There is a peculiar light to Monday mornings–uneasy, as if hurry thrums in the very color of the day. The workday rush was mobbing my conscience, but I gated it out because I was reading a book I truly could not put down. It was noon before I finished, and by that time all my bustle had been scattered by the slow, sweet rise of joy that ached in my story. I don’t think I’ve ever been so immediately affected by a book as I was by Wendell Berry’s short novel, Remembering.
I have taken Wendell Berry for my mentor. His books challenge me, especially his fiction, because they make me face what is real, hungry, and true in my own heart. This is not escapist literature–there is no whisking away involved in reading Hannah Coulter, or A Place on Earth. You don’t put down his novels like you do some modern books and wish your life weren’t so mundane. In Berry’s characters, you meet yourself. The loves, the quiet losses, the unspoken griefs, the desires for transcendence and hope that plague every one of us every day get articulated in the thoughts and lives of his characters. Because of this, Mr. Berry also manages to put his finger on the pulse of what we have lost in modern culture. He writes about the loss of community, the breakup of families, the deadening ways of consumerism, the way wonder is poisoned by a materialistic view of life, and he does it with quiet, logical eloquence, demanding that we value the old ways again. He speaks what we all feel, but have no idea how to say.
I must admit though, that I have often wanted to write him a letter of protest. How, I would say, do you return to community if you never had one? I yearn for a history, for a people that know me. But how do you learn rootedness without roots? Berry himself grew up in Kentucky, the son of farmers. He left to study, and could have stayed away, breaking the “membership” (one of his terms) of the life to which he was born. But he came back. He re-entered the fellowship of place and family that were his history and gift. Lucky him. What if you don’t have that to come back to? Could he possibly understand the sense of displacement felt by so many in my generation? I have the priceless grounding of a strong, loving family, but I’ve moved at least 15 times in my 25 years. I yearn to be settled, and ultimately, known. Can a nomad soul like mine ever find community? There is no “place on earth” waiting, hoping for my return.
That’s why I loved Remembering.
For the first time, I knew that Berry had felt my own sense of being lost in a huge grey world where nothing is personal, and no one will hold you. Remembering is a journey in and through the thoughts of middle-aged farmer Andy Catlett. I knew Andy from previous books as every story Mr. Berry writes is set in the fictional town of Port William. Andy had been a boy when I knew him in Hannah Coulter, but now he was a man who had made the hard decision to return to the farming and family he had left when he was young. The story opens in a dark San Francisco hotel room, where Andy is questioning not only his decision, but everything he loves. Injured, alienated from his wife, far from home, rejected by his peers, feeling that he is a relic from an old time never to be reclaimed, he walks out into the pre-dawn of the San Francisco streets.
The first chapters are surreal; as a reader I felt disoriented. Only at the end of the book did I realize that I was meant not just to read, but experience, the terror of being unmoored from the people who love you and the place that knows you. Everything becomes strange. Andy wanders the streets, wondering if he can return to the life he thought he had chosen in Kentucky. Homeless men and suspicious woman grip his eyes; he sees the river-like flow of nameless faces stream through the city, and wonders how anyone can ever be known, can ever get home again. The worst comes gradually to him. He has failed. Does he even want to be found? But then there is this moment as dawn creeps up the edge of the ocean. He sits on a bench, watching. And he begins to remember. Snippets from tales told in his childhood, about the courtship of his great grandparents, or the first farm of his father. The stories of the lives of the men and women whose choices and loves had made possible the shape of his life. They rise up around him and:
“He is held, though he does not hold. He is caught up again in the old pattern of entrances: of minds into minds, minds into place, places into minds. The pattern limits and complicates him, singling him out in his own flesh. Out of the multitude of possible lives that have surrounded and beckoned to him like a crowd around a star, he returns now to himself… He has met again his one life and one death, and he takes them back. It is as though, leaving, he has met himself already returning…meeting…a few dead and living whose love has claimed him forever. He will be partial and he will die; he will live out the truth of that. Though he does not hold, he is held. He is grieving, and he is full of joy.”
I won’t tell you anymore, but for me, every word from there out was the slow swell of a music only known in loving, and choosing to love again in the face of loss and grief. It is a music half broken, but singing itself whole. In hearing it, I knew that Mr. Berry had known the ache of being lost. I knew he had fought, as I am fighting, to believe that constancy in friendship and fidelity in love is possible. I knew he had heard, as I have, the derision of a fast-paced, impersonal world, and still chose to believe that the sort of life that grows up slow and rich from the ground of faith, hope, and love was so precious it could demand the whole of his life. I even think he’s wondered if he had it in him to stay that course.
When I got up from my chair on that Monday, I felt held. Mr. Berry, I realized, is generous with his history, offering his own memories to cradle the hopes of nomads like me. He affirmed that my hope for a place on earth is already creating one. It is a struggle and a journey, but my very desire to love creates the possibility of community. Mr. Berry and Andy Catlett were blessed to have places to come back to, but someone had to begin it. In my case, I’m the beginner. My actions of hope as I search for my place are creating the memories that will one day hold my children. I will find my place on earth. But the story I am making in the process will be part of the “remembering” that grips those coming after me. This journey is a fight, but every step of it is also an act of creation.
With Andy, I was suddenly full of joy.