Book Review: Remembering

41G7NpOQDjL._SL160_There is a peculiar light to Monday mornings. Uneasy, it always feels to me, as if hurry thrummed in the very color of the day. But this past Monday, I ignored it. Rush was mobbing my conscience, but I gated it out because I was reading a book I truly could not put down. It was noon before I finished, and by that time all my bustle had been scattered by the slow, sweet rise of joy that ached in my story. I don’t think I’ve ever been so immediately affected by a book as I was by Wendell Berry’s short novel, Remembering.

I have taken Wendell Berry for my mentor. His books challenge me, especially his fiction, because they make me face what is real, hungry, and true in my own heart. This is not escapist literature- there is no whisking away involved in reading Hannah Coulter, or A Place on Earth. You don’t put down his novels like you do some modern books and wish your life weren’t so mundane. In Berry’s characters, you meet yourself. The loves, the quiet losses, the unspoken griefs, the desires for transcendence and hope that plague every one of us humans every day, get articulated in the thoughts and lives of his characters. Because of this, Mr. Berry also manages to put his finger on the pulse of what we have lost in modern culture. He writes about the loss of community, the breakup of families, the deadening ways of consumerism, the way wonder is poisoned by a materialistic view of life, and he does it with quiet, logical eloquence, demanding us to value the old ways again. He speaks what we all feel, but have no idea how to say.

I must admit though, that I have often wanted to write him a letter of protest. How, I would say, do you return to community if you never had one? I yearn for history, for a people that knows me. But how do you learn rootedness without roots? Berry himself grew up in Kentucky, the son of farmers. He left to study, and could have stayed away forever, breaking the “membership” (one of his terms) of the life to which he was born. He came back. He re-entered the fellowship of place and family that were his history and gift. Lucky him. What if you don’t have that to come back to? Could he possibly understand the sense of displacement felt by so many in my generation? I at least have the priceless grounding of a strong, loving family. But I’ve moved at least 15 times in my 25 years. I yearn to be settled, and ultimately, known. Can a nomad soul like mine and others ever find community? There is no “place on earth” waiting, hoping for our return.

That’s why I loved Remembering.

For the first time, I knew that Berry had felt my own sense of being lost in a huge grey world where nothing is personal, and no one will hold you. Remembering is a journey in and through the thoughts of middle-aged farmer Andy Catlett. I knew Andy from previous books as every story Mr. Berry writes is set in the fictional town of Port William. Andy had been a boy when I knew him in Hannah Coulter, but now he was a man who had made the hard decision to return to the farming and family he had left when he was young. The story opens in a dark San Francisco hotel room, where Andy is questioning not only his decision, but everything he loves. Injured, alienated from his wife, far from home, rejected by his peers, feeling that he is a relic from an old time never to be reclaimed, he walks out into the pre-dawn of the San Francisco streets.

The first chapters were surreal; as a reader I felt disoriented. Only at the end of the book did I realize that I was meant not just to read, but experience, the terror of being unmoored from the people who love you and the place that knows you. Everything becomes strange. Andy wanders the streets, wondering if he can return to the life he thought he had chosen in Kentucky. Homeless men and suspicious woman grip his eyes; he sees the river-like flow of nameless faces stream through the city, and wonders how anyone can ever be known, get home again. The worst comes gradually to him. He has failed. Does he even want to be found? But then, there is this moment, as dawn creeps up the edge of the ocean. He sits on a bench, just watching. And he begins to…remember. Snippet from tales told in his childhood about the courtship of his great grandparents, or the first farm of his father. The stories of the lives of the men and women whose choices, loves, had made possible the shape of his life. They rise up around him and:

He is held, though he does not hold. He is caught up again in the old pattern of entrances: of minds into minds, minds into place, places into minds. The pattern limits and complicates him, singling him out in his own flesh. Out of the multitude of possible lives that have surrounded and beckoned to him like a crowd around a star, he returns now to himself… He has met again his one life and one death, and he takes them back. It is as though, leaving, he has met himself already returning…meeting…a few dead and living whose love has claimed him forever. He will be partial and he will die; he will live out the truth of that. Though he does not hold, he is held. He is grieving, and he is full of joy. (Chapter 3)

I won’t tell you anymore, but for me, every word from there out was the slow swell of a music only to be known in loving, and choosing to love again in the face of loss and grief. It is a music half broken, but singing itself whole. In hearing it, I knew that Mr. Berry had known the ache of being lost. I knew he had fought, as I am fighting, to believe that constancy in friendship and fidelity in love is possible. I knew he had heard, as I have, the derision of a fast-paced, impersonal world, and still chose to believe that the sort of life that grows up slow and rich from the ground of faith, hope, and love, was so precious it could demand the whole of his life. I even think he’s wondered if he had it in him to stay that course.

