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.

what are you reading?

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

1) Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will OR How to Make a Decision without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc. by Kevin DeYoung

I finished this about a 2 months ago and thought it was great.  What a breath of fresh air to the frivolous, often ridiculous ways we try to figure out our future before it happens.

2) Middlemarch by George Eliot

I’ve always loved Eliot’s Adam Bede and never took the time to read Middlemarch.  I’m glad I did.  She has an insight into the workings of the mind and heart of her characters that is enlightening and convicting to the reader who identifies with them.  Plus, it was the first book I read on my iPhone via Kindle and just finished.  Very handy.

3) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I just started this and am only a few chapters in, also being read on my iphone.  So far, it has all the charming markings of an Austen novel.  It was her first book, published after many of her other works.

4) Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

Sowell is one of my favorite minds on politics and culture.  I’ve just started this book and it examines the influence of intellectuals on society and the often disastrous effects thereof.  Thanks, Tom, for surprising me with it!

5) Home Comforts : The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson

I pulled this one off my bookshelf a month ago and got sucked into re-reading quite a bit.  I use it as reference book and disagree largely with her take on why it’s important to keep house, but nonetheless, you will not find a more thorough book covering every aspect of home management.

6) A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and the Sovereignty of God by John Piper

I loved this look at Ruth, Naomi and Boaz.  The book of Ruth has long been a favorite for me and Pastor John offers his usual poignant understanding of the big picture in relation to this story.  Reading it made me love God’s designs more.

7) The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr

I was assigned to read this in college and did a half-read, half-skim.  I was prompted to remember it when Tim Challies reviewed it a while back.  I’m about a quarter in so far and find it riveting and very gritty.  I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

8) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This book was a gift and I completed it a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed.  It is a book of fictional letters written just after WWII.  The style is enchanting and the content is sober without being sober.

What are you reading?

*Note: The Bible is the most important reading we can do each day.  I hope that’s understood.  I use our church’s Bible reading plan, in case you were curious.  The reading listed here is my “escape” or nighttime reading.

guests aren't strangers… for long

It occurs to me that many more people read this blog than comment on it.  In fact, most of the people who read it don’t comment. 

This is completely fine.  Some of you don’t wish to comment and I don’t want you to feel pressured to do so.  But, some of you may be hesitating for other reasons that I’d like to put to rest, such as:

1) You don’t feel you have anything earth-shattering or new to offer.  I disagree.  I think you do.  It may be small, it may seem insignificant, but it’s not, not to me.  A simple “yes, right on!” or “no way, lady,” will do.

2) We’ve never met.  You think commenting is only for people acquainted with me.  Nope, this is a public blog and I hope for people that I’ve never met to comment.  It energizes and encourages me.  If it helps, think of yourself as a guest here. You already know something about me.  I’d enjoy knowing something about you. 

3) We are loosely affiliated or you know of me or this blog through someone else and think it would be weird to comment.  Nope, you can just tell me our connection.  I’m happy to hear from you.

4) You disagree with what I’m saying and everyone else who’s commenting seems to agree.  Don’t worry, I am excited to hear differing view-points to sharpen me and make me think.  I only ask that we refrain from name-calling and respect the Bible as the final authority.  I think vigorous debate can be highly beneficial.

5) You’re worried that someone will recognize your name or are uncertain about the safety of cyberspace.  Um, I don’t have an answer for that one… it seems fine to me?  Sorry, that’s probably not very reassuring.  

If you’re here, you probably enjoy the blogosphere.  So do I.  It’s OK to join in the conversation (or not).  It takes courage to write a comment.  I don’t take commenters for granted.  It means a lot that someone would take the time to respond to something I’ve written.  Often enough, the comments are more insightful than the original post!

So, dear courageous reader, known and unknown, come on out and say hi!  You are certainly a guest and maybe a stranger, but you can put an end to the stranger thing now.  

Men, women, moms, singles, marrieds, and crazies (you know who you are) all welcome.

have you heard the good news?

If you have spent any time at this blog, I hope you’ve noticed something.  I hope you’ve noticed an inescapable theme woven through and shaping all my thinking and writing.  The theme is the Gospel.

I have opinions about many things, and I can say with certainty that many of them are flawed.  Sometimes our opinions are a reflection of ourselves, they’re subjective and based on subjective life circumstances.  But there are times when our “opinions” are really beliefs, beliefs based on a reality.  

I think that what I believe about God and His Son, Jesus, and the Bible is one of the latter things.  It is a belief based on a fact, a reality, a truth.  

If I said I believe Lincoln was the President during the Civil War and gave the Gettysburg address and was assassinated while watching the opera, that belief would be true.  It is based on actual events that happened.  

I believe the Bible to have the same sort of historical factual information, and much much more.

Here are the nuts and bolts of what I believe:

God made the earth and Adam and Eve.  They lived in harmony with God, until they sinned.  After they sinned they were separated from God and they and the earth became cursed as a result of their evil.  

The sin problem plagued every human from then on.  It has been life’s biggest, most serious problem.  Their sin, and ours, is against a holy and perfect God who cannot tolerate it and must send sinners to eternal punishment.

For hundreds of years, God’s people, Israel, tried to make peace with God by sacrificing animals to atone for their sin.  God was gracious in forbearing with these less than perfect sacrifices.  

Prophets like Isaiah foretold the coming of a man, called the Messiah, who would save the people from their sins.  And that this Savior would save more than just Israel, but would be for all peoples.  He would be the perfect sacrifice needed to bring peace with God and overcome sin and death.  He would, in fact, be God incarnate.

This God-man, the Messiah, named Jesus, was born of a virgin Mary, he was begotten of God the Father, and He lived a perfect life.  He loved everyone perfectly and was good and just and all the things we might try to be, but fail.  

Eventually He was hanged on a cross.  This was the will of His Father.  It was part of a plan that the Father had to bring reconciliation between Himself and sinful people.  The same sinful people that crucified Christ, would now have the opportunity for peace with God through the very death they enacted.  Jesus was crushed for our iniquity.  

And after He was murdered on our behalf, He rose from the dead after three days, thereby defeating death forever.  

When He rose from the dead, He was seen by many witnesses and even ate a meal with His disciples.  Then God took Him up to heaven.  

This all happened over 2000 years ago.  You can read about it in the Bible.  The Bible is God’s Word.  This means that what is written in the Bible is not simply an historical account (although it is that too), but God’s very words to us, that He inspired mere humans to write.  Everything in it is True and for the benefit of sinful people to come to God and know God and glorify God.  

For me, this is good news.  

This is life-changing news.  It is Life for my dead heart. It is Light for my dark mind.  It is Bread for my hungry soul.  It is the Way, when all ways were shut.  It is the Good Shepherd, when all had gone astray.  It is the Truth, when lies were closing in.  

Does this sound like good news to you?  

Do you sense God’s Holy Spirit beckoning you to taste and see that the Lord is good?  Do you long to cast your burden of sin onto Jesus, gaining for yourself freedom from sin and joy in loving God in this life and forever in heaven?  Do you want to give thanks to God for this gift?  Do you desire to see His name made great, because you now see that He is Great?

I hope you do.  I hope you want to run and find the nearest Bible to learn more about this thing called Christianity.  I hope you decide to find a church that believes the Bible and is depending on Christ for their salvation through faith alone (trusting and believing God), by grace alone (not depending on good works). 

If you want to hear the good news again, in someone else’s words.  Here it is:

Please contact me or a Christian in your life, if you have turned from your sin and are now resting in Christ’s Righteousness.

pro-life reading for the youngest among us

I just read Dr. Suess’s Horton Hears a Who! for the first time last week.  The kids got it for Christmas and it’s one of the Dr. Suess books that I’ve never read.  I was really missing out!  

This now replaces Green Eggs and Ham as my favorite Dr. Suess book.

Most surprising of all, was the amazing pro-life message it offers.  Horton, a large elephant, discovers a voice coming from a speck of dust.  He comes to find out that it’s not just a voice, but a whole town called Whoville that lives on the speck.

So Horton, lovingly and protectively, guards the speck, now lodged on a clover.  Carrying the clover everywhere he goes, his motto repeats, “Because, after all, a person’s  a person, no matter how small.”  

He faces persecution from a kangaroo and a pack of monkeys, who are set on boiling the clover in beezle-nut oil, in order to get Horton to give up his obsession of protecting the clover.  They don’t believe that there are any people on the speck.  They think Horton is crazy and don’t care about the supposed Who’s of Whoville.  

Finally, after Horton as been mauled and beaten, the Who’s of Whoville shout as loud as they can, all together, with even the smallest Who doing their best, and the monkeys and kangaroo hear the Who’s at last.  

The town is saved and the elephant smiles saying, “They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.  And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All.”  

The book ends with the conversion of the kangaroo.  He says, “From sun in the summer.  From rain when it’s fall-ish, I’m going to protect them.  No matter how small-ish.”

Some make subjective the issue of aborting babies, saying, “Is this really life?”  But we know that babies in the womb are alive; they certainly aren’t dead.  Or, “Is it viable?”  The time of viability keeps getting younger and younger. Or, “Is it a human?”  Well, it definitely isn’t a monkey or an elephant.  

The question is, will our society protect the smallest among us?  Those who, like the Who’s of Whoville, have no way to protect themselves from the bigger people around them.  

I want to be more like Horton.  Even beaten and mauled, he protected those who could not protect themselves.  He made converts out of people that had boiling beezle-nut oil.  

Horton had guts and love.  We could all use a little more of those.

eats, shoots and leaves

When was the last time you laughed out loud when reading a nonfiction book?

How about a nonfiction book about punctuation?  Lynne Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is just that.  A laugh-out-loud book about punctuation.  And, yes, there’s a panda on the cover.  Here’s the joke on which the title is based:

A panda walks into a cafe.  He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit.  The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door.  “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda.  Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves.”

“So punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death,” writes the British Truss.  This, from a woman who was hoping to start a militant wing to the Apostrophe Protection Society (yes, such a society exists).

For any of you who were bothered when the movie Two Weeks Notice was released (not because of any objectionable content) this book is for you.  And if, right now, you’re wondering what the objection to it might be, then this also might be a good book for you (as it is quite educational regarding use of the possessive apostrophe).

Its appeal is surprisingly universal for a subject such as punctuation.  I attribute this to Ms. Truss’s unmatched wit and, what she calls, her “inner stickler.”  Of which I think we all take part to some degree and secretly relish.

I dedicate this post to my friend Amy, who takes the time to properly spell and punctuate her text messages.  Amy, you’re my hero.