Walked out of my Asheville hotel room into the cool, crisp air of the Southern highlands, and went to breakfast with Ed at Over Easy. I had the breakfast tacos, with the Lentenly correct tempeh, with habanero sauce. It was really good. The drive down to Atlanta, much of it through the Smoky Mountains, made me grateful for what a beautiful country we live in. I found an Eighties station on satellite radio, and had a blast reliving my high school years, all the way to Atlanta.
Which was appropriate, as it turned out, because who should show up at my Little Way
reading at the Eagle Eye bookstore but Tedra and Darin, two of my closest friends from high school. It was so great to see them, and upped the LSU contingent impressively. I was also thrilled to see Bill, an old Illinois-born friend of the Dreher family’s (Bill’s dad and my dad became close after serving in the US Coast Guard together in the 1950s). I made a new friend, Imran, a reader of this blog who was kind enough to give me a very complimentary introduction. And Ruthie and Mike’s dear, dear friend Frank came in for the event, which shocked me; I had forgotten that Frank lives in Atlanta.
After I finished my reading and talk, I asked Frank if he wanted to say a few words about Ruthie. Frank said he’d read the book already, and that he thought it was fantastic; he said I captured Ruthie and the whole Starhill crew as they really were, and are. He added that he drove over to visit Ruthie and Mike a week or so after her diagnosis, and found Ruthie in the kitchen, cooking breakfast for everybody, sick as she was. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Later in the day, I had a conversation with a young writer friend, a fellow Christian, about vocation. We talked about how so many idealistic young Christians are haunted by the conviction that they have to be doing Great And Big Things, and Saving The World, or they will have failed God. (A parallel and closely related fear: that if they don’t do something directly in ministry, they will disappoint God.) I told my friend that Ruthie’s example shows how doing little things with fidelity and abiding love can have a tremendous effect for the good. Hearing from all those former students of Ruthie’s who told me and my mom and dad how she had changed their lives in that nine months they had her as a teacher was heart-shaking. One woman told us she found her vocation to be a teacher as a kid in Ruthie’s classroom. Another told us that she works today in psychology at UCLA because Ruthie refused to let her believe that there was no chance a poor country kid like her could be a psychologist. And so forth.
Ruthie was a middle-school math teacher in a public school in a small place. She may not have saved the world, but she saved the world of Shannon Nixon, the girl who’s now on staff at UCLA, and who calls Ruthie “my angel.” She did similar things for lots of kids. When Ruthie died, Lyric Haynes, a troubled girl whose mother was in prison, but whom Ruthie helped in her classroom, told my mother in line at Ruthie’s wake, “Mrs. Leming is dead. Who’s going to love me now?”
Remember the final paragraph of Middlemarch:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
“If my book does any good in the world,” I told my friend, “it will be in part because my father stayed faithful for 25 years to a state job he hated, because he loved his family, and wanted to be a good provider. He and my mom made this book possible by their faithfulness in raising me, and providing for my education and formation.”
Ruthie’s “little way” is small town in nature, but it’s small town in a way that is widely transferable. It’s the decision to accept a path and a field of service which puts personal relationships and face-to-face commitments first. You could live out, and be sustained by this humbler journey, whether in a Utica or a Toboso, on Hudson Avenue or Partridge Court. It only asks that you look at those around you and see Christ in them, Christ loving you, and Christ Jesus’ own smile delighting in your offer of service.
… Today, all four of us kids live in different places across the Midwest, and even my parents are much of the year down where snow shoveling is not on the menu. But I think of that town often, and the life it gave me. Then I recall my parents’ hometowns, both under a thousand in population, both surrounded by fields and far from big box stores even today.
Those locations, and the sense of community they once held, still are part of who I am. Reading “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” didn’t make me think about moving back to Kansas, Illinois or Anita, Iowa (or even Thirsk, North Yorkshire), but all those communities make me look more closely at the neighborhood where I live, the village we reside in and the unique nature of this marvelous county where my wife and I work. How are bonds of mutual obligation and cycles of tradition a life-giving framework for our family, and for the work we believe our family is meant to be doing — not just anywhere, but right here?
Walking a little way can be a way of greatness, if you are properly prepared.
TOMORROW: The Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga. Come on, Southerners, I want to see you.