Book Review: Hannah Coulter, membership and modern life

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It’s not a secret that I love Wendell Berry. One of the first posts I ever wrote on this blog was about Jayber Crow, and I find a way to include a Wendell Berry book on about every top ten list I possibly can.

Recently I re-read Hannah Coulter for a book group. Hannah Coulter is a novel very much in the vein of Jayber Crow. The language is beautiful in its simplicity. Nothing particularly exciting happens. Hannah lives her life. She gains wisdom. Her husband dies. Her children move away. She mourns the diminishment of the membership.

If you were to outline the plot of Hannah Coulter, it would sound so incredibly boring. Perhaps the plot of many great works of fiction would. And yet, you are moved. I am moved. I can’t tell you how many times Hannah Coulter makes me cry. And smile. And look out my window and contemplate the world.

What I contemplated mostly in this most recent reading is the idea of a membership. This is something you see in Jayber Crow, as well. The subtitle of the novel is, “The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, As Written by Himself.” What exactly is a membership?

Here’s an excerpt from Jayber Crow which perhaps describes what it means to be part of a membership:

Theoretically, there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have. But then this person must meet herself coming back: Theoretically, there always is a better worker, spouse, and friend than she is. This surely describes one of the circles of Hell, and who hasn’t traveled around it a time or two?

I have got to the age now where I can see how short a time we have to be here. And when I think about it, it can seem strange beyond telling that this particular bunch of us should be here on this little patch of ground in this little patch of time, and I can think of the other times and places I might have lived, the other kinds of man I might have been. But there is something else. There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with another and with the place and all the living things.

This quote also makes me cry, partly because my niece read it at my wedding, but also just because it is such a wonderful distillation of wisdom and truth. To be a part of a membership is to belong to each other and to the place in which you live. It is to see the ways in which our lives are woven together.

In the novels, it is Burley Coulter, the itinerant rambler, who is always talking about the membership. Some people know they’re a part of it, and some don’t. But there it is all the same. If you read a Wendell Berry novel, you can feel the membership living in its pages. I grew up in a small, rural town that was disappearing out from under me, so I felt like I absorbed the ghost of a fading membership. For me that involved my family and my community, and the two of them were deeply intertwined. To be a part of that membership was to be known, not just for yourself as an individual, but for how you plugged in to a larger social fabric. You were yourself, but also and always, the daughter of someone, the granddaughter of someone, the niece, the neighbor, the friend, the classmate. You lived tucked neatly into a complex web of social life. You were woven together.

This is something that comes from having spent generations in the same place with the same families, and so it’s not something you can pick up and take with you. I cannot be woven into the fabric of Madison in quite that same way. Few people can because we are always moving around.

Berry doesn’t write about how this woven-together-ness isn’t always pleasant. I only missed and cherished my membership after I had left it. Up until that point, I just wanted to get out. And my parents encouraged me to get out. Here’s a quote from Hannah Coulter about education and “getting out”:

The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true.

Hannah loses her children to their education, and I lost my membership to education and to the forces of suburbanization that were destroying it anyway. Though perhaps it would have been there for me in another form even if I had stayed.  And perhaps a membership is something you can carry with you, even after you leave.

I believe very strongly that humans are social animals. We need a membership, and in modern life, we have created a set of conditions that seem to work against the formation of just such a thing. Few of us can have the kind of membership that comes from spending generations in the same place anymore. But can we still weave our lives together? Can we feel connected to the place we live and the people who live in that place with us and all the living things?

The first week of 2012 was a hard one for me. There was ugliness and anger and anxiety, much of which probably didn’t have to exist, but there it is all the same. And in the midst of it, I forgot about my membership. A membership sustains you, and I have one here in my little town. A membership should make you feel cared for and uplifted and as if you belong somewhere. It should reflect back to you the best version of yourself. And it was there all the time, in the middle of my chaos, if I could just take a moment and see it.

I’m lucky to live in a small town like Madison and to have found a membership here. I don’t know if it’s as easy for people in other places. In Berry’s novels, nothing good ever happens when people leave Port William. They get divorced. They go to war. They become lost and alienated when they are removed from the membership. What does this mean for people like my sister in the suburbs? Or for my friends in the city? Or for all of us here in Madison? I would like to believe membership is possible everywhere, but it seems the difference might be that in our modern world, all the things that exist outside the membership in Port William are dwelling right on top of us. If Port William is an island, a sanctuary where membership survives and the current of the modern world has no pull, it is truly a fiction. I don’t believe there is such a place of purity for those of us living outside the pages of Berry’s novels. You don’t have to leave Port William for the bad things to happen in real life; they’re already there with you…in your town and your home and your living room. No matter where you live, the difficulties are the same. The stream of our modern culture does not flow towards membership. If you wade too deeply into that current, it will always drag you away. To be a part of a membership takes patience and generosity and love and kindness. And the conditions of our modern lives sometimes make those things feel as if they are in short supply. I believe that they are not. I hope that they are infinite.

The world Wendell Berry creates in Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow is a beautiful one. But it is a world of the past, and perhaps a past that never completely existed for any of us. We cannot go backwards. We can’t all be farmers anymore. In one lifetime, we cannot recreate the generations-worth of relationships we may have lost. But we can try to fight the current of modern life that pulls us away from membership. It will be like swimming upstream sometimes in the face of our daily lives, but we can do the hard work of building a membership. We can rejoice in the short time we have here together and the ways in which we are bound together. We can’t live in Port William, but we can visit, and perhaps, take a bit of it with us.

Other lovely quotes from Hannah Coulter:

As the years passed and our life changed, the place changed. It emerged, you might say, from what it had been into what we needed and wanted it to be, never perfect of course, but always a little better. It came under the influence of what we foresaw in it, and our ways of using it and going about in it.

And again I come to the difficulty of finding words. It is hard to say what it means to be at work and thinking of a person you loved and love still who did that same work before you and who taught you to do it. It is a comfort ever and always, like hearing the rhyme come when you are singing a song.

You have consented to time and it is winter. The country seems bigger, for you can see through the bare trees. There are times when the woods is absolutely still and quiet. The house holds warmth. A wet snow comes in the night and covers the ground and clings to the trees, making the whole world white. For a while in the morning the world is perfect and beautiful. You think you will never forget.

You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you thatt there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.

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