Ruthie's last birthday, May 15, 2011

Ruthie’s last birthday, May 15, 2011. We did not know until later how much physical pain was behind that smile

Today’s mail brought a package from some friends in another part of the country. It was a book sent as a thank-you gift for my lecture. Last fall, I went to speak at a private Christian liberal arts school. I gave a talk about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and had a great time. I’m not going to identify the school out of an abundance of caution for privacy concerns, but I have to share with you the amazing things these college kids said.

First, their professor wrote:

The students had to write a reflection on your book the week before you arrived. … Reading paper after paper where the student connected with you in unique ways was unlike anything in my 10 years of teaching. Never before have I assigned a book where the impact, at least on some level, was so universal.

Earlier in the semester I had a poet come speak to the class about his work. He taught the class and I about how the Spirit takes the words we share and often gives them a life of their own — weaving into the narrative of each readers’ mind and generation meaning that was sometimes very far from what the author intended.

As I read my students’ reflection papers, I was struck by how it seems that even with your straightforward prose, it seems that each reader had their own connection and drew their own conclusions. Some are ones I was surprised by, but in every paper there was a connection.

As an educator, that was such a great gift. It’s a gift that I can’t keep to myself. It is not mine to keep; I share it with others, and in the pages that follow, I share it with you. I have extracted at least a few sentences from every paper that was submitted.

I hope these pages offer you a bit of encouragement. Having seen the power of your story from readers who otherwise wouldn’t have read your book, I have great optimism regarding your book’s upcoming paperback release. Through its publication, the Spirit will bring more and more people to sit at your feet and hear the tale of Paw’s family and have their spirits stirred.

Here are excerpts from his students’ papers:

I found myself time and time again while reading this, saying to myself that I wanted to be more like Ruthie. The way she loved and helped other unconditionally and unselfishly was illuminating. I will strive to be more like her in the ways I understand and relate to people.

I know in some ways that I am more like Rod; I love to travel and see the world and have deep theological and philosophical conversations. I do not think I could ever simplify my theology to the point that Ruthie had, nor could I even if I tried, but now I do see the merit to it. Overall, this book gave such a new perspective on faith, love, and community, and I know it will stay in my heart for a long time. The experience of reading this book was not open and shut; the more I think about Ruthie and Rod’s stories, the more I learn from them and from myself.

Another:

While reading The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, I found myself more emotionally attached to the story than any other story I’ve ever read. … The connection I felt with the author and the characters throughout the book made the lessons that I learned while reading it that much more valuable. I wouldn’t be surprised if I turned back to this memoir later in my life to help me make a big decision or to help me cope with the death of a loved one.

The lesson to be gained from Ruthie and Rod’s decisions is that relationships are more important than any other factor. If I run off to South America or grad school in Oregon when I graduate, I need to realize that I will be lonely. No worldly item or city or festival will ever replace the bonds between friends and family that I have back home. The question I need to answer is if it’s worth the sacrifice for me; am I willing to give up friendships in order to go on an adventure?

Another:

I think the simplicity of Ruthie’s life was incredibly powerful. It brought to light how skewed my view of the important things in life had gotten. I had definitely lost sight of the fact my relationships with people rather than material things were ultimately going to make me happy in life.

Another:

At numerous points, Rod Dreher mentions the importance of finding his inner peace and happiness, the way Ruthie did. It did not have to be in a fancy new car or a mansion, but in the comfort and love of his family and friends. I find this to be so important. When reading this book I was overcome with many emotions due to the fact that I have lost a sister as well.

Another:

Everyone seems to always say to live without regrets by spending time with family during the short time they are with us but never change the relationships that they currently have. In me this has brought about some thoughts of peacefulness. I do not really get along with my parents and am starting to now think about taking an approach like Ruthie. Just being there, peacefully avoiding confrontation. Is this really truly better? Rod was deeply hurt that Ruthie could not tell him to his face, but would show her feelings to other people. Maybe it is better to speak your mind and get things out into the air. It will be hard but doing the right thing hardly ever is. This book is so riveting and powerful it will stay with me for a long time. I had actually gone in with a very negative mindset thinking it would be terribly boring and not worthwhile. However, I came out of it deeply affected.

Another:

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book; at first I was a little reluctant to read it mainly based on the reviews within the book cover. They all say the book will “change you,” bring you to tears … That is exactly what it did for me, from the beginning with the connection amongst the siblings, and the relationships they had I felt the pain when Rod left and moved away, and the excitement when Ruthie and Mike met and fell in love. Throughout Ruthie’s sickness I felt the pain and hurt that her family experienced; it seemed after every five pages or so I’d find myself tearing up and relating to the emotions all of them were going through.

On and on they go like this. Thank you, friends!

Please don’t think I post these here as a form of self-aggrandizement. I post them rather in amazement at the power of story to affect people. Every time I hear from a reader of Little Way about how the story affected their life, Ruthie’s hopeful line comes to mind: “We just don’t know what God is going to do with this.” This was what she would say to me when I would be tempted by despair over her cancer. She was trying to make me see that God had a purpose here, though we may not be able to see it. Good will come out of this, just have faith.

Every time somebody tells me how reading about Ruthie made them think about what’s really important in life, I am shown that Ruthie’s hope was vindicated. And it renews my faith in my own vocation as a writer — and in the vocation of writing itself. I offer this as an encouragement to struggling writers — there’s one reader of this blog in particular who comes to mind — as an encouragement to stick with storytelling.

It’s so, so easy to get caught up as a writer in the controversies of the day, in the passion and anger of all these things. Every one of us, writer or not, are guilty of these things, and we justify them by telling ourselves that we are right. But it is possible to be wrong, even though you are right, if you follow me. I can’t learn that lesson often enough.  I wish I could find within me the wherewithal to stay focused on stories that brought real hope, instead of getting so caught up in those that only discourage. Here I sit in my armchair, chronically ill with mono, overcome by the news of the day, every day, but now and again, something comes in the mail that makes me see reality again, which had been obscured by my own worries, anxieties, and passions. Again: thank you, friends up north. You made my day. Later, when I show your writing to Mam and Paw, who still grieve, it will make theirs too.

Say, college students, here’s where I will be speaking this month, in case you want to come out and hear talk about the Little Way:

March 17, Grand Rapids, MI: Cornerstone University, 7pm

March 24, Wichita, KS: Friends University (7 to 9pm)

March 27, Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University (conference on the new book “Why Place Matters,” 1-5 pm; registration required)

I believe all these events are open to the public, but keep watching this space for more information.

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