Did you see Ross Douthat’s column about loneliness and suicide yesterday? He writes about sociological data showing people losing touch with communal institutions and structures, and the suicide rate going up. The weaker one’s membership in a community is, the more vulnerable one is to falling through the cracks, even succumbing to suicide.
For many people, the strongest forms of community are still the traditional ones — the kind forged by shared genes, shared memory, shared geography. And neither Facebook nor a life coach nor a well-meaning bureaucracy is likely to compensate for these forms’ attenuation and decline.
This point is illustrated, richly, in one of the best books of the spring, Rod Dreher’s memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” an account of his sister’s death from cancer at the age of 42. A journalist and author, Dreher had left their small Louisiana hometown behind decades before and never imagined coming back. But watching how the rural community rallied around his sister in her crisis, and how being rooted in a specific place carried her family through its drawn-out agony, inspired him to reconsider, and return.
What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.
In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.
The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.
Too often, and probably increasingly, not enough Americans will have what the Lemings had — a place that knew them intimately, a community to lean on, a strong network in a time of trial.
That’s beautifully put, and I am honored by Ross’s words. I especially appreciate that he identified an aspect of Little Way that many of the book’s readers tell me appealed to them: the fact that it doesn’t romanticize small town life. As I point out in the book, it’s not that I woke up one day and realized that I had been wrong to leave my hometown, that none of the things that had compelled me to leave were real, that my sister was a flawless saint, my family was a Norman Rockwellish clan, and I had foolishly run away from Mayberry. None of that is true! What Ruthie’s cancer, and the town’s response, did was to transfigure this town and my family.
What do I mean by that? Merriam-Webster defines “transfigure” as:
a: a change in form or appearance :metamorphosis
b: an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change
The town, and my sister, was the same town, and the same person, they always were. What I was able to see was that they were so much more, so very much more. It was as if I had been granted the grace to see into another dimension, and to glimpse how extraordinary this town and its people are, in their ordinariness. And more, how much deep goodness there is here, so much so that I wanted to be around it, and moved here. For me, T.S. Eliot’s lines from Little Gidding became real:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I saw that for me, history is now and Feliciana. The is is the was of what shall be. All this hit me with the force of revelation, at Ruthie’s wake, at her funeral, an in those days of bright sadness surrounding her death.
Little Way is not a book of cinematically happy endings. Readers see that I do not come home and find resolution, but in some ways new depths of pain, but also a deeper understanding of the mystery of what it means to live in the community of one’s family, where love is real and potent but dangerous. Again, Eliot captured the paradox:
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
Ruthie’s love brought me home and gave me a new life … but Ruthie’s kind of love also helped drive me away, and has given me a harder future ahead of me here. And there is no way in this life to solve the mystery of her complicated love for me, and the complicated love within our family, which, as I discovered (and the reader does), played out in surprising ways in my father’s life.
I’m speaking obscurely here to avoid spoilers for those who plan to read the book. I simply want to underscore Ross’s point about the “ordinary” life, and how we so often overlook the deeply good things that exist in the ordinary because (often for good reasons!) we flee from the ordinary because it is hard to live with. Yet as my sister’s life showed, within the ordinary we can find the absolutely extraordinary. To paraphrase Walker Percy, I would rather be sitting on my front porch in West Feliciana today than stumbling home to my Greenwich Village townhouse after a terrific dinner at a great restaurant. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Greenwich Village and all it has to offer. It’s rather that for me, there is so much more to wonder about here. I am, like Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, on a search, but an ironic reversal of Binx’s search: the startling wonder and potential within everydayness is what I’m discovering.
I will be writing about this place for the rest of my life. In a way, I always have been writing about this place, but now, thanks to my sister — my brave, ornery, generous, petty, big-hearted, narrow-minded, complicated, saintly, all-too-human sister — I do so in a new key. Little Way strikes so many people so deeply, I think, because it compels them to look at their own lives, their own places, their own histories and their own families, in a new key as well. Maybe it even transfigures these things.