Saturday, May 8, 2010

What I Learned This Week By Opening One Book

The book:  Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry

When they were young, I suppose all my thoughts about the children started with knowing they were mine. Because they were mine, I had to think of what I should do for them, of what Nathan and I could do for them to get them started in the world. Now all my thoughts about them start with knowing they are gone.

. . .

I take some blame on myself for this. Maybe, given the times and fashions, it couldn't have happened any other way. But I am sorry for my gullibility, my lack of foreknowledge, my foolish surprise at the way it turned out. Grandmam, who never went to high school, was desperate for me to go to  high school. And I, who never went to college, was desperate for my children to go to college. Nathan, who also had never been to college, was less ambitious for the children than I was, but he agreed with me. We both wanted to send them to college, because we felt we owed it to them. That was the way we explained it to ourselves . . . It just never occurred to either of us that we would lose them that way. The way of education leads away from home. That is what we learned from our children's education.

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.

This isn't information I learned, exactly, but an idea I'm chewing on. Intimately bound up in my children's education, and asking myself all the time not only what to do, but what it's for,  I do think about this:  if they go away, they'll never come home.

And, well, if they do and they don't, they do and they don't, and it will be something of myself to sacrifice. On the other hand, I have let them know that I would be perfectly happy and proud of them if they lived around the corner from me and brought my many grandchildren to play in my house every day. I've told them this not only out of selfishness -- though it's an idea not unalloyed by selfishness -- but because sometimes I think that people need permission not to strive for greatness, whatever exactly that is, when what will make them happy is not to be great or striving, but to live simply with, and near, people they love.

Anyway, that's what I've been reading, and that's what's in my mind. You?

Related:  A meditation on Mariette in Ecstasy.
MM with some biblical textual exegesis.

Meanwhile, you can revisit great posts from previous weeks, and if you've happened to write a book post lately, you're welcome to add it below:


Discourse said...

I keep meaning to read this book. I read Old Man Jack, and Hannah seems the place to go next.

I am absolutely in agreement with you, that our children shouldn't be pushed to be "someone". I think a simple life is the strongest way to live faithfully. Then one has time to dwell on God's mysteries, and to purposefully act for His Kingdom. Life isn't all wrapped up in living "my life". I wanted to be a up and coming photographer, but if that had ever worked out, I probably wouldn't have kids. I don't know that I'd be a Christian, even.

It's taken me awhile to realize I don't have to do great things with my life to be a great person and to affect other's lives. Great things are often done with little or no renown.

Lovely post, thanks.

Sally Thomas said...

Yes, it's a marvelous novel. My friend MM, who lived with us last summer, spent many evenings reading to me aloud from a book of Berry's Port William short stories, so this is a longer stay in the same wise place.

Of course, all this particular wisdom regarding children and education is something which, today, I'm balancing against my oldest daughter's acceptance into a college summer program in Dallas. It's rigorous and high-profile . . . and I'm sure it'll make her want to go there . . . and it's absolutely what I want for her . . . but man, it's not easy.

Sally Thomas said...

Go there for college, I mean. No question but what she's going there this summer. At least after that we get her back for another year.

martha said...

what a lovely post, sally. i fell hard for wendell berry in college, but that's not one i got to. (i don't think it was out when i was reading my way through his novels.) obviously i need to revisit this author.

i think one of the great gifts our parents gave us was making us feel we could do anything but then not minding if we didn't, or not so much. i've made my peace with the fact i'll never be a famous artist and am striving for the (hopefully) reasonable goal of a successful regional one, but if i end up only doing something i love in a place i love near family and friends that i love, it will be a life well and happily lived.

plus, i went off to college and came home to try to better my own place, so that can happen too. i think berry was talking esp. about coming back to the family farm and that lifestyle in an isolated place.

Sally Thomas said...

I think you're right that Berry is speaking from the locus of agrarianism, and the abandonment of an agrarian and localized life for something which has been presented as "more." In the novel, the one son with an affinity for farming is told by his professors that he's "too smart to waste" his life on a farm, so he becomes a professor of agriculture instead.

Certainly that's not the inevitable outcome of a college education, but it is a common enough one for one reason or another. And I'm hardly one to say that this is out and out a bad thing, since I did leave home myself -- though it's worth noting that I was only doing what I was explicitly told I should do, and then life took over . . .

In a passage just following the one I excerpted in this post, Hannah describes her feeling that her children should have something better than what she herself had come from, and her husband rebukes her (gently) by saying that this is ingratitude, and that she should not be ashamed of her own life and background as if it were somehow less than whatever she wants the children to aspire to. I find that interesting, and wise, as well.

Melanie B said...

I've often wished in my lifetime that I'd been more frequently given permission not to strive for greatness. I feel like much of my life up until marriage was a tension between the hidden desire of my heart to be a wife and mother and all the voices which kept pushing me toward a career, toward more and better.

And yet I wouldn't trade that college education for anything. I only wish that perhaps the foundation laid before college had been a little more stable. Perhaps I could have avoided a few of the worst mistakes I made along the way.

I do hope your daughter enjoys that summer program. Oh I almost wish I could be her age again and setting off on such grand adventures.

Emily J. said...

Love, love Hannah Coulter. It seems like every page had a passage worth marking.

But Berry himself is proof that you can go and get an education and still go home. Sometimes I'm afraid I am not ambitious enough for my children. While I like to think of myself as a realist, I'm afraid I might pass on a bit of cynicism to them.

Sally Thomas said...

Melanie: No, I don't regret my own education, and I would not want my children to miss those years of intellectual formation and reflection. In my own education, I do regret that more of it was not aimed simply at living the life of the mind -- my undergraduate degree was in education (though I took as much literature and as little education as possible), and my attempts at graduate degrees, though they were intensely valuable in buying me time to write, were also exercises in exposure to the careerism of academia, which I found I couldn't care less about. My mother was quite upset with me for not having "letters after my name," but it's never bothered me one bit to be letterless, nor has letterlessness prevented my doing things I really wanted to do.

Anyway, college as a "life of the mind" experience is what I aim for for my kids. What they do with that is up to them, of course. But I'd rather they spent those years, and the years leading up to them, learning to tell a good idea from a bad one, how to reflect and discern, how to determine what will be a life well lived, than preparing for life on one treadmill or another.

Emily: I think Berry is a voice crying in the wilderness, saying that the best thing you can do with an education *is* to go home, a message which runs counter to what much of education would like to tell you -- "you're too smart" to do such-and-such, it would be "wasting your life" to do x or y.

Personally, this is a beef less with college than with a certain kind of prep-school ethos which says, "Be tomorrow's leaders today! Be great! Do interesting things with your life! Don't settle for second-best!" I'm afraid I can be a real cynic about that . . .

And I can worry, too, that I'm too un-ambitious for my children, but what I really want them to do is whatever will make them most happy. And somehow I think that my being ambitious for them would not make them happy in the present, or lead them to happiness in the future.