Monday, July 16, 2012

Jayber Crow

I have long appreciated the non-fiction writing of Wendell Berry - who speaks of the messiness of life with such beauty and reverence, evoking the poetic from the mundane. I had not, until this week, read any of his poetry or fiction. Upon the recommendation of many friends, I grabbed Jayber Crow from the local library.

The author gives fair warning that the story, on a barber in small-town Kentucky, has no subtext, and that any effort to find one or otherwise analyze or explain the novel will result in banishment. In deference to the author, I will simply relay a few choice quotes that spoke deeply to me. Port William is the small town previously mentioned, and as much the main character as he in the title.

From Chapter 12:

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line - starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King's Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led - make of that what you will.

From Chapter 19:

It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

From Chapter 23:

I had not, you see, arrived at any place of rest. Maybe I had not solved a single problem or come any nearer to the peace which passeth all understanding. But I was changed. I had entered, as I now clearly saw, upon the way of love, and it changed everything. It was not a way that I found for myself, but a way I found myself following. Maybe I had always followed it, blunderingly and uncertainly. But now, though it was still a dark way, I was certainly following it.

From Chapter 27:

Some of the changes in my life were imposed, and some were chosen - if by 'chosen' I may mean that I chose what I seemed already to have been chosen by, desire having obscured the alternatives. And each change has been a birth, each having taken me to a new life from which I could not go back.

From Chapter 29:

I feel that I have lived on the edge of even my own life. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan. Any more than if I had been a bystander watching me live my life, I don't feel that I ever have been quite sure what was going on. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn't stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along.

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