Saturday, September 3, 2011

A story of giving thanks

Last month, in the midst of having so much to do, I decided to read a book. Although I had plenty to do in every area of my life, including pre-reading a stack of books for my 8th grader's school year, I was really longing to use some of my Summer down-time reading something good, just for me. At the same time, I started hearing about a book called Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. Now, I had never even heard of Wendell Berry or his eight novels, including this Hannah Coulter which was published in 2004. So when, within a two-day-period, I saw this book recommended in book reviews by three people I respect it, I sat up and paid attention. I don't believe in coincidences. It seemed as if this book was being handed to me by a gentle hand, as I was lovingly urged to read.

Hannah Coulter was sitting on the shelf at the library, waiting for me.

Oh, what beautiful writing. Fully prose, but striking deep in the soul like poetry. This is the story of Hannah, born in 1922, a child during the depression, mostly raised by a remarkable grandmother, widowed young by WWII, finding a new life after and widowed again, old after a 50 year marriage. A story of community and connections and generational change. Early in the telling she says, "This is my story, my giving of thanks." I'm not even going to try to make a summary, but I will say that I can't remember any other book where I so identified with the narrator: falling in love as she fell in love, grieving as she grieved, hoping as she hoped, disappointed as she was disappointed, present to the reality of her life, lived fully in her present, and yet always remembering and looking forward, too. Smiling, even laughing out loud in many places, and at other times crying quiet tears down my cheeks, tears of joy and of sorrow. Nodding my head at her wisdom.

Afterwards when I was sharing some of this with Kevin and my older girls, Grace commented (not really knowing whether this was a true story or not), "But, Mom, she's not really real, right? I mean, it's fiction?" For a few seconds, I felt a little confused. She had become very real to me.

I'm not quite sure why this book hit me so deeply, perhaps it is where I'm standing in my own life. So easily remembering my youth and the beginning of our love now continuing in happy marriage while the fullest of years of child rearing and the urgency of life presses in on all sides, I usually think of myself as young. And yet, my oldest daughter, Grace, started college last week. And though she is living at home and tightly bound to my heart, I start to understand the season that begins for a mother when children test their wings out of the nest, and finally fly away. I think I felt my age for the first time as Kevin and I stood side by side, hands upon her, praying for her, at the Celebration and Commitment Service that officially began her college years––even though later that same night I snuggled and nursed my young baby to sleep. I also can see forward to the growing old together and the seasons to come. I'm standing in the middle of it all. I want to live my life, like Hannah, like a story of giving thanks.

I also became interested in Wendell Berry. What man can write a woman's story that makes another woman weep and laugh through tears? His story is interesting as well: Kentucky born, academic, writer who doesn't own a computer, sustainable organic farmer who uses horses instead of machines, husband of 54 years plus, activist, conservationist, consistently pro-life from womb to grave, anti-war, a progressive thinker accused of archaic traditionalism...and a Christian. I plan to read all of his novels . . . perhaps (if I can stand the wait) after I get a few more of those school-prep books crossed off of my list.

I said good-bye to Hannah just this morning, and I won't forget her soon.


Treasure from the Junk Drawer
copyright © Sara Shull
•All text and poetry by Sara
•Art illustrations by Sara
•Photos by Sara or the Shull kids
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Bible verses:
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV)