The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a beautiful meditation on family, place, fatherhood, ambition, love, sacrifice, and much else that is a great human consequence. It is a moving book, but it is not sentimental. It praises the virtues of community without being blind to its vices. It raises all sorts of terribly important questions that we should all consider with great seriousness, but that we too often bury and supress. It deserves to be read widely, and I hope that it is. And I hope that it generates conversation, discussion, and debate about the assumptions that order our lives.
I especially liked this passage:
Some have complained that Dreher naively offers up the mythic small town as the cure for all that ills our weary souls. These people, it seems to me, have missed the point. It is true that Dreher came to see the remarkable love and support one small town offered up to a family that had long lived in that place and cultivated those relationships. The city may offer some unique challenges to the cultivation of such a community, and so may the suburbs, but they do not render community impossible. The real enemy of community is the refusal of limits on our ambition, autonomy, and the narrowly construed pursuit of personal fulfillment. These are the ideals that must be, to some degree, sacrificed if we are too build abiding communities with the resources to sustain its members through times of sorrow and suffering and provide the deep social context in which joy and meaning are possible.
While reading Little Way, I thought often of something Wendell Berry wrote a few years ago:
“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”
That is so well put, I can hardly improve on it. This is what Ruthie Leming practiced.
Most of us live as if we believe that the surest path to happiness is that which spins out endlessly and offers up the least resistance, but traveling that path is a futile business. I’ve confessed elsewhere that I assume that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our well being and the well being of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.
This vision of the good life does not play well in the society we have made for ourselves. In fact, it has become counter-intuitive. If it is ever to gain any traction, it cannot be merely preached. It must be lived and its beauty must of its own mysterious accord draw us in. This is, I believe, Dreher’s great accomplishment. He has faithfully and honestly written that beauty into his story so that it may speak to his readers, may they be many.
Read the whole thing; it’s great — and don’t miss the part where the author reflects on reconsidering his own Cuban heritage.
I appreciate not only Michael’s generous words, but also his remark about some critics of Little Way missing the point. Several Amazon reviewers have complained that I idealize small towns in the book. I cannot imagine how they get this from the book I’ve written. As I make abundantly clear in the book, this small town is the place where I was a square peg, and later, where I was bullied. That’s a big reason why I left. Another big reason is that within the culture of my family, there was exactly one way for me to be, and to fail to be that way was, in the eyes of my father back then (and of my sister, always) was a mark against my character. That was not only unjust, it was hard for me to tolerate. So I left. I tried to come back in 1994, but I could not live with the pressure my father put on me to be the man he wanted me to be, rather than the man I was. So I left again, and never looked back … until Ruthie died.
It will not escape the discerning reader that I couldn’t have come home while Ruthie was still alive, precisely because she was really hard on me for not being just like her. Let me be clear: I would rather a million times have Ruthie alive and me be living on the other side of the world than to have my homecoming made possible by her death! But she didn’t choose to die; it was left up to all of us she left behind to decide what to do with that. In the mystery of life, watching my sister die from a distance revealed to me not only the deep greatness of her character, but also the greatness within the people I left behind. The key point is not that my sister, and small-town people, are either All Good or All Bad. The point is not really that both can be true at the same time. The real point is that the the thing that makes them chafe against having someone unlike them in their midst comes from the same place that makes them so willing to respond with sacrificial love to those within the community.
This is a complicated and difficult truth, but it’s still true. And I think it’s true not just of my sister and of this place, but true of human nature. There was no reason it had to be that way with me, no reason my sister and my dad couldn’t have been more open-minded and tolerant of me; to have been so, in fact, would have made it a lot more likely that we could have lived closer to each other as a family. But for some reason, the passion they had for family and place, and their own way of life, necessitated for them the rejection of my way of life. This is something that my father reflects beautifully on at the end of Little Way, in a back-porch confession that astonished me.
And yet, even though I found no home for myself here, at least not until recently, I could not deny the beauty, the integrity, and the goodness of this way of life. In fact, I could not deny that what they all had — a strong sense of Home — was something I deeply desired, but could not enjoy (N.B., a New York friend told me he knew when I published Crunchy Cons that one day I would move back to Louisiana; the desire was too obvious). I couldn’t enjoy it because I was not strong enough to withstand the judgment from my father and my sister, but I also couldn’t enjoy it because I wasn’t willing to accept the limits on my own autonomy and experience necessary to make this place or any place my Home, in the deepest sense. Alan Ehrenhalt, in The Lost City, his book about Chicago in the 1950s, says that people today want all the good things we’ve lost about American life — the community, the neighborliness, the sense of security from place — without making the sacrifices in personal autonomy that life in pre-1960s America required. This is nostalgia talking, Ehrenhalt said; you cannot have the great things about community life back then without giving up things we all prize today, with regard to our individual freedom.
This is a hard truth. When I was in my 20s, and craving the good things about Christian faith, but unwilling to make the sacrifices of my own will and individual freedom that being a serious Christian required — I was restless and unhappy. It was only when I wanted God more than I wanted myself — that is, when I wanted Jesus Christ to be my Lord, not just my non-judgmental spiritual buddy — that I made the leap of faith. Similarly, it wasn’t arguments that made me make the leap of faith to return to my hometown, but seeing the love and fidelity incarnated in the life of my sister and those who cared for her as she lay dying that made me want what they had more than I wanted the good things I had in my former life.
It has not been painless or easy, as readers of Little Way will see when they read about the revelation my niece Hannah made on a trip we took to France. But it has been worth it. Besides, people change. I’m not the same person I was when I left here at 16, or when I left for a second time in my mid-20s. People here aren’t the same either.
Little Way does not tell you what to do with your life. It certainly doesn’t say, “Everyone move back home,” or, “Everyone move to a small town.” It’s value, I think, to most readers is to put the hard questions to them about what counts for a meaningful life, and to encourage them to think on these things. I had to think on these things all my life, from the exile I had to embrace for my own sake as a young man — and readers of Little Way should be clear that I did not come back home as a prodigal, repenting of my years away; leaving was absolutely the right thing — to the way Ruthie’s suffering and death compelled me to rethink my choices in light of the inevitability of my own suffering and death to come.
As Mike Sacasas writes so beautifully:
Talk of love, like talk of home, always threatens to spill over into triteness and cliché. But as David Foster Wallace has reminded us, ”clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.” Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wondered, “What do we love when we love our God?” This is a endlessly useful formulation. What do we love, we might now ask, when we love Home? What desire really drives our pursuit for the ideal of Home? Have we merely incorporated the search for Home into our project of self-fulfillment? If so, we’ve likely undermined the quest from the outset.
The quest for Home, like the quest for happiness, is such that, if it is to yield even its modest and partial fulfillments, cannot be undertaken for its own sake. Its success is premised on our loving something other than the idea of Home. We must love our place and we must, to borrow Auden’s apt phrasing, love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. We must abide. We must lay aside our self-interest and the project of self-fulfillment. We must be willing to sacrifice. We must give up our comfort. We must invest ourselves in the lives of others. And in so doing, we will find that we have been all along building a good and modest home for our pilgrim souls.