intensely trivial

The truth about this country girl

I read for two main reasons: 1) to understand the world outside of me, both near and far; and 2) to understand myself. Some of the things I read are so far beyond my own experience that I stagger through them and feel I’ve only grasped a fragment of their overall intent. It’s like culture shock: Try as you might, you’re not one of them. You might want to be one of them, but it’s just not going to happen until you’ve been there a while and understand things deep in your being. I want adventure and newness. That’s why I read books about India and the Congo, and books about drug addiction and poverty and prophecy. I don’t have personal experience with those things (well, maybe poverty — but not for a long time), but I would like to understand them.
And then there are the books that seem to originate from inside me. Whether the story is bound by a common thread that ties all of us humans together, or it just happens to be like my own personal experience, it explains me a little better. It puts words to the embryonic, nebulous gropings in my soul. Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, is such a story for me. The title character of this novel is an elderly widow at the time she narrates the story. It’s the story of her life as part of a small community in tobacco-farming Kentucky, how she loses her first husband in World War II, and then spends the rest of her life with her second husband and their children, also from that same town. It’s about how the lives of these people interweave, bear the others up, and split off. It’s the story of the way the world changes and the grief over who and what are lost. It’s not a melancholy story, really, but it calls out some truths that I have to admit, and some of those truths are tinged with sorrow.

For example, here’s a quote from the end of the book, where Hannah talks about Port William, the name of their little community:
The old neighborliness has about gone from it now. The old harvest crews and their talk and laughter at kitchen tables loaded with food have been replaced by machines, and by migrant laborers who eat at the store. The old thrift that once kept us alive has been replaced by extravagance and waste. People are living as if they think they are in a movie. They are all looking in one direction, toward “a better place,” and what they see is no thicker than a screen. The houses in Port William and even on some of the farms are more and more being used as temporary lodgings by people who temporarily, as they think, can do no better. Port William is becoming a sort of whatnot shelf where, until they can find “a better place,” people live and move and have their being. . . .
Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is. As it was it is almost always present to me, with the dead moving about in it as they were. . . . By the ones who have moved away, as many have done, as my children have done, the dead may be easily forgotten. But to those who remain, the place is always forever a reminder. And so the absent come into presence.

I am a girl with country roots. My dad is a farmer, and his dad before him was a farmer, and his dad was a farmer, too. The roots of our family tree reach deep into the soil that now produces more grain than ever before. I come from a small town (though not as small as some of your towns, say Williamsburg and Bern), and a change-resistant church family. I spent my summer days scuffing my feet along the dusty road leading to the chicken house, where I gathered eggs into an ice-cream bucket, all the while imagining myself doing something great — something outside the world that I knew — that would make me famous or significant. My path led me out of Sabetha, and off the farm, onto a highway that led to college. And as that happened, I became a different person.

Like Hannah Coulter’s children, I can’t really be a part of that community anymore. I’m not one of them anymore. It’s not right or wrong; it’s just how it happened. I think it might be a generational thing in some ways. I can’t even count the people I know who have left our town for good. Some of them come back. The land calls them, and they throw off their complicated, modern burdens for a more rural life. Myra raises sheep now and keeps track of dogs and cats and kids and garden. Jeanne never left. She thrives in her life on the farm, while Loren sells lumber to everyone in Sabetha. It’s beautiful. I am invigorated by being around it when I’m home. We come home to help butcher hogs with my dad, and we greedily take dozens of farm eggs back with us to Manhattan when it’s time.

But we never stay too long. We don’t really belong there. I’m sad about that, but I don’t think there is any way to avoid it, either. Frightened as I was of the “big city” when I first came here to college, I feel like it’s part of me now. My roots are still back in the acres around Sabetha. I don’t want to forget that, nor do I want to forget the dead who people my past. Hannah Coulter helped me see this truth through a clearer lens. I wish the view were ideal and unmarred by flaws. I wish there were no tension in it. But maybe it would be better just to accept the way things are and move on, living and loving as well as I can in this reality.


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  1. * dobermama says:

    Requiem for a small town.

    Posted 9 years, 5 months ago
  2. * precisionink says:

    Ooh, I loved this post. Maybe because I am just that much older than you, other things come to mind that are also “just not that way anymore.” I have tried writing about these things lots of times (the extended family meals on Butchering Day, including your mom’s splendid kuchen, a word she pronounced in such a foreign way as she presented it for dessert that I would imitate it under my breath (my Barbies always served each other cooorghen); the tediousness of sitting while my mom rolled my hair in foam curlers after a Saturday night bath, for a fussy Sunday hairdo; playing with cousins on Uncle Joe’s lawn, while the sounds of hymns sung by our elders drifted out into the twilight). It’s easy to feel nostalgic about a lot of this, and I fight annoyance when I go back and see McDonald’s wrappers on the floor of my neice’s car. I notice that everybody’s bigger: all those years of beef- and egg-rich diets caused much less change than a decade of fast food, even if the closest location is Hiawatha. I’m really pissed about that highway rammed through the heart of the fields, and Wendell Barry has helped me, too, to sort out conflicting feelings of loss and romanticism. I could go on. A
    nyway, I liked this one a lot. Thanks.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  3. * precisionink says:

    PS, Sorry I’m so curmudgeonly.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago

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