Blessing Management: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (Conclusion!)

Last week a huge windstorm felled both trees and power lines, leading to widespread power outages throughout the great state of Maine. By some miracle of grace, we came through the storm with our lights still burning, but my oldest son was without electricity for several days. Since he and his family came here to shower and do laundry, I invited them to stay for supper. This time with much-loved family (and time to hold my baby granddaughter and visit with the adorable grandson) felt like bonus-time, completely unexpected, and owing to something that was a trial for them, but the end result was a gift to me.

Loving adult children seems to require a measure of this kind of blessing management — a rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation. I would rather pine endlessly for my sons than be the nagging and needy mother, so when these serendipitous visits happen with no real planning on my part, it’s a source of joy — or as Jayber Crow would say:

” . . . these meetings must not be planned, expected, depended on , or looked forward to. They [are] a hope seen afar, that must be with patience waited for.”

A Book About Love

And so, Jayber found that he also was able to practice blessing management in his happenstance meetings with Mattie in The Nest Egg over the course of 14 or 15 years. In this respect, then, it seems as if  Jayber Crow is a story of how one man learned to love. He denied himself any expression of that love toward its object (other than his immediate and generous response to Mattie’s requests for help in difficult situations). However, his outflow of love toward the Port William membership can certainly be traced back to the commitment he made to Mattie, and, therefore, a commitment to remain as The Membership’s “married ineligible bachelor barber.”

Several chapters ago, Jayber remarked that Port William would break your heart if you let it. I wonder if that is true of any community if only we would  be willing to see the neediness that lies only just beneath the glossy surface. Perhaps Jayber’s commitment is an invitation for the jaded and the “been-burned” to begin handing out second chances to family, friends, community, or the church.

When Jayber reflects on the benefit of this sacrifice to himself, asking himself what possible good he could have derived from the arrangement, his response is deeply moving:

“What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart.”

Listen well, O, my soul, for herein lies much wisdom for loving without strings attached.

A Book About Belonging

This outcome of Jayber’s internal argument is consistent with his value system expressed elsewhere in the story. For instance:

“To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.”

One of the places Jayber came to love and feel connected to was The Nest Egg because “everything there seemed to belong where it was.” (346) Unlike Troy, he did not have to possess something in the traditional sense in order to enjoy it. Although they were never his, the Nest Egg, the little cabin Burley gave him “the use of,” and even Mattie were all a source of joy. They also anchored him in a community which gave him his first (and only) set of roots since he was orphaned for the second time as a boy.

A Book About Calling

In his informal role as the “bootleg” barber at the edge of the river, Jayber continued to receive the words and confidences of his customers “as water draws to low ground.” For Jayber, it seems as if the minute he stopped trying to “make something of himself,” he became what he was intended to be.

It’s hard to miss the continual contrasts between Jayber and Troy who never did cease trying to make something of himself (336, 341). I wonder if some of the ceaseless striving came because he required so much fuel from outside himself in order to feed his voracious ambition.

Jayber’s calling that transcends even barbering is his love for Mattie, the wife of another man.  Even so, he makes no effort to interfere with the marriage. He never tells anyone else about his love for her, and the “marriage” he initiates in his heart changes him to the core.

A Book About Ending Well

There’s a phrase that occurred earlier in Jayber Crow‘s meanderings and with its second mention, it continued to gnaw at me. I’m thinking about “the leftovers.” In spite of his efforts to avoid living “an unexamined life,” Jayber still had some leftovers (355) which he defined as the “things I might once have done that are now undoable, old wrongs, responsibilities unmet, ineradicable failures — things of time, which is always revealing the remedies it has already carried us beyond.”  He has borrowed the term (268) from our friend Della, Athey Keith’s widow, and it was these “leftovers” that brought her to tears after Athey’s death:

“There are leftovers, Jayber. There are things I did or said that I wish I hadn’t, and things I didn’t do or say that I wish I had.”

These are cautionary words from fictional characters from whose story arc I want to learn and benefit.

Jayber calls himself a man of faith even though “faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark.” (356)  Faith does not exempt the faithful from pain, Jayber says, but assures that “there is a light that includes our darkness, and day that shines down even on the clouds.” (357)  Faithfulness, for Jayber, is not about getting something for one’s efforts but is in itself its own reward.

