The Poverty Of Forgetting, And Being Forgotten
Here is a fantastic post from Jake Meador, which begins with him talking about his own ancestors, and how they made him the man he is today. And then he writes:
A couple months back, I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which is an absolutely marvelous book and one that I’d warmly commend to anyone. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book and I hope it receives a broad reading. But what struck the strongest chord with me wasn’t Rod’s telling of his sister Ruthie’s story, but the way his own story differed from (and rubbed against) Ruthie’s. Rod was a bookish kid from a blue collar family. My parents were bigger readers than his, but I think the surrounding cultures we knew as children and teenagers were very similar. Rod was bullied in middle school and high school, as was I. Rod was mocked and teased for his bookish habits, as was I. And Rod felt like he wouldn’t have any peace until he left, a feeling I also developed as I reached young adulthood. But what’s so beautiful about Rod’s story is the way he’s able to still recognize and love the people of St. Francisville, even while being aware of the pain experienced as he grew up there. A man with disdain for his roots could never have written a book like Little Way.
I bring up Little Way partly because it’s just a profound book and I think everyone should read it. But I also bring it up because of what Rod says on the dedication page. He dedicated the book to his sister Ruthie’s three daughters and wrote to them on the dedication page, “This is your mother. These are your people.”
In an age marked by individualism and the constant pursuit of self actualization, I think we become profoundly impoverished if we lose track of who our people are. If we buy into the myths of self-fulfillment, self-actualization, and the more basic idea that the self is basically a construct entirely of our own making (existence precedes essence, in Sartre’s deplorable dictum), then we become impoverished. We are impoverished because our refusal to love our home places and people has the effect of severing us from all of the things distinct from our individual self that, nonetheless, are an essential part of who we are. If we hate our roots, our home place, and our home people, we are choosing to cut ourselves off from some of the most intimate and basic pieces of our identity. But we begin to become whole again by learning to love our homes–the places, the culture, and even the people.
Please read all of this remarkable post. And when you’re done, check out Southern expatriate Caroline Langston’s deeply moving short essay about driving to her parents’ graves in Mississippi, and thinking about where she wants to be buried.
I want to thank Jake from the bottom of my heart for his generous praise for my book (which will at long last be on bookshelves by this time next week). Of course I endorse his point, but I want to expand a bit on it. In Little Way, I write about Shannon, one of my sister’s early students, who came from a badly dysfunctional family, the effects of which Ruthie helped her to overcome and escape. Shannon lives in California now and is doing well, personally and professionally. The possibility of returning to our town is closed to her, she said; there’s not much for her here. Her story is as real and as valid as my story — so where does she fit into this philosophical narrative I’ve written, and that Jake endorses? Put another way, what should people who, for whatever reason or reasons, don’t have a home to return to conclude from Little Way?
I hope they will not despair over what they’ve lost (or never had), but will rather think of how they can establish such a place where they are, for themselves and for their own children, or future children. In the book, I write about how I started a new life when I left home at 16 to go to the Louisiana School. I felt there for the first time since early childhood a deep sense of belonging, of rest, of peace. This is not an uncommon experience for people, this having to leave home to feel at home, to feel accepted and affirmed. In my case, I’m fortunate to have been given the grace to come back to my actual hometown, but that won’t be the case for many people who read this book. My hope, then, and my advice, is to do your best to make a stable and welcoming home wherever you are. We could have done this in Dallas, Julie and I, and we could have done it in Philadelphia. We couldn’t have done this, though, if we had resisted commitment to place and to stability.
In Little Way, you’ll read about how my dad inadvertently made it hard for me to consider returning home because he had such demanding and uncompromising expectations for the kind of man he wanted his son to be. Toward the end of the book, he makes a shocking confession to me about the bargain he made within himself as a young man, regarding his future and his fidelity to family and place, and what he thinks about it today, at the end of his life. I’m not going to spoil the surprise — which nothing had prepared me for — but let me simply say that it complicates the narrative. It’s a difficult thing, trying to negotiate your own life and identity between the virtuous limits placed on your by family and place and the givenness of the world into which you were born, and your own legitimate need to be your own man, to explore and develop your own gifts, talents, and calling.
When Jake says, “We begin to become whole again by learning to love our homes–the places, the culture, and even the people,” he’s right. The corollary to that, though, is that we begin to become whole again when our people begin to love us as we are, not as they demand that we be. It’s a lesson my dad learned from his own life, and that in some ways failed to learn. This stuff is hard. The point is that to come home is not only to embrace what you have been given, but to be embraced as well. To see is necessary, but so is to be seen. Absent this mutuality, homecoming cannot be complete.