I just finished reading Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. It's a first person narrative (fictional) of an old woman telling the story of her life from before WWII to sometime around 2002, and it left me with a sense that here was a key to a deep kind of happiness and sense of belonging that few of us seem to find these days.
What struck me most about this book was its depiction of a different way to live, a way that is perhaps older and more natural for humans than the frantic activity and amassing of stuff that passes for life these days.
Through his fictional Hannah, Berry talks of the "membership" of her life - of belonging to a place and to a community of people. He talks of the bond that develops between the land and a person or a family living on that land for most of their life (and getting their livelihood from that land) - how each mirrors the other.
p. 106: "You can see that it is hard to mark the difference betwen our life and our place, our place and ourselves.
As the years passed and our life changed, the place changed. It emerged, you might say, from what it had been into what we needed and wanted it to be, never perfect of course, but always a little better. It came under the influence of what we foresaw in it, and of our ways of using it and going about in it."
That quote spoke to me. I've sometimes wondered what the places we've lived in - or more precisely, what the land that we've lived on - would be like if someone else had lived there instead of us.
But back to the book.... In talking about the "world of membership," Berry contrasts it to the "world of employment" or the "world of organization." In the latter, he says you are disconnected and free, but you are also disposable and unmemorable, interchangeable with many others. "But the membership...keeps the memories even of horses and mules and milk cows and dogs." (p. 134)
There are nuggets of advice about living life scattered throughout the book too. How Hannah was almost most in love and aware of her husband when she was angry with him...and of how often she observed men picking fights with their wives simply because they were feeling neglected. How "the chance you had is the life you've got" and you shouldn't complain about the chance you got because it cheapens the good things and good people that you've shared your life with. How always searching for some mythical "better place" often leads to an unravelling of family and continuity and thus to a worse, more disconnected place.
This was a book to read slowly and to savor the language and the thoughts. It's not a gripping story; it's more like a window into someone's soul as she thinks back over her life. At times it even felt like a window into the soul of an old-fashioned community that is slowly dying as the people who should be keeping it alive move away to find a mythical "better place." It was listening to an elder think back over her life and evaluate its richness and its rough spots, and finally the love that bound it together and made it worth living.
Idealizing a mythical place and way of being is seductive and dangerous, and I can see where this fictional account could itself fall very easily into that category. Yet it can also be instructive to try to imagine a different way of being in the world that speaks to some of our deepest longings and needs as human beings, longings and needs that aren't being met by our current societal patterns. For me, this book does just that.
"Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater." It's an old maxim, but it speaks a deep truth. Maybe, just maybe, this book is saying that we've done exactly that. Now we would be wise to figure out how to rescue the baby and start taking careful care of it again.