When I got up from my chair on that Monday, I felt held. Mr. Berry, I realized, is generous with his history, offering his own memories to cradle the hopes of nomads like me. He affirmed that my hope for a place on earth is already creating one. It is a struggle and a journey, but my very desire to love creates the possibility of community. Mr. Berry and Andy Catlett were blessed to have places to come back to, but someone had to begin it. In my case, I’m the beginner. My actions of hope as I search for my place are creating the memories that will one day hold my children. I will find my place on earth. But the story I am making in the process will be part of the “remembering” that grips those coming after me. This journey is a fight, but every step of it is also an act of creation.

With Andy, I was suddenly full of joy.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Book Review: Remembering

  1. Hi Sarah, I just finished Remembering and am now reading A Place on Earth. His writing is so beautiful, I underline so much in them! I loved your post. Blessings,

  2. Oh, Sarah! I appreciate your heart and your voice so much, but never more than in this post! It speaks to my heart SO directly and deeply. I will definitely go straight from this page to Amazon.com to find those titles! Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. karma

    Sarah,
    In your searching… read the latest post at http://www.aholyexperience.com
    I think you will be blessed.

  4. A book review just made me cry.

  5. I linked to your review at my Saturday Review of Books because I think other readers might be interested. You can contribute links to your book reviews if your want each Saturday at Semicolon.

    http://www.semicolonblog.com/

  6. Sarah dear, we will always be waiting for you back here in Texas.

    Please tell your lovely mother I said hello. It’s been a while.

    In Christ’s hands,
    Lynn

  7. Alden

    Sarah,
    I just found your review from my Google alert for Wendell Berry. I was astounded to read your insightful review and how you so deftly integrated the book into your own nomadic live experience. I too, at nearly 60 still feel the wounds of my own early history of no “place”. It was with joy and recognition of the truth for me that I read your line; “He affirmed that my hope for a place on earth is already creating one.” I’ve been reading Wendell Berry for nearly 40 years, everything available, and can only begin to know what that has meant for me being what and where I am today. I believe his work is sacred text. I believe you are on a holy path. Bless you, your place and what you are imagining.

  8. So, Sarah, thanks to you, I am now, unexpectedly, a Wendell Berry fan, having never read a single word of his work other than what you’ve shared. I will soon remedy that regrettable circumstance.

    Funny though, your words more than his, in this post, have prompted my heart’s movement. Especially, the simple phrase, “. . .I felt held.”

    Very nice, Sarah. Very nice.

  9. HI…a friend sent me a link to your review. I like what Alden said in her comment ” I believe you are on a holy path.”
    Berry understands what we have lost in Modernity and gives
    us like Jan Karon a biblical vision to look for and as you said
    the journey as an act of creation. My high school students read his essay last year on Why I don’t have a computer and thought he was like Laura Ingalls Wilder and had no refrigerator, What a worldview shift in this generation that is raised on technology!They equated computers with refrigerators………a necessary machine. My favorite is Hannah Coulter. I loved his short stories in Fidelity. Steve Garber at the 50th L’Abri Conference in St. Louis said The Wild Birds was the best book on calling! You blessed me today!

  10. Alden

    Well, Bonnie, other than the fact that Alden is a guy, I have to agree with you in that I believe Hannah Coulter is Berry at his best. I consider it the most beautiful book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read several). That sounds like hyperbole to me and it may be, but I’m not sure it is. Wendell surely knows how to reach into his feminine self and show us all, the tender, complex and achingly beautiful souls of men and women in membership in community.

    I think Wendell would consider himself a Christian, probably hesitatingly, as do I, because of the awfulness that word implies to so many around the world and in history, but he’s a Christian who takes Jesus more seriously than he does Paul or any of the authors of the Christian scriptures and who chooses to spend his Sabbaths walking and sitting in the woods and fields of his home and writing his poetry. That’s instructive to me as a “Christian”.

    Sarah, as I have been discovering and browsing your site I have to say that the poem your dad wrote for you is one beautiful gift. I’m sure this is evidence of a whole lifetime of gifts he’s given. I’m glad you value it as you obviously do, and hope that I can/do/will learn to give such affirming and well thought gifts to my own 3 beautiful and amazing daughters.

  11. Phillip

    I just finished REMEMBERING tonight. A lovely book. And here you’ve written a lovely response to it. A son of a preacher, I moved several times growing up, always in rural areas but always tangential to them, removed, somehow. I never felt tied to the land, to the people. I grew up in Georgia but moved to the UK recently to work on a PhD in creative writing. During my time here I’ve felt the isolation Andy feels in S.F. While I have family to which I can return, I don’t have a broader community, a sense of “place.” Your insight about creating your own Port William is powerful. I hope that’s the case. I’d like to believe it is. Have you read JAYBER CROW? I’m writing about that one in the critical part of my degree program.

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  13. You don’t suppose Andy dies under the oak tree at the end of the novel, do ya? Pretty sure it’s just a dream, but goodness, part of me wonders….

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