Rod Dreher’s Tribute to Living “Small”

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher has paid a poignant tribute to his sister and family, and at the same time given us one of the finest pictures of a caring small-town American community that I’ve ever read.

Dreher’s younger sister, Ruthie Leming, lived just outside of small St. Francisville, Louisiana, in the even smaller community of Starhill, her whole life. She grew up, married, began raising her own daughters within walking distance of her parents, and taught hundreds of her neighbors’ children there. Her brother, Rod, got out as soon as he could. He became a journalist, also started a family, and moved around between Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

Then, at age 40, Ruthie got sick with cancer. She spent the next nineteen months continuing to live life to the fullest by loving her family and friends, which as Dreher explains, was something she had practiced her whole life.

But, what is perhaps even more beautiful and amazing is the love that her community gives back to her and her family as they, to quote the psalm, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Less than two years later she died. But only after an incredible mutual outpouring of compassion and sacrificial service.

All of this serves to reveal to Dreher virtues in his sister and in his small hometown that he had not seen or appreciated before. What makes this story so important is that these virtues are in fact denigrated by much in American culture. Ruthie’s, and her small town’s, “little way” of living life might seem provincial, lacking ambition, even a dead end to self-fulfillment and prosperity. But, in fact, this way of living creates a close-knit habitat where relationships flourish and people can and will take care of their neighbor. This becomes so powerfully clear to Dreher and his wife when they come back for Ruthie’s funeral that, taking advantage of some providential circumstances, they leave Philadelphia to make their home, back home, in St. Francisville.

This wonderful story is wonderfully told by Dreher. The narrative moves along. Flashbacks to Rod’s and Ruthie’s childhoods are funny, touching, and essential to understanding them and their wider family and community. But, perhaps most important to making this story real, is Dreher’s unflinchingly honest portrayal of Ruthie, their family, and himself. There is much to be admired, but I can believe this story because all of these people also have their faults – serious ones. All is not harmony and light. In fact, the intrafamily conflict is integral to Dreher’s telling, and our appreciation, of the story. As Dreher’s Christian faith teaches, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” It is also Dreher’s faith that allowed him to see God’s grace at work suffusing a devastating and tragic situation with light and love.

My Favorite Memoir

Mary Karr‘s Lit is my new favorite memoir. (I’m not sure what my old favorite memoir was.) That I would love Lit seems pretty unlikely. I confess my gender bias – I’m more likely to read a man’s memoir than a woman’s. Add to this the facts that Karr’s childhood was a whirlwind of abuse, violence, insanity, and other varieties of dysfunction, she was an atheist from childhood, had a wild and rebellious adolescence, married rich, became an alcoholic and a divorcee, sank into depression to the point of being suicidal – I could go on and on about how our lives have been worlds apart. Of course, reading about someone so different does have its appeals – especially if that person is a writer and storyteller extraordinaire. Karr’s memoir is funny, humble, and searingly honest. And best of all a good story.

On her journey to destruction – and there’s no other way to describe it – Karr is interrupted by – God. She doesn’t welcome the interruption. But gradually, she recognizes that she truly is powerless to change herself. She reluctantly begins praying. Raw, angry, irreverent praying – but  real and without pretense. And God shows up. [UPDATE: Or as Karr begins to recognize: he was there all the time.]

This is not some pious, weepy, I-once-was-messed-up-and-now-I’m-perfect religious tract. Karr didn’t see God slipping up on her – and the reader doesn’t see him coming until about two-thirds of the way into the book. Nevertheless, I found this book a more inspiring testimony to the power of unvarnished, need-driven, from-the-gut prayer than any of the half dozen “religious” books I’ve read on the subject.

Mary Karr, Lit, and Joy

I’m reading Mary Karr‘s memoir, Lit. She’s on to something about what sets joy apart from other similar feelings with this description of the moment when she first looks into the eyes of her newborn son: 

“…from the instant his gaze brushes by me, some inner high beams flip on. Never have I felt such blazing focus for another living creature. I can’t stop looking at him. Joy, it is, which I’ve never known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing because its focus exists outside the self – delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving.”

Hoping for Some More Hope

Our little church gathered this past Sunday evening in our living room to celebrate Easter. (We rotate where we meet between the homes of the members.) A couple brought news from another church they also attend. A local man had been sent to hospice, the doctors believing there was nothing left to be done for him except to care for him as he died. Last week, some men from that church went to his hospice bed and prayed for his healing. On Sunday morning, the man drove himself to the Easter morning service.

To put it mildly, I don’t have much experience with seeing God heal people. My prayers for sick people are pretty bland. “Lord, please heal Jack (or Jill). But, if you don’t, I believe You’ll still use their sickness for good.” Nothing wrong with that prayer. Except my usual attitude when I pray it.

I believe, in an intellectual, theoretical sort of way, that God can and does heal people. I even trust God to do what is best and good. What I realized Sunday, as I heard the story of the Man From Hospice and the Men Who Prayed for His Healing, and as we talked about a number of other things going on in our lives, is that I usually have an even bigger problem than lack of faith. I lack hope.

Hope. A desire and longing that the picture in my mind of wholeness, goodness, and wellness really will come to pass. My underdeveloped imagination has a hard time painting such pictures. In an earlier age, I would have been categorized as a melancholic – and not just for being thoughtful. I like to quote the motto that a pessimist is never disappointed. I liked Philip Yancey’s book, Disappointment with GodMy prophylactic for disappointment with God, which by the way Yancey would not approve of, is to keep expectations low. Of course, I usually prefer to describe them as realistic expectations. I’m a big fan of realistic expectations. But as I think about it, I don’t think God is. The God described in the Bible seems delighted when people have the expectation that He can do anything, and they have hope that He will.

Faith, hope, and love have been lumped together at least as far back as when St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Love is the greatest of these, but as long as we’re in this world, we profit from all three. Faith without love can be bitter and hard. Faith without hope can be dull,  detached, and depressing.

I think I’ll give realistic expectations a rest, and instead give my imagination a little freer reign to hope for the best for the people around me who need a change for the better. Given that, as the old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” how can I go wrong?