Where have I been, and why haven’t I read any novels by Wendell Berry before? Why hasn’t this man, Wendell Berry, won a Pulitzer Prize or something? He writes about real people, the kind of people I knew growing up in West Texas, even though his people are in a fictional place called Port William, Kentucky. His people say things and talk about things that I heard growing up, like:
the jumping-off place
sick as a dog
toe the mark
And Mr. Jayber Crow is one of the most thoughtful characters I’ve read about in any book. He’s a homespun philosopher, and better yet, a loving man.
And this is what is was like—the words were just right there in my mind, and I knew they were true: ‘the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God move upon the face of the waters.’ I’m not even sure that I can tell you what was happening to me then, or that I know even now. At the time I surely wasn’t trying to tell myself. But after all my years of reading in that book and hearing it read and believing and disbelieving it, I seemed to have wandered my way back to the beginning—not just of the book, but of the world—and all the rest was yet to come. I felt knowledge crawl over my skin.”
That last sentence, can’t you just feel it, too? I really had an experience somewhat like Jayber’s myself when I was about thirteen years old. I wondered if all I had been taught and all the Bible knowledge I had memorized was really true. I thought and prayed for an entire Sunday afternoon, by myself in the churchyard, and at a point I just knew. No audible voice, but I knew that God was there, that He was the Christ, that the Holy Spirit spoke to me.
“And I knew that the Spirit that had gone forth to shape the world and make it live was still alive in it. I just had no doubt. I could see that I lived in the created world, and it was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it, sometimes lying at rest, sometimes standing up and shaking itself, like a muddy horse, and letting the pieces fly. I had almost no sooner broke my leash than I had hit the wall.”
I have come to the age now where I can see how short a time we have to be here. And when I think about it, it can seem strange beyond telling that this particular bunch of us should be here on this little patch of ground in this little patch of time, and I can think of other times and places I might have lived, other kinds of man I might have been. But there is something else. There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, with one another and with the place and all the living things.
Jayber Crow is a book about community and about the secret life of a Kentucky bachelor and about love that is love even when it’s unconsummated. Mr. Berry has an axe to grind in his antipathy for modern farming and agri-business, but he also has a story to tell about the goodness of country life back in the 1930’s and 40’s. And there’s another, deeper theme to this book, about the surprising twists and turns of a life lived for an audience of One, lived before God, even in the times when God seems to be far away.
“Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?”
An eternal story that is happening partly in time. What a great description of the sense that we have that we are somehow trapped in time but not meant to be there, mortal but meant to be immortal.
I also read Hannah Coulter a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll just say that I’m hooked. I think you might be, too, if you try either of the two books I’ve just finished. Port William, Kentucky is a place I want to visit again and yet again; I might even like to settle down there, even if I am a city girl at heart. Mr. Berry makes country life sound awfully enticing.