It is not until the last paragraph of the book that we see any ray of hope for Jayber’s heart in his poured out life, and I can’t resist sharing his words of longing for this “good-good-good” life:

“I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.”

May I ask, when is the last time you read a novel in which the culmination was a chaste and selfless love? In fulfillment of I Corinthians 13,  Jayber’s love “suffered long,”  did not “seek its own,” as it “hoped and endured all things” rather than allowing the weight of his desire to crush the beauty of its object. With the careful paintbrush of a poet, Berry suggested rather than described the understanding between Jayber and Mattie in the book’s final paragraph, and I expect (because, I ask you, who can resist thinking about a fictional character’s life beyond page 363?) that Jayber lived the rest of his days with the memory of that “smile that he had never seen.”

Looking Forward to 6:30 . . . 

This is a bittersweet moment as we come to the end of our discussion. When I’m in the middle of a series, I am convinced that I’ll never survive to the end and make all kinds of rash vows that include the words “never again.” I guess I’m a little bit like Jayber with the hands of my clock permanently pointing at 6:30, keeping things open-ended. However, I’m already starting to think about books for the next round, so stay tuned!

As ever, be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics, especially if you decide to throw caution to the wind and write about “texts” and “subtexts” you’ve found, or if you attempt to “explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand,'” because then we can all be exiled together and enjoy “the company of other explainers.” Wherever the exile ends up, I’ll bring a thermos of English Breakfast Tea and some disposable cups.  See you there!

Many thanks to all who persevered to the end! It’s been a great experience to spend some time as honorary citizens of Port William with you!

//

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43 thoughts on “Blessing Management: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (Conclusion!)”

  1. “Jayber remarked that Port William would break your heart if you let it. I wonder if that is true of any community if only we would be willing to see the neediness that lies only just beneath the glossy surface.” OH, wow! An invitation to seek out the mess and then move toward it. Challenging words right there, Michele! Blessings!

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    1. I hadn’t looked at this from that perspective, Liz, but you are absolutely on target. There is no perfect community — messes everywhere, but God uses even the messy to refine us and to enlarge the circumference of our hearts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is true that loving adult children requires a measure of blessing management-rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation. Glad you got this time to enjoy family!

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  3. Thank you so much for leading this book discussion, Michele! I’ve learned from and enjoyed the book so much more because of your’s and fellow readers insights and questions. All my “creeped” sense about Jayber’s love was long gone by the time I reached these last few chapters. Such poignant points to hold on to throughout- especially about leftovers and about only “getting out of it” love in our hearts. Jayber is now a dear character to me, and I may be looking into Wendell Berry’s other Port William fictional memoirs in the future. Thank you again!!

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    1. I’ve learned a lot from each participant. There’s nothing like community for enriching a reading experience. And big picture, I think Jayber’s character is rescued from being creepy by his heart and good intentions.
      I’m with you in needing another trip to Port William very soon.

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  4. Some of the most unexpected and spontaneous visits are some of the best visits. The same can be said for the bootleg barbershop and the Nest Egg. Although I’m still not too sure what I believe about this bachelor marriage, these spontaneous meetings do seems to provide them both a reprieve from the demands of life. The life Jayber lives in this area takes great fortitude. To have unexpected visits “even fewer than you might think” over the years alone with the love of your life, while she is married to one that doesn’t seem to treasure her takes strength beyond measure. And as we find out in the last chapter, Jayber befriends Troy in his time of need. Even in his disdain for the man Troy is, he can’t help be the man he is and has been.

    Troy and Mattie’s life… To have a marriage of two so diametrically different people must have made for miserable times for sure. Yes Mattie seemed to make the best of things, but I wonder how much more she could have been if she had been wise enough to see Troy for what he truly was before she married him. She was left in an impossible situation all around. I believe Jayber’s introspection into what Troy really must have thought of himself has to be very true. His conclusion “he had worked like a slave, and he was one” tells so much. Sadly Troy sought freedom from the toil of the old ways, and yet his need to succeed brought more enslavement than the old ways ever had. It makes me wonder what brought them together…did Mattie think she could help him? Did she feel sorry for him. Or was there something else?

    I almost cried as I realized with Jayber that the Nest Egg was being destroyed. To find that Mattie knows before she dies is almost more heart wrenching, I wonder if the stress and strain of her predicament is partly what brings her to a young death. I am thankful that Jayber doesn’t come outright with his feelings on her deathbed and I wonder is she really suspects that Jayber is talking about his love for her when he asks about “this other thing?” I can’t decide.

