Now that I have pulled all the carrots with my grandson and hunted down the last of the red tomatoes, the gardening season is behind me. My sunflowers stand hanging their heads in resignation, but they’re still beautiful to me because I’m already thinking ahead to next year’s planting: strategizing (No more eggplant! I give up!); reworking the flower to veggie ratio (definitely more zinnias); planning for at least one more row of green beans.
Gardeners are just that way, so I completely identified with Jayber Crow’s delight in the “way fresh young plants had looked in the long rows behind the shop.” I even empathize with his waxing lyrical (and a trifle cheesy) that their beauty “had been art and music” to him. With Jayber’s move from the village barbershop, the furrowed ground and the planted seeds of a new location have served as a bridge from the old home to the new, and Jayber found he could leave behind 32 years of history because “expectation pulled [his] mind away.”
As I make plans for our unwieldy 2018 garden, I also want to leave room in my heart for the expectation of realities beyond this visible world. I’ve been grumpy today, tired of this particular set of challenges and disillusioned with the steady flow of projects and maintenance that go with living in the same house for nearly 24 years. Earth-bound and mired in the here and now, my expectation is paltry and my mind is preoccupied with temporal concerns. It’s time to take myself by the scruff of the neck and to let expectation of spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus “pull my mind away” from the heaviness of discouragement.
One last time, Jayber hung the paper clock on the door of the Port William barbershop, but instead of its vague promise of a 6:30 return, he wrote GONE, and with that, came to another ending and a parting of the ways after having spent 32 of his 54 years on that piece of real estate. Leaving the land of loafing and wakefulness, Jayber is once again aided and abetted by his friend Burley who takes such “satisfaction in seeing [Jayber] well set up in the world.”
About Burley. . .
I found myself alternately charmed and repelled by this scalliwag, and Berry describes his common law relationship with Kate Branch and Danny’s paternity without commentary, of course, but I resent Burley’s lackadaisical attitude toward marriage. Somehow, though, the man who coined the term “Membership” as the descriptor for the featured families of Port William managed to settle into a very cozy domestic arrangement for himself years after Kate had passed away. I had a lump in my throat as Jayber laid out the beautiful collegiality there in the Branch household with its economy based on bootleg haircuts and family suppers, “making something of nearly nothing,” and being “tight of pocket” but “free of heart.” Multi-generational households are challenging, but this fictional arrangement spoke to me about the importance of a sense of humor and good solid boundaries for everyone in making it work.
I smiled when Jayber described Danny’s stand-offish-ness as “favor[ing] Nathan more than Burley.” When an author has created a community and a cast of characters that can flow in and out of the books of a series and have me nodding my head in agreement over the hereditary traits of a fictional character, that’s GOOD fiction! I hope some of you will have the opportunity to read Nathan Coulter (the first in the series which I have still not read) or Hannah Coulter some time soon. (I’ve actually heard a rumor that there is going to be a group reading Hannah together next year, so I’ll keep you posted.)
Randomly Offered Observations
Jayber’s delight in his surroundings are likely an effect of Wendell Berry’s enjoyment of the outdoors as well as his keen observation skills. I found myself re-reading sections of his description of his surroundings there on the river: the way new nailheads gleam in old boards; personification everywhere, but especially the way the “tree seemed to be offering itself to the use of the birds” — in much the same way Burley offered “the use of” the cabin to Jayber.
This section (I thought) was highly descriptive in many ways. When Jayber goes to find his boat in the fog:
“The boat takes shape at first as though it is floating in the air. And then, coming closer, I see its reflection on the water.” (322)
I could see this so clearly, but did you notice how Berry kept our attention for several pages at a time with zero action and nothing but cerebral meanderings and exquisite description? For instance, this wondering about reflections:
“When the air is still, then so is the surface of the river. Then it holds a perfectly silent image of the world that seems not to exist in this world. Where, I have asked myself, is this reflection? It is not on the top of the water, for if there is a little current the river can slide frictionlessly and freely beneath the reflection and the reflection does not move.”
How have I lived all these years and never wondered about that?
Jayber Crow the orphan was well-served by the Branch family’s warm welcome, and by the fatherly friendship Burley offered him for forty years. Is anyone else wildly curious about the last days of Burley Coulter? It’s hard to believe such an important character could “disappear clean out of the present world” without it being part of someone’s story. I’m wondering if Berry addresses his demise in any of his other books . . .
Danny’s understanding of The Depression is similar to Jayber’s characterization of The War — as something that’s always present, underground, and waiting to burst forth. There’s a fine line between “preparedness” (which is a good thing) and a scarcity mindset based in the notion that there’s always another boot of adversity waiting to drop. I grew up in the era of long lines at the gas pumps and dire predictions about the availability of oil. How about you? Can you identify with Danny as a “child of the Depression?”
As Jayber shares his dreams (good and bad) and as we read pages and pages of his internal dialogue, we get even more insight into the intrepid bachelor in his bootleg barbershop.
I’ve enjoyed this particular tendency in Jayber:
“I try not to let good things go by unnoticed.”
And there is so much good.
Annie Dillard joins Jayber in this paying attention, and she says it so beautifully:
“We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
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 (November 16) having finished the book one more time!
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