Hannah Coulter

A few weeks ago, my boss (and pastor) told me that I had to read a book because I reminded him a lot of the main character. Knowing all too well the sarcastic nature of his personality/our conversations and the limited amount of time he had actually spent around me, I was sure this was meant to be an insult/joke of some type.  If not an insult, surely an overly simplified view of what someone who grew up in a small town must be like.  He assured me I was wrong and I immediately started reading…and assembling my defense.

What I found was not a sarcastic joke.  What I found was one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read…and a character that perhaps more than any other, that I could relate too.  What I found was an accurate picture of small town culture.  A picture that didn’t romanticize nor diminish the beauty and complexity of simplicity.  What I found was a compliment.  What I found was poetry in novel form and countless lines I had to underline just because of the way the language was assembled.

Instead of arguing my defense, I had to swallow my pride, apologize, say thank you, and admit that the good, bad, and ugly wasn’t that far off of who I am/want to become…with a few exceptions.  Keith wrote a review you can read here.  I’ve decided to take another route and instead. Here are a few favorite snippets of Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry.

“This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed…This is my story, my giving of thanks…Sometimes I was grateful because I knew I ought to be, sometimes because I wanted to be and sometimes a sweet thankfulness came to me on its own, like a singing from somewhere out in the dark.  I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief that my life had been filled with gifts.”

“There is always some shame and fear in this, I think, shame for the terrible selfishness and loneliness of grief, and fear of the difference between your grief and anybody elses’s.  But this is a kind of courtesy too and a kind of honesty, an unwillingness to act as if loss and grief and suffering are extraordinary.  And there is something else: an honoring of the solitude in which the grief you have to bear will have to be borne.  Should you fall on your neighbors shoulder and weep in the midst of work?  Should you go to the store with tears on your face?  No.  You are fine.  And yet the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end.  once in a while we hear it sung out in a hymn, when every throat seems suddenly widened with love and common longing: In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.”

“Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one.”

“Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air.  It is not something thought up.  Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground.  It has a body and a place.”

“She shaped my life, without of course knowing what my life would be.  She taught me many things that I was going to need to know, without either of us knowing I would need to know them.  She made the connections that made my life, as you will see.  If it hadn’t been for her, what would my life have been?  I don’t know.  I know it surely would have been different.  And it is only looking back, as an old woman myself, like her a widow and a grandmother, that I can see how much she loved me and can pay her out of my heart the love I owe her.”

“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…And as our work shaped our workplaces, our work and our workplaces shaped our days.”

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good.  Living without hope is harder, and that is bad.  You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it.  Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’…Life without expectations was still life and life was still good.  The light that had lighted us into this world was lighting through it.  We loved each other and lived right on.  We sat down to the food we had grown and ate it and praised it and were thankful for it.  We suffered the thoughts of the nights and at dawn woke up and went back to work.  The world that so often had disappointed us and made us sorrowful sometimes made us happy by surprise.”

“When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was.  You are remembering it as it is.  It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.  Your life, as you have lived it, is way back yonder in time.  But you are still living, and your living life, expectations subtracted, has a shape and the shape of it includes the past.  The absent and the dead are in it.  And the living are in it.”

“I suffered my hard joy, I gave my thanks, I cried my cry.  And then I turned again to that other world I had taught myself to know, the world that is neither past nor to come, the present world where we are alive together and love keeps us.”

“Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is…I want to leave here openhanded, with only the ancient blessing, ‘Good-bye.  My love to you all.'”

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