35. The attitude of gratitude : Hannah Coulter and I

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry has just shot up to the top of my Best Books I’ve Ever Read List. