Stepping onto the Common Ground — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (5)

I’ve spent the past week reconnecting with my sister.
She lives in Alaska. I live in Maine.
She has one grown daughter, while I’ve spent the past 23 years living in a boys’ dormitory.
She has lovely nails and her wardrobe demonstrates an awareness of the comings and goings of  style. My hands and my clothing reveal that I have a big garden and are consistent with a life that is lived close to the ground.

For this week, my sister and I have stepped onto the common ground of a shared childhood, a common faith, and the glorious dance of genetic material that rendered her a soprano and me an alto. Geography, being deeply rooted in opposite extremes of the continent, has presented its challenges to our relationship, but isn’t it true that even those who share a zip code can struggle to find common ground?

Be a Conscientious Objector

The combined effects of war and grief formed the common ground of 1940’s-era Port William. When the indignity of a 4-F classification prevented Jayber from “sharing the fate” of his community through active military service, he “felt disgraced by [his] failure to be able to do what [he] did not want to do.”

In a world slowly being populated by special snowflakes who make much of their preferences and feel entitled somehow to special handling (I am not without guilt here), Jayber’s stance on the war effort is remarkable. He did not want to participate in the war, but . . .

“I had a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”

This is the kind of conscientious objector I long to be. By contrast, I have an uncanny ability to read the commandments of God and to apply them with skill to others — and then to find a loop hole that excuses my own disobedience.

Fear and Grief

Jayber joins C.S.Lewis in the observation that fear and grief are curiously linked.

From Chapter 1 of A Grief Observed:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”

And this from Jayber:

“There were many new things to be known and talked about, but nobody spoke of fear. And when grief began to come in and replace fear, the grieved, out of consideration for the fearful, did not speak of grief.”

In tragedy, we are forced to come to terms with seeing “everything as eligible to be lost.” Or, as dear Mat Feltner put it after his son Virgil was reported missing in action, “Everything that will shake has got to be shook.” We feel this as well, when the people and things we thought of as “permanent” begin to disappear. Even tragedies that come to us from a distance (Las Vegas, Puerto Rico) usher in their own brand of fear and grief. Our right response for banishing fear is the “reverence and awe” the writer of Hebrews recommends as we thank God for the reality of His unshakable kingdom.

For Worse — and for Still Worse

Jayber can’t seem to shake the feeling of being despised by Cecelia Overhold, and Wendell Berry gave Jayber an entire chapter to explore the weight of failure that surrounds the Overhold marriage. Oddly, the bachelor barber serves as a handy target for all Cecelia’s disappointment in her husband Ray.

And isn’t it interesting that in all the varied Membership of Port William, there are only two individuals who are painted with an entirely negative brush: Cecelia Overhold and Troy Chatham? Jayber’s resentment of Troy does not do him much credit, but, without giving anything away, I will defend Jayber by saying that events which are yet to come in future chapters have colored Jayber-the-Narrator’s memories of Troy. Our minds are tricky that way, for our knowledge of a person over time can throw a long shadow over what we remember about them from the past.

So, in spite of Jayber’s ambivalence about The War (and all wars) and his determination to come back to Jesus’ instruction to “love our enemies” (142-143), he finds this harder to live out with individuals than with theoretical enemies — who don’t rub him the wrong way in real life.

And so I find myself stepping onto common ground with our friend Jayber. I want to be hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Love your enemies,” and then choose to have “a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”

Questions to Ponder

What do you think of Jayber’s thoughts on Miss Gladdie’s grief? He describes Miss Gladdie as “the keeper and protector of the grief by which she cherished what she had lost.” There seems to be wisdom in this, particularly for those who want to hurry their way through a loss, to “get to the other side of it” so that life can return to “normal again.” Maybe it’s just my practical nature, but I enjoy thinking about grief as a means of cherishing, a way of saying, “This loss is worth this much sadness.”

On page 152, Jayber’s thoughts on the church are all tangled up with his strong reaction to Roy and Cecelia’s marriage, but there’s something of value in what he says about mis-uses of the church: as a venue for snubbing the “unworthy,” as a place of discomfort and ill-fitting piety, and as a “lion tamer’s chair.” (153) How’s your relationship with the local church? Does it inspire you to more faithful obedience? Have you walked through hard seasons with the church gathered?

Did you notice Jayber’s story-telling style changes on page 134 when he begins to share his Mattie memories? He goes into a very structured voice: “I will call back now and lay in a row some passages of my early knowledge of Mattie Keith . . .”  Coming where it does, it landed on my ears as a non sequitur. What does all this have to do with the words that comprise one of my favorite Jayber quotes?

“I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.”

I think that in making this connection here, Jayber is tipping his hand about his understanding of his own calling, but remember, he’s writing from the perspective of the future as a 72 year old man.

When I remember that the cloud and the fire led Israel into the wilderness, it helps me to view my own wandering path with a little more grace. And the truth is that sometimes we see the beauty and necessity of our pilgrimage best from the rear view mirror.

I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, your response to the discussion questions, and stories from your own experience in the comment space below!

