“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot
Home. It’s a mythic notion. Two of the three great epics of the Greco-Roman world trade explicitly in its associations. Odysseus and Aeneas each journey homeward – the former back toward the home he left that yet remains, although not unchanged; the latter, his home destroyed, moves forward toward a home yet to be found. The Odyssey, then, is a story about those who have a home to go back to, and the Aeneid is a story for those who long for home but have no place that answers to the name.
And then there is the story of Cain in the book of Genesis. After Cain murdered his brother, he was condemned to be a wanderer, forever alienated from God and family. His plight presents itself as an allegory of the human condition. But then there was a twist. Cain, we are told, went on to build a city, he would not be a wanderer after all; and his descendants are reckoned the founders of agriculture, metallurgy, and the arts – in short, of human civilization. Out of the dissatisfactions of homelessness, we are led to conclude, flowed the great achievements of human culture. But the narrator has the last word. He tells us that Cain built his city in the land of Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for wandering. It is a touch of literary artistry which poignantly suggests that, even when it is surrounded by the accouterments of civilization, the human soul wanders lost and alienated … homeless.
Reflections on the theme of home and homelessness are not the preoccupation of ancient writers alone. They persist because the condition with which they wrestle persists. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher’s recently published book about his sister’s untimely death and his subsequent return to rural Louisiana, takes its place within this ancient literary tradition, and admirably so.
Rod and Ruthie Dreher grew up in the same small Louisiana town that had been home to the Dreher family for generations. During his high school years, Rod felt increasingly alienated from his family and his small town, so he left to pursue what would turn out to be a successful career in journalism that took him from one metropolis to another. Ruthie stayed. She married her high school sweetheart, became a beloved middle school teacher, and cultivated enduring relationships with family and friends.
Then Ruthie was diagnosed with a nasty, virulent form of lung cancer. It was a devastating and inexplicable diagnosis for the young mother of three who had never once smoked. For the next several months, her small hometown rallied around Ruthie and her family in countless precious ways. Rod witnessed all of this, and it changed his heart. He was moved by the generosity and love that surrounded his suffering family, and he was impressed anew by the beauty of Ruthie’s seemingly simple, but wonderfully rich, life. Then he moved his family back to Louisiana to be a part of the same community he had escaped so many years before. Without illusions, he chose to return home.
Dreher’s book has received numerous, invariably favorable, reviews, so I’ll only repeat what others have more eloquently observed. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a beautiful mediation on family, place, fatherhood, ambition, love, sacrifice, and much else that is a great human consequence. It is a moving book, but it is not sentimental. It praises the virtues of community without being blind to its vices. It raises all sorts of terribly important questions that we should all consider with great seriousness, but that we too often bury and supress. It deserves to be read widely, and I hope that it is. And I hope that it generates conversation, discussion, and debate about the assumptions that order our lives.
My Home and Homelessness
Little Way made me think again about my own identity. I grew up the son of Cuban immigrants living in South Florida. I spent the first 19 years of my life there, and then I moved away. Consequently, there are two ways in which Dreher’s story addressed my experience. I remain away from the place where I grew up, where most of my family still resides, and, as a first generation American, I inherited, at a certain emotional remove, my family’s status as aliens in a land not their own.
For reasons that remain opaque even to myself, and to the chagrin of my family, as a child I readily identified with American culture. Spanish was my first language, and I grew up in Miami where one can spend a lifetime without recourse to English. When I was four, I was sent to school knowing only one English phrase: “Where is the bathroom?” But within a very short period of time, and without retaining any conscious memory of the transformation, I was speaking English with ease. Today I cannot remember ever thinking in Spanish. And so it was with most every other cultural marker.
From a very early age, then, I came to feel that somehow I was out of step with my family and its heritage. It was just the way it was, and I didn’t think too much about it. In time, that became my identity: I was the one who didn’t fit in. In fact, when I was very young, I entertained something verging on scorn for my Cuban background. Over the years, this mellowed into indifference. But more recently, I’ve noticed the stirrings of affection for certain aspects of my Cuban culture. Perhaps it is a function of growing older and coming to a better understanding of who I am. It is most evident to me in the unexpected pleasure that comes from meeting someone who also speaks Spanish and then stumbling through a conversation in the language with which I first confronted this world.
It would be disingenuous to say that I now finally feel myself to be fully at home in Cuban culture; that is simply not the case. But in ways that I would not have anticipated even a few years ago, I’ve learned that my family’s culture is very much a part of who I am. From time to time, certain cultural chords are struck that reverberate in my heart and remind me that identity is not merely a performance or a choice. Reading Little Way led me to think again about how an immigrant family can remain homeless even when they have made a new home for themselves. Aeneas will, after all, always be a Trojan. But it did something more, although I’m not quite sure I can capture it. Let me just say that it came to me at the right time. The story it told shed light on my own experience. The grace to which it bore witness helped me see the grace present in my own life.
My interests being what they are, Little Way also set me to thinking about how it might speak to our digitally augmented lives. Here again I turned to my own experience. I realized that my digital life could be read as a refusal of limits: the limits of time and place, my time and my place. The Internet — or better, those interests who create the experience we simply gloss as “the Internet” — promises the world, all of it, now. That is especially appealing to someone who may be nursing dissatisfaction with their current state of affairs or harboring ambitions that outstrip their current place. This is not necessarily a complaint against the Internet itself or the ubiquitous devices through which we access it. Rather it is a complaint, against my own use of the Internet – or at least the shape it sometimes takes.
