My boundless thanks to Damon Linker for his extraordinary column in The Week, about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. Excerpts:
If you read just one work of serious non-fiction this spring, let it be Rod Dreher‘s beautiful, moving memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. At the center of the book is the emotionally gripping story of the death of the author’s sister from cancer at the age of 42. But that story is embedded in an another — an intellectually and spiritually provocative account of Dreher’s youthful flight from and eventual return (after Ruthie’s death) to his Louisiana hometown (population 1,700). It is these bracing reflections on place and community, ambition and happiness that transform the book into something far more than a tragic autobiography. Dreher has written a powerful statement about how we live today — and more importantly, about how we should live.
When Dreher resolved to follow Ruthie’s “little way” by giving up his life on the east coast, returning to rural Louisiana, and writing a book defending the decision, he placed himself firmly in the camp of conservatives who congregate at a website called Front Porch Republicand contribute regularly to The American Conservative (by far the freshest and most intellectually serious magazine on the right). Unlike the leaders of the mainstream conservative movement, Patrick Deneen, Mark T. Mitchell, Russell Arben Fox, Jeremy Beer, and the other “Porchers” have little interest in engaging with inside-the-beltway power politics. Instead, they prefer to act as gadflies, denouncing the imperial ethos and influence-peddling that dominates Washington, as well as the boundless greed that drives would-be Masters of the Universe from around the country to seek their fortunes on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Influenced by an eclectic range of thinkers, including sociologists Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, Catholic philosopher David Schindler, and poet and essayist Wendell Berry, the Porchers see conservatism as a disposition or way of living locally, within moral, religious, economic, and environmental limits, in tightly knit, sustainable community with neighbors and the natural world. If they have a rallying cry, it’s “Stay Put!” Or, in Dreher’s case, “Go Home!”
Damon did have a problem with the book, though:
If there’s a defect in the book and its message — and the message of Dreher’s localist conservative compatriots — it can be found in a pervasive confusion about what readers (or at least some readers) are supposed to do in response. If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you’re one of the tens of millions of people who can’t stay in or go home to the heartland because your home — your roots — are in the BosWash corridor of the northeast or the urbanized areas of the west coast?
I ask because I’m one of them. Born on the lower east side of Manhattan, raised in the New York suburbs of southern Connecticut, current resident of the Philadelphia Main Line, I’m unclear about what Dreher would have me do. If he’s a consistent localist, he should tell me to put down roots and immerse myself in community where I am — or perhaps in my “home towns” of New York City and Fairfield County, Connecticut. But is this even possible in a place where paying my mortgage and other bills requires that my wife and I — like my equally striving neighbors — devote ourselves to high-stress work during nearly every waking hour of our days? If I were independently wealthy, perhaps the good life that Dreher describes would be a possibility in the Philadelphia suburbs. But alas…
Couple of things here. First, as I’ve tried to make clear to audiences on this book tour, I don’t think everybody should move back to the small towns from which they come. For one thing, many, many people don’t come from a small town. Many others were raised by parents who moved a lot, and don’t have a town to return to. Still others can’t go back, and for good reasons (no jobs, broken families, and so forth). If I weren’t able to work remotely for TAC, I couldn’t have returned to St. Francisville, or at least if I had done, it would have required doing a very different kind of work, if I could have found a job at all (the school system, which is, I think, the largest employer, just laid off a bunch of teachers last week).
Rather, my advice would be to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there — achieving “stability” in the Benedictine sense. In Dallas the other night on the book tour, I saw so many good friends from our Dallas days — friends from our various communities and circles. We had a terrific community there. Had we remained in Dallas, we would have been fine. Similarly, I saw plenty of friends in the audience in Philly. Same deal there, though we hadn’t lived there long.
The point is, you can live a very rooted life in Mill Valley, California or Portland, Oregon or NYC, as long as you commit to the place in a concrete way, and root yourself in the community, via church or synagogue, school, little league, or other “little platoons.” We should return to a definition of success as laid down by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
But what do you do if you’re like Damon and his wife, and live in a place where just keeping up requires you to work crazy-long hours, and leaves little time for community life? I remember that my dad always got off at 4:30, which left him plenty of time for little league coaching and other things. I’ve only had one job my entire career as a journalist that let me off at regular hours in the evening (that was the year and a half I worked for Templeton). When I worked as a journalist in New York and then in Dallas, we never got into the habit of having dinner together as a family, because there was no telling when Dad was going to come home from the newsroom.
Anyway, maybe the lesson is that the good life is not possible in the Philadelphia suburbs, or any place where in order to keep your head above water, your job has to own you and your wife, and it keeps you from building relationships. There are trade-offs in all things, and no perfect solution, geographical or otherwise. Thing is, life is short, and choices have to be made. It’s not that people living in these workaholic suburbs are bad, not at all; it’s that the culture they (we) live in defines the Good in such a way that choosing to “do the right thing” ends up hollowing out your life, leaving you vulnerable in ways you may not see until tragedy strikes.
The life Ruthie lived is a compelling alternative, the witness of which changed my heart. And like the Good Book says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”