my building to a one bedroom apartment. Yesterday, I got the key, and went and sat in the empty apartment, trying to picture where things would go, trying to feel it as Home. I couldn't. I closed my eyes and pictured a place where I'd much rather spend $1,175/month to live... a house in The Country, with a little land around it, trees, birds, a place to put a nice garden, a big yard where a dog or two could run and play to their hearts' content.

and I thought "why the HELL am I STILL here"?

The answers come quickly enough... I've practiced running through them so many times. Community, job, music, culture, access to education, money. Community is definitely the big one... single, childless, bookish, vaguely artistic women are still an oddity in The Country. The longing doesn't go away though, the longing for Home, an idealized place where I can be surrounded by God's good green things and His birds and beasts, at peace as I really am and be surrounded by those whom I love and who love me.

Guess I'm just longing for Heaven like everybody else.

3 comments:

Lisa said...

I know that longing too. (p.s. don't ever doubt it you are a writer!)

I've got southern Va. in my blood too and there is something about that small town farm life that sticks in me. I know I make it out to be more romantic than it is and that life is very hard there sometimes, but there is still something that calls.

I'm going to have to check out Berry. And let me know when you are moving. I'd be glad to help (and I bet I know some muscle who would help too.) ;)

db said...

"I get Berry's South. It's about the people, but the people are all about the land. He's besotted with green rolling hills and the smell of earth, of feeling connected to what is pure, made by God and not by man... that which is unarguably only tended by man as God's caretaker of His creation. He's also quite fond of those who are respectful in their caretaking, mindful that what they tend isn't theirs and that they will pass it on in times to come."

seconded. I just got back from New Orleans; we drove there and back, and there's a lot of variance in the landscape that is "The South". Unsurprisingly, the parts that resonated the most with me looked a lot like the Shenandoah Valley.

That respect for stewardship is a deep truth, as well. An idea bubbled to the surface on our ride. It's hard for some of us to find our place when there are relatively few professions that are actively endorsed by the church. Some professions are respected; some are treated with awe; some are misunderstood, and a lot are overlooked.

Tom said...

great post amy! can't wait to see the new digs. berry is in my pile of "post-seminary" reads. Ahh...the days when reading will be my own and not my professors domain.