The Internet can be that bigger, more welcoming, more exciting reality that we seek when we are dissatisfied with the constraints of our present circumstances. It trades in possibilities and the fantasy of limitlessness. It is no longer that the big city lures the small town child with its expansive horizons; it’s that the Internet lures us all, for all of our lives seem quaintly provincial when set against the digitally augmented realities on offer, and aspects of life that are not subject to digital augmentation may begin to appear impoverished.
I want to be careful on this point. I do not want to deny that the possibilities created by the Internet are sometimes genuinely good. I am very glad, for instance, that it provides the means to easily keep in touch with friends and family that are scattered all over the country and beyond. But scattered they are and scattered they will likely remain. The comforts of social media are real, but they are at best partial and they have their very real limits which must be acknowledged. Dreher’s story reminds us that all of the affordances of communication technologies are a poor substitute for the aid and comfort that can only be offered in person.
As I’ve written before, the problem is not so much with the technology under consideration as it is with us. After all, Dreher, who makes his living as a blogger, could not have come home without the work made possible by the Internet. The problem arises when we make the Internet an unhealthy escape from the sometimes difficult realities that confront us as we do the hard work of living and loving. It arises when our digital practices amount to a refusal of responsibility and a perpetual deferment of commitment. But these problems are not created by the Internet, they are a function of our own disordered loves.
Some have complained that Dreher naively offers up the mythic small town as the cure for all that ills our weary souls. These people, it seems to me, have missed the point. It is true that Dreher came to see the remarkable love and support one small town offered up to a family that had long lived in that place and cultivated those relationships. The city may offer some unique challenges to the cultivation of such a community, and so may the suburbs, but they do not render community impossible. The real enemy of community is the refusal of limits on our ambition, the unchecked pursuit of autonomy, and the narrowly construed quest for personal fulfillment. These are the ideals that must be, to some degree, sacrificed if we are to build abiding communities with the resources to sustain its members through times of sorrow and suffering and provide the deep social context in which joy and meaning are possible.
While reading Little Way, I thought often of something Wendell Berry wrote a few years ago:
“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”
That is so well put I can hardly improve on it. This is what Ruthie Leming practiced.
Most of us live as if we believe that the surest path to happiness is that which spins out endlessly and offers up the least resistance, but traveling that path is a futile business. I’ve confessed elsewhere my assumption that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.
This vision of the good life does not play well in the society we have made for ourselves. In fact, it has become counter-intuitive. If it is ever to gain any traction, it cannot be merely preached. It must be lived, and its beauty must of its own mysterious accord draw us in. This is, I believe, Dreher’s great accomplishment. He has faithfully and honestly written that beauty into his story so that it may speak to his readers, may they be many.
The search for home is, finally, an eschatological quest. For many, this means that it is an impossible quest, or even that it is no quest at all, but a tragic and pitiable misunderstanding of the nature of things. For others, like myself, it means that it is quest whose end will not be found within the horizons of this life. We are always on the way and it would be the gravest mistake to think that what we long for, truly, when we long for Home is tied without remainder to any one place. But that does not mean we cannot, in our present experience, seek good approximations of that Home which our hearts seek.
Talk of love, like talk of home, always threatens to spill over into triteness and cliché. But as David Foster Wallace has reminded us, “clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.” Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wondered, “What do we love when we love our God?” This is an endlessly useful formulation. What do we love, we might now ask, when we love Home? What desire really drives our pursuit for the ideal of Home? Have we merely incorporated the search for Home into our project of self-fulfillment? If so, we’ve likely undermined the quest from the outset.
The quest for Home, like the quest for happiness, is such that, if it is to yield even its modest and partial fulfillments, cannot be undertaken for its own sake. Its success is premised on our loving something other than the idea of Home. We must love our place and we must, to borrow Auden’s apt phrasing, love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. We must abide. We must lay aside our self-interest and the project of self-fulfillment. We must be willing to sacrifice. We must give up our comfort. We must invest ourselves in the lives of others. And in so doing, we will find that we have been all along building a good and modest home for our pilgrim souls.
This is what the life of Ruthie Leming teaches us, and I’m grateful to Rod Dreher for writing this book that tells her story, and his.
I’m grateful to my parents for the home they made for me.
I’m grateful to my wife for the home we are building, and I’m grateful for the friends who are a part of it.
Excerpt from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming
“‘When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another,’ writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. ‘How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.’
Those of us who have moved away are not necessarily callow and ungrateful people. We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns. Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place. The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.
During the decade leading up to Ruthie’s death, I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, and short on deeds. I did not like the fact that I saw my Louisiana family only three times a year, for a week at a time, if we were lucky. But that was the way of the world, right? Almost everyone I knew was in the same position. My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan sate and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.
The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.
Contemporary culture encourage us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you — and it will — you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want — no, you need — to be able to say, as Mike did, ‘We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.’
I deeply believed then, and believe today, that one day I will be asked to give an account of my life to my Maker. That fateful week in Louisiana I wondered: When I meet the Lord, will I be able to say that my life had been about giving, not just taking? Would being able to discern the difference between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy bring me any closer to tasting the cup of salvation?
In short: Did I have love?”