    I love how Berry ties up all the lose ends. I feel like I’m losing a bit of myself now that the book has ended. It has been great fun and very interesting. Thanks Michele for hosting the party!

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    1. Yes, Mattie had a hard road, no matter how you look at it. And yes, it was heartbreaking that Troy could not resist cutting down the Nest Egg while she was dying.
      Berry is such a great story teller, and the ending was even quite satisfying.
      You’ve been a champion in keeping up with the reading with everything you’ve had going on, and I’ve appreciated your faithfulness in responding and thinking everything through each week.
      I’m going to miss this gathering!

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  5. Dear Michele,
    Oh, thank you so much for the way that you have led this study with such openness and encouragement to all of us! I am praying that the Lord blesses you abundantly for all of the work and heart you have poured into this! I loved Berry’s beautiful descriptions of nature and daily life. I was brought to tears so many times throughout the book. And, I am so grateful that Jayber found forgiveness and love in such deep and profound ways. But under the risk of igniting Mr. Berry’s ire, I did have to ultimately express my sadness over what felt like Jayber’s getting so close, but yet missing the greatest relationship of all. He found the Lord of nature, and he found the joy of Mattie’s smile, but did he find the smile of Jesus on him personally, and in sweet friendship? I suppose I cannot know for sure, but nonetheless, here is my wrap-up post also:
    http://raseasons.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-friend-of-god.html
    Once again, thank you so much for leading us so well, Michele! You deserve a rest time with those sweet little ones of yours!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, so close, but . . .
      And I just knew your poetic heart would be moved by Berry’s descriptions. Have you run into any of his poetry? He’s such a wordsmith.
      I’m really looking forward to reading your last reflection on Jayber, but I hate for this time to come to an end. The timing has been great, because it’s time to move into Thanksgiving. Hopefully, we can all slow down a bit and be present to our families and the season of gratitude. Again, Bettie, thank you for your faithfulness with another literary friend. We bonded over Orual and now we’ve travelled a while with Jayber. So thankful for your part in this journey.

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  6. “Blessing management — a rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation” – what a perfect description of parenting adult children. Sometimes those unexpected get-togethers are the best visits.

    I so enjoyed this, Michele! I got so much more out of the book through the group here and especially your insights than I would have alone. Thank you so much for hosting this discussion and spurring me on to finally try Berry. Though I didn’t agree with him in every little thing, I think it’s a mark of a good book that I’m still thinking about it and turning over parts of it in my mind even a week after finishing it.

    I shared my review last week, but I came across a post this morning that I found very interesting: http://thecresset.org/2011/Michaelmas/Eads_M2011.html

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    1. Thank-you, Barbara, for linking to this essay on Jayber Crow and Berry’s use of the idea of romantic love to draw his character toward God. I read most of it and appreciated this quote: “Lived in the life of our faith romantic love…. can teach us humility and the reality of our dependence on God and others. It can show us… the beauty of God—seen through his image in a person he has made. It provides us an arena for sacrifice and charity; it can draw us toward better than we are or could be on our own. It reminds us of the wonder of gifts, and so of that gift of all gifts, grace.” –Rodney Clapp in an essay on Charles William’s theology of romantic love

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    2. Yes, I read and enjoyed your review. I’m a bit sad that this experience is coming to a close, and as you say, I’m still thinking about Jayber and his world. Must be a sign that I need to read more Berry soon. Barbara, you’ve been such an encouragement throughout this process with your faithful interaction and your good insights. Such a joy to have you as part of the discussion group!

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  7. Ahh… Michele, I hear you in your pining for those grandbabies to be nearer ( : I love the way you tied that in to Jayber’s story. And yes, you are right to jolt me out of my endless rounds of critiquing with that parting question: when is the last time you read a novel in which the culmination was a chaste and selfless love? You’re right. Why must I always pine for more?!! But once again I have. This week’s reflections are mingled with my own remembrances of lost woods, of logging’s effects and gains, and of beauty found in wooded paradises…https://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/jayber-crow-chapters-30-32-the-finale/ I hope you’ll drop by–I’d love to share a cup of tea ( : And thanks once again for bringing a wise and humble viewpoint to the reading of these good pages and for letting us do it together. You’ve enriched my life! (Can’t wait to hear what will be next?!)

