Hannah Coulter and Remembering Dignity

“My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, an actual marriage, with trouble in it. I am not complaining. Troubles came as they were bound to do, as the promise we made had warned us that they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude.”

-Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

I read Hannah Coulter some weeks ago. To say I liked it would be to say something too small. To say I loved it is too romantic. I suppose saying how I feel towards it or to say I recommend it, kind of cheapens it.  It should be read, yes. But I must get into it, because that’s the only way with books like these: to taste.

Truth is, I owe this book a debt. Some books we read and go on. Others require something of us. It’d be wrong of me to walk away from this book with a few discussions under my belt and a sort of ache inside that wears off after a while. I’ve got to put some things down. This is my remembering, my debt.

I’d read Wendell Berry in school, but not this book. It is far and away more profound and honest than anything of his I’d read in college, or maybe I’m just older. Speaking as Hannah, he takes us from her childhood to dying day: through the death of her mother as a 12 yr old, to her marriage and early loss of her husband in WWII, to her second marriage and drawn out life of farming in Port William, KY.

One word kept me awake at night as I read this book and pondered it in the days following: dignity.

Dignity in grief:

“The year I was twelve my mother died. She took the flu and the pneumonia, and then, almost before we could think that she might die, she was dead… And so I learned about grief, and about the absence and emptiness that for a long time make grief unforgettable. We went on, the three of us reamaining, as we had to do… I was big enough then to do a woman’s part, and I did it. But we had a year when even to look at one another would make us grieve.” (p. 7)

“Happiness had a way of coming to you and making you sad. You wold think, “There seems to have been a time when I deserved such a happiness and needed it, like a day’s pay, and now I have no use for it at all.” How can you be happy, how can you live, when all the things that make you happy grieve you nearly to death.” (p. 49)

“A sort of heartbreaking kindness grew then between me and Mr. and Mrs. Feltner. It grew among us all. It was a kindness of doing whatever we could think of that might help or comfort one another. But it was a kindness too of forbearance, of not speaking, of not reminding. And that care of not reminding reminded us, every day, always, of what we felt we could not mention without being overpowered and destroyed. That kindness kept us alive, I think, but it was a hardship too.” (p. 50)

“Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn’t get mad about Virgil’s death. Who was there to be mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God.” (p. 56)

“The living must protect the dead. Their lives made the meaning of their deaths, and that is the meaning their deaths ought to have… I felt my grief for him made his death his own. My grief was the last meaning of his life in this world. And so I kept my grief. For a long time I couldn’t give it up…  There have been times, then and later too, when I thought I could cry forever. But I haven’t done it. The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines in darkness and never goes out calls them into life.” (p. 57)

“That was as near to licked as I ever saw him. Even his death didn’t come as near to beating him as that did. Afterwards for a long time he was just awfully quiet. He wasn’t angry… Nathan had more on his mind than he could find words for. So did I. I would talk to him, and he would answer pleasantly enough, but we didn’t speak of what was bothering us most. Maybe we didn’t need to. It couldn’t have been “talked out.” It had to be worn out.” (p. 130)

“My tears were falling into the bowl of beaten eggs and then my nose dripped into it. I flung the whole frothy mess into the sink.I said, “Well, what are you planning to do? Just die? Or what?” I couldn’t turn around. I heard him fold the paper. After a minute he said, “Dear Hannah, I’m going to live right on. Dying is none of my business. Dying will have to take care of itself.” He came to me then, an old man weakened and ill, with my Nathan looking out of his eyes. He held me a long time as if under a passing storm, and then the quiet came. I fixed some supper, and we ate.” (p. 161)

What is dignity? It’s all over the pages, but what is it? Here’s my attempt:

Dignity is responding with the gravity that is due, no more no less. Dignity is anti-melodrama. It’s more quiet than loud, it’s more thoughtful than self-expressive. It isn’t taking oneself too seriously. It isn’t somberness. It laughs. It doesn’t complain and it is completely opposed to vanity.

Dignity isn’t something you do, it’s something you have. Dignity is easily seen in hard, purposeful work. Not make-work. Not working out. Real work with enjoyment awakens dignity.

“In the kitchen she was in charge. Other people who worked in that kitchen worked for her.. from the kitchen she still oversaw the garden, the cellar, the smokehouse, the henhouse, the barn lots and the barns, and all the comings and goings between barns and fields. She was a good cook, but she also did the main work that kept us eating. She made the garden, and all we didn’t eat fresh she preserved and stored for the winter… She was always busy. She never backed off from anything because it was hard.

