Yesterday, I turned to Hannah Coulter. The title itself is fairly misleading. It has to do with a fictional girl turned woman in the made up small town of Port William, Kentucy in those years before and after World War II. However, as Mr. Berry is like to say, the story is of all of one piece with a whole host of stories. Hannah Coulter's story is inevitably tied to the Feltner family, the Catlett family and a dozen other families that make up the small town. He cannot tell hers without touching a strand of an intricate and beautiful web that is moved in whole.
Those of you who have read Wendell Berry know his dominant theme in all of his stories is community: both the strength of the fabric prevalent throughout America in small towns once upon a time and now as threadbare as quilts from a lost generation. You know the strength of his novels are in his ability to make this world come alive, and his weakness as an author is when he idealizes this whole and tightly knit world too strongly, making it seem too much an Eden born again. Surely, I can't help but argue, things were never that perfect, that whole, that seemingly good. And if there was a time when communal life existed in such a way, it only increases my melancholy.
My dad tells me about his childhood in little Amboy, Indiana. I get the sense from his memories there truly was a wholeness there. Surely, if you were to visit Amboy today, you would see it as a dead town, an isolated desert, one of hundreds lying off some road in an Indiana county. But it allowed my dad to have an identity through relationship, through family. It allowed him to be the boy in the "Kendall & Son" service station. It allowed him to play basketball with the neighbor boys under the park lights. It held him within a fabric, and I know his heart is still drawn to those memories.
I understand, then, why Wendell Berry writes his Port William stories - resurrecting the older ways when home and economy were not enemies at war but faithful and necessary partners.
We are so far, though, from that land of Port William imagined by Wendell Berry, about as far now as my dad is from the Amboy, Indiana of his youth.
Yesterday, I made my way back up to my own hometown that I eventually left. As I did, I stopped at a Dick's Sporting Goods store just south of the place I grew up, one of the large commercial centers built solely to house the products of a goods & services economy. There was, of course, nothing communal or local or domestic about the place, and could just as easily have been found near our old apartment in Pasadena, California as it was near Zionsville. Not ten miles from where I grew up, I entered a vacuous building filled with more goods and items any small town would ever need in its lifetime, and there I stood roaming through it feeling both vacant and alone. When I finally found what I was looking for - gloves for my kids - and found my way back again to the check-out registers, I found fifteen or so perfect strangers, all of us alike in our motivations as consumers and yet completely unknown from one another. I made eye contact accidentally with a woman, and then turned my gaze quickly downward, intuiting that I had broken some unspoken rule of this new world. It is a world of technology, mechanization and accessibility, and it seems the strangest at those points when we are forced into some type of relational act: the awkward waiting in line behind or beside someone, the point when the exchange has to take place between the employee and the customer. It is no secret that plans are already being put into place to eliminate this last bit of humanity in the whole exchange. We can already get pretty much anything we need or want without any real sort of community. For some things we don't need any at all, and the only question is whether this is at all healthy or sustainable environmentally, let alone what God has decreed.
But, this is my problem: I have no clue how to return to that world Mr. Berry paints for us. It seems a reality too much squandered and abused. It seems a way of life that has vanished, a native language dead without any ancestors. I don't even know if it ever was a reality, and that increases my melancholy.
How do you build community when you are - after all - a child of this autonomous world? How do you begin to forge a life of "membership" unto one another and unto the whole of a place? What does that look like? And will my wife and I truly be partners in our home and life together unless we truly share some common work?
Finally, I am left to wonder what is worse. To be held, even choked perhaps, by the closeness of the small town America of yesteryear, a place plagued by buried secrets and systems of inequality like the Jim Crow South of Wendell Berry novels? Or, is it better to live and be so able to freely move in this new modern, global world that we must face these new enemies that are so clearly the ills of independence: isolation, anxiety, fear?
Mr. Berry, of course, can't answer that question for us. He suggests many times that Port William and little Amboy, Indiana, never will be the same. And that if they do appear again, it will be when God's Kingdom itself comes in full, or - as he says - Port William descends out of the heavens as the new creation, and we are waiting for it like a bride awaits the bridegroom. That, I suppose, is why I lean in that direction myself with faith and with hope.