I listened to hard words today from a dear woman I’ve loved and admired for nearly twenty years. We were seated in her small room in a nursing home, my grandson was exploring every nook, cranny, and light switch (and eating one of the cookies we had brought for her!), and I asked her how she liked her new home.
“It’s hard,” she said. “They’re good to me here, but I’m at the end of my life. It’s hard to realize — emotionally.”
The words hung in the air, and I wanted to deny them, to beautify them with a neat little bow of comfort and joy. But that would not be fair, because she is right. At ninety-plus, she is unsteady and unable to care for herself or live in her own home. This is hard. She is nearing the end of her life. So I was quiet and nodded, waiting for her to go on. She did, sharing some of her concerns, repeating herself and circling back around. But then, she stopped and smiled and touched my grandson’s small hand, declaring:
“I have wonderful memories.”
My sweet friend has come to the point in her life when looking back is so much more satisfying and encouraging than looking ahead. That’s a treasure when the time comes to look back, and Jayber Crow does his own share of looking back in Chapters 18-20, particularly concerning his relationship with Mattie — or, more accurately, his observations of Mattie.
His pivotal memory of Mattie, what he calls “the most deciding event of my life,” took place at a Vacation Bible School. He was there in his role as church caretaker. She was there to care for and play with the young children. As a long-time VBS war horse, this scene warms my heart, because it was not Mattie’s skillful use of curriculum or her wow-factor pedagogical methods that won Jayber’s heart. It was this one thing about her dealings with the children:
“She was just perfectly there with them in her pleasure.” (191)
Jayber makes mention of Mattie’s ability unique ability to be present to her people as he pondered and lamented her troubled marriage with Troy:
“She never made reference even by silence to anything she suffered. But in herself she was present. She was present in her dealings with other people. She was right there.”
And with this arrow piercing his heart, Jayber moved into a secret room of devotion to a woman who was completely unaware of his feelings, unlikely to reciprocate even if she had been aware, and unavailable to him in every possible way.
Jayber devotes a fair amount of time to his obsessive scorning of Troy Chatham, (Mattie’s husband) making special note of Troy’s loneliness. (194)
I wonder . . .
Unrequited love is pretty lonely, too.
“The visions of the mind have a debt to reality that it is hard to get the mind to pay when it is under the influence of its visions.”
Once Jayber worked his way through these “visions of the mind” and became free from his “glandular logic,” he saw the folly in his obsession, but held fast to his love for Mattie. Good, however, did come from this in the form of a renewed seeing:
“If you love somebody enough, and long enough, finally you must see yourself. What I was was a barber and grave digger and church janitor making half a living, a bachelor, a man about town, a friendly fellow. And this was perhaps acceptable, perhaps even creditable in its way, but to my newly chastened sight I was nobody’s husband.”
The Community’s Remember-ers
A day spent with Mat Feltner became a day of looking back, and it would seem that Jayber, with his patient listening and his eager interest, might be in training for a future role as one of Port William’s remember-ers. In my own remembering, when the time comes to look back, I want to bring to my remembering — and to the people I have loved — the grace Jayber brought to the membership:
” . . . I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”
Did You Ever Think About That?
Jayber had only to let his tongue play over the notch in one of his front teeth to remember that Cecelia Overhold held him in “joyous dislike,” even though a lot of years had passed since “the little worter dranking party” where the war began. Jayber can’t seem to free himself of this, but, then, there is something so contagious about unhappiness that Cecelia would be especially virulent:
“Cecelia thought that whatever she already had as no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it.” 209
These are cautionary words in our present era of acquisitiveness — and throw-away relationships.
From the ashes of this sadness, Jayber salvages some deep and poignant observations about love and community:
- “Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole — self-explanatory, you might say. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.”
- “There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”
There’s no way Wendell Berry could have anticipated the electricity that would remain in the air seventeen years after he wrote Jayber Crow (and half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act), but Athey Heath defuses a barber shop bully with words of tweetable brevity and piercing strength:
“It might prove out to be,” Athey said, “that if we can’t live together we can’t live atall. Did you ever think about that?”
Other Questions to Ponder
Does Jayber’s infatuation with Mattie warm your heart — or creep you out?
Can you point to a “newly chastened sight” in your own experience of loving or having been loved that has made you see yourself in new ways?
I’m puzzled by Jayber’s presence with Mattie when he finds her crying in the cemetery. His words are true and kind: “You can’t stay here.”
But what of this: “I knelt beside her, according to my calling in this world.” What’s he talking about here? Do you see a connection between this and his earlier statement: “[M]y future, as it turned out, proved to be elsewhere. I hadn’t even glimpsed it yet. I had imagined no future. Who she was who would have my heart to own I had not imagined” (62)?
Whether Jayber’s love for Mattie proves to be idolatrous or life-affirming will be borne out in future chapters, and our final judgment, I think, should be based on how his devotion to Mattie affects his response to others in the Port William Membership. I’m thinking of a quote from Madeleine L’Engle that bears on this:
“If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don’t like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.” (Circle of Quiet p.8)
I look forward to reading your insights, either in the comments section below, or in your own blog posts. Please share links so this party can reconvene at your place!
I’ll be here next Thursday (October 26) having read Chapters 21-23.
Here’s the schedule for future discussion topics:
Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32
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