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    1. My husband and kids would slap their knees and laugh out loud at the notion that I’m even a tiny bit positive.
      I do think that I’m inclined to be forgiving of authors who write beautifully. But maybe we balance each other out. I do know that I have enjoyed reading your thoughts on Jayber, and really, I don’t think you’ve been too hard on the guy. Your theological sieve has caught some really good points — and you write so well that it’s a treat to read your posts. Looking forward to reading this last Jayber post (sniffle) over at your place.

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  8. Thanks to Barbara’s link I came upon these thoughts from Charles Williams, a Dante scholar of early twentieth century as well as poet and fiction writer…re: the theological value of romantic love. This seems to be born out in the story of Jayber:

    “Williams asserted that the experience of romantic love is excellent preparation for knowing God—for entering heaven. In glimpsing the Beloved’s full potential, his or her glory, the Lover has the opportunity to see that all humans bear glory. Ideally, the recognition process will lead the Lover to the Source of that glory, the Creator God.”
    Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.
    http://thecresset.org/2011/Michaelmas/Eads_M2011.html

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    1. Isn’t Charles Williams also one of C.S. Lewis’s pals? I haven’t read the four loves in a long time, but I’d love to know if these thoughts intersect at all with Lewis’s. Thanks for checking out the link and sharing from it. I have yet to follow it over there.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I can so relate to your feelings on parenting adult children, Michele. My daughter moved far away this year. Every visit is just so precious. Thank you for this lesson and encouragement on loving without expectations. This has been a new road for me and it’s quite a struggle ;).

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  10. How precious and true are the reflections you have penned here, Michele! You capture the tone and impact I felt while reading the book. The book increasingly (page by page) provoked me to a new understanding of loss, faith, love, and community. Jayber taught me much (along with the others of the Management). I will keep my copy with the many post-it flags and highlighted portions and one day I will pick it up again and glean once more for the richness Wendell Berry gave us all.

    It’s been a bit busy around here so I have not responded a few times, but I am so glad I joined this group process and am very much looking forward to your next selection for us to share.

    Have a blessed weekend every one and a Thanksgiving that renews our perspective and sets our hearts and minds of things above.

    PS You are so right about adult children.

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    1. Pam, I’m so happy you have been part of this “Membership.” The experience of reading Jayber in community far exceeded even my highest hopes, and I’m so glad you were able to find time to add to the collective wisdom.
      Do have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We have so much to be grateful for!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Dear Michele, any time with grown kids is a blessing, but I agree with you that those unexpected moments are even more precious. Isn’t it cool when God makes a way for us to love on our kids similar to the way He loves on us?

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    1. I hope I didn’t give the impression that Jayber gives direct advice on relating to adult children. His thoughts are general principles for relationships — I made the application to adult children because that’s where I am with two of my sons; i.e. practicing “blessing management.”
      Thanks so much for reading!

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  12. What a remarkable man–much like Christ, loving for the sake of Love and not for what he can get out of that relationship. Thanks for sharing Jayber’s journey and how you it’s moved and impacted you as well.

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  13. Michele, I’m sorry I didn’t get to share this journey with you but reading your conclusion certainly peaked my interest. Maybe next time I’ll feel like I can make the commitment. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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  14. I haven’t followed this journey, but reading this post has made me want to go back to read it. Your line: “Faithfulness, for Jayber, is not about getting something for one’s efforts but is in itself its own reward.” really has struck a chord.

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  15. This! So much this “Loving adult children seems to require a measure of this kind of blessing management — a rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation.”

    As an adult child, I’m going to keep this in mind, there’s a balance there that sometimes i walk the wrong side of myself. I should be more present.

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    1. That’s good to hear — I actually had not thought about how this post would land on the ears of someone on the other side of the equation. Thanks for letting it land with grace and for being here today!

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  16. I love what you say about blessing management, Michelle.
    Jayber Crow seems like a fascinating read – from what I read of your sharing there are elements of faith, respect in relationships, gratitude and above all, grace – that appeal to me a lot. I’m tempted to get myself a copy and read it.

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    1. I love Wendell Berry’s fiction — and I’m hoping to read (and re-read) more of it next year. His work always comes across to me as if I’m reading a memoir from a very wise soul, so I feel as if I get the benefits of both fiction and nonfiction!

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