When she married, she said, her waist was so small that my grandfather could almost encircle it with his two hands. Now, after all her years of bearing and mothering and hard work, she had grown thick and slow, and she remembered her lost suppleness and beauty with affection but without grief. She didn’t grieve over herself.” (p. 9, 10)

“The men went back to the living room, the boys went to play outdoors, and Bess took the little girls to the quietest bedroom for their naps, while the rest of us women began to clear the table and wash the dishes and set things back to rights. For me, this was maybe the best part of all. We had the quiet then of women working together, making order again after the commotion and hurry of the meal. I have always loved the easy conversation of such times.” (p. 39)

“The Feltners were hospitable in the old way. There was always company, a lot of coming and going, even when we weren’t feeding hands. There was plenty of work to be done, lots of housekeeping, lots of cooking and canning and preserving, butter-making, soap-making, washing and ironing, getting ready for company, cleaning up afterwards, looking after the old and the sick, seeing that the grandchildren, when they came visiting, would live to go home again.”

“It was during that time of beginning that I learned really to know Jarrat Coulter, my new father-in-law. Looking at him, you knew he was a man who had not spared himself. He had the lean look, not of a young man… but of an old timber after the sapwood has sloughed away… People said he had never finished grieving for his young wife. After she died, he had closed up, like a morning glory in the afternoon. He had learned to live for work, not out of need or greed, and not as a burden, but as a comfort, the mere interest and pleasure of seeing each task accomplished as each year brought it around again.

Sometimes when he knew of something that I needed to have done, he would come and do it. If there was only one way it could be done, he would just go ahead. If there was more than one way, he would ask me how I wanted it, and he would do it exactly as I asked. Gradually I realized that he was being just awfully kind to me, that he cared about me, that he understood the loss that I had come from to this place, that he wanted me to be glad I was married to his son. And I began the wish, that stayed with me for the rest of his life, to hug him for the sweetness I had learned was in him.” (p. 78, 79)

Dignity is also content. It isn’t hankering for something better.

“The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true. But it was true. After they all were gone, I was mourning over them to Nathan. I said, “I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had.” Nathan said, “Don’t complain about the chance you had,” in the same way exactly that he used to tell the boys, “Don’t cuss the weather.” (p. 112)

“Suppose your stories, instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, say that everything should have been different. Suppose you encourage or even just allow your children to believe that their parents ought to have been different people, with a better chance, born in a better place… Doesn’t that finally unmake everything that has been made? Isn’t that the loose thread that unravels the whole garment?” (p. 113, 114)

Dignity honors the past and where we’ve come from. It’s truthful and doesn’t exaggerate and won’t dwell on what can’t be changed.

And finally I have to connect the dots to The Book. It seems clear enough, but I’d rather be explicit. What does God’s Word say about dignity? I know from Job 40, in the sarcasm of Yahweh, that He Himself is adorned with dignity. So, sarcasm is not ruled out by dignity.

The example of the excellent wife in Proverbs 31 shows us a hard-working woman clothed with strength and dignity and laughing at the days to come. And dignity is required for an elder of the church in the management of his household and the raising of his children (1 Tim 3:4, Titus 2:7). I, for one, would be thrilled if Hannah Coulter were required reading for church elders.

Our culture discourages dignity in every possible way. Ours is a culture of emotional vomit, every thought articulated and as long as someone is “authentic” they have a right to bear all to the whole world. Dignity and it’s close friend, discretion, are such rare virtues that we know them only by seeing them, and even then, may not be able to properly name them.

That’s why I owe such a debt to Hannah Coulter. She reminded me, she showed me, dignity at the right time. That is why you should read it or re-read it. Read it in light of Jesus, who endured the cross, scorning its shame and is seated at the right hand of God. Read the Gospels–again–and behold the dignity of our Lord as He was disrespected, fawned over, chased after, adored, hated, questioned and mocked, and finally, watch Him die on the cross. His dignity in the face of all things knocks the wind out of me. And we have the mind of Christ.

My debt to Hannah isn’t paid, nor will it be, but it has begun. It is a debt of love that will be paid to my husband and my children and all those in The Membership. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” (Romans 13:8)

Here’s Russell Moore’s review of Hannah Coulter and some words about good fiction.