I’ll be here next Thursday (October 12) having read Chapters 15-17.

Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32


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41 thoughts on “Stepping onto the Common Ground — Jayber Crow Discussion Group (5)”

  1. Not much to say this week except that I enjoyed your thoughts as much as these chapters, Michele. Jayber’s observations about grief are so poignant! Like you, I’ve come to see grief as part of cherishing. Personally, I’d also rather face loss with good memory than not have the memory in the first place.

    And to this an AMEN: “I had a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself.”
    This is the kind of conscientious objector I long to be too!


    1. Maybe it’s because I’m reading these chapters during a season of life in which loss is becoming more a part of the routine, but Jayber’s words from the cemetery really got my attention on this read through.


    1. I couldn’t take the darkness up there, though. Actually, one of the biggest obstacles I failed to mention is the time difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my hand on the phone at 8 a.m. to call her about something only to recall that it’s only 4 a.m. in Alaska.


  2. Dear Michele,
    I am still waiting for Jayber’s understanding of his calling, but it does seem to be ever more evident that he has been led to share such a compassionate heart. The section on grieving captured my heart as well. But I was touched by Miss Gladdie’s perspective, and thought what a more precious way to keep those memories alive and in a proper perspective. You will notice that your prompting about Vietnam did find a place in my post today. So thank you for your nudging, my friend! Here’s how it all tied together in my thought processes:


    1. I’m so excited to read your post, Bettie. Thanks for sharing the link here. Miss Gladdie is another of the membership who is portrayed with such “flesh and blood” that she came through as a real soul.
      Thanks, Bettie, for your perseverance here with the Jayber Journey!


  3. I’m not sure I can add much to what has already been said this week. But the perspective on grief from so many angles was poignant.

    That “new grief , when it came, you could feel, filling the air. It took up all the room their was” There were never more truer words written.

    Grief with good memories is lovely, the best of grief if there is a best. Grief with sour memories is tragic and much more difficult to recover. I think most folks desire to get to the other side of grief as quickly as possible. We long for “normal,” whatever that is, after tragedy with war, I imagine the new normal didn’t find itself for a long while. Life goes on by things are changed, never to be the same again.

    For Miss Gladdies to have her memory of grief return so soon, certainly gives perspective as to how many must have felt when the 2nd war came. Her comment to Jayber when he shared that he was registered for the draft, “Well, everybody has to die sometime,” seemed cold; but she knew. She had experienced the grief and the fear first hand, and could not put aside the sorrow she still felt.

    Burley losing Tom…the wounds reached Jayber. This is where his nurturing nature is most evident in the grief of friends. Diverting Burley’s mind and giving a listening ear late at night to Mat. That entire exchange got to me. Mat needed to tell his story. It needed no response. His statement, “The mercy of the world is you don’t know what’s going to happen” rings very true. If we knew what was going to happen, I fear it would overwhelm us to the point of shock.

    I’m finding myself more intrigued at the Mattie angle to the story.


    1. Mat just steals my heart, and the way Berry described that dream was heart wrenching. And I had never given that much thought to the fact that survivors of WW I would have been traumatized by the beginning of WW II but that makes so much sense. That was a period of history that we cannot even fathom now.
      I disagree with your statement that you did not have much to offer this week. I appreciated each of your insights and am so glad you shared them. Pam Ecrement and Bettie G. have shared blog posts this week, and I’ll be putting out a FB post tomorrow morning to make everything available in one place.
      Blessings to you! (And thanks for persevering! I’m working on next week’s post already and this next section covers a lot of ground.)


      1. I guess I didn’t realize I had anything to say until I started saying it, lolol.

        I was in tears as I read Mat’s account. A funny aside, I also found myself wanting to turn to the page when I read about Mattie’s notes in her book about Troy. I’m really getting into this.


    1. Oh, hooray for family!
      I am glad to hear from you at any time, Linda, and I knew that you were immersed in the kids and grandkids so had no expectation of hearing from you at all, so this is all gift.


  4. The conscientious objector line has to be the best one in today’s post! Thanks for reminding all of us that God’s call to obedience starts with us!


  5. Everywhere I look and read it seems there are books and programs seemingly designed to help someone get over or through their grief as if it were a “to do” thing. I know about some of them after being certified as a result of my clinical counseling license, but in truth grief is not something that responds well to steps. When the heart has been joined with another who leaves this earth, no steps can resolve the rending that takes place. I don’t think it is also about time, but rather the process of embracing and letting go, remembering and cherishing, forgiving and giving oneself grace for whatever pace is needed. When challenged by anyone about such thoughts, I remind myself of the poignant words about grief C.S. Lewis penned in A Grief Observed. How we grieve and what we grieve is as individual and unique as each of us.


    1. True, and we do have a tendency to put people on a time line — or even a deadline, for heaven’s sake. Thanks for these helpful thoughts, and I do love Lewis’s brutally blunt and raw observations about his own grief.


      1. I think he does a great deal to help us understand the truth of grief. Perhaps we too seldom talk about it and can get caught up in wanting to do it right in addition to relieving the pain. I was keenly aware when both of my parents died within three months of one another of so many things. One key one was that I had never heard either of my parents talk about the loss of their own parents, what it felt like, how they went through it, etc. I wrote a grief journal after their deaths that I doubt my children could understand until they face mine and their dad’s, but I hope it will be helpful to them perhaps and trust they will not judge me too harshly for the rawness of my own feelings. Right now I am reviewing a book (Fire Road) that I will post next week that deals a great deal with loss and unspeakable grief.


  6. There’s a lot in all these chapters, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts as well as the other commenters.

    I’ve thought that some girls who pined for the high school athletic star and didn’t get him should count themselves fortunate. Jayber’s descriptions of Troy made me realize for the first time how some high school stars can have trouble adapting when they’re no longer the focus, when the glory isn’t coming their way any more. Not all of them, of course, but it seems like Troy never got over that need to be a “star” in some respect, and I can’t help but think that might be a problem others face as well.

    I thought it particularly telling when Jayber described Troy’s slam-dunk into Mattie’s basket as a kind of violence. I was hoping that wasn’t a foreshadowing of abuse to come (I confess I have already finished the book. 🙂 But I am going back through the chapters discussed each week. Anyway, I was glad to see Troy’s issues weren’t the kind I feared they might be from Jayber’s statement, though the issues he did have were bad enough). I confess I didn’t “get” the line about the gay bird’s heel, though.

    Jayber’s quote about feeling led, though an ignorant pilgrim, is one of my favorites from the book. I’ve had a quite similar feeling – that even though I didn’t know the way to go and stumbled around a lot, I ended up right where God wanted me. And Mat’s statement about things being “shook” reminded me of Hebrews 12:27-28 as well.


    1. Great application of Troy’s personality issues to present day! I also found the gay bird’s heel to be puzzling. I tried googling it, but nothing helpful came of it.
      I think we’re going to see in future chapters how that “pilgrim” designation is going to bear itself out even more clearly. I’m excited about the upcoming discussion topics!


  7. Michele,
    I can relate to living in a polar opposite way to my sister, but your sister actually may live near polar bears 🙂 Finding common ground can be difficult, but oh so worth it in deepening a relationship. So glad you’re finding that with your sister too!
    ~Sherry Stahl


  8. The more I read people’s reflections on this book and now yours the more I am intrigued. I always wanted to be the student in high school in English class that could pick out little known themes in a book but this was not my gifting.

    Now as a writer, I find digging deeper involves giving myself time to reflect and allow God to fill in the spaces of my thinking. Thank you for highlighting a book that is new to me.


    1. No worries, Mary, because God has been waaaay generous to you in the gifting department, and I benefit from that every time I come to your site. So good that you are back into blogging again. I missed you.


  9. 1. “For this week, my sister and I have stepped onto the common ground of a shared childhood, a common faith, and the glorious dance of genetic material that rendered her a soprano and me an alto.” So sweet! Such beautiful harmony, in more ways than one. It makes me want to call my sister. 2. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.” Oh, my. I have so many friends now who are immersed in grief–some of them “grieving on top of grief”–that I can only try to imagine how feelings of fear must also be crowding their way in. This insight helps me to know how better to pray for them…apart from, “God…PLEASE.” It’s always lovely to read your words and wisdom, Michele…stopping by from the #BreakthroughLinkup!


    1. So good to hear from you, Elizabeth. That quote from C.S. Lewis is from A Grief Observed which is something I would recommend your friends read — but for some people it might be too much, too soon. So hard to know these things . . .


  10. Oh my, Michele! I can so relate. It’s hard not to make exceptions when it comes to the difficulty we feel in following Jesus but not to hesitate at all to judge when others do this! God must constantly be shaking His head in dismay. How His mercies endure forever! Thanks for sharing so vulnerably and for reminding us of Jayber’s journey that mirrors our own.


    1. And your words are reminding me of Jesus’ warning about that tendency, ignoring the piece of fire wood that hampers our vision while we rave about the saw dust that is merely a speck in our sister’s eye.
      Thanks, Beth, for reading!


  11. “Our right response for banishing fear is the “reverence and awe” the writer of Hebrews recommends as we thank God for the reality of His unshakable kingdom.” A truth I very much needed reminding of today Michele.

    And this truth has resonated with me for the past few months, especially in marriage…”Our minds are tricky that way, for our knowledge of a person over time can throw a long shadow over what we remember about them from the past.” Our mind can lead us to such hopeless and fearful places. And yet God’s truth can clear away the fog and tricky thinking.


  12. It is true, common ground really can bring us together, even when our lives are different. I am glad you enjoyed your time with your sister, Michele. I was intrigued by the premise that grief is like fear – I have to say I do agree. What an interesting observation. Although I am not reading this book at the moment, I am enjoying your discussion and observations! Thank you so much for being a part of the Hearth and Soul Link Party.


    1. That comment about grief and fear is the very first line in Lewis’s book, and I think of it often. Sometimes our brains and hearts can’t sort out our feelings. Jayber added some great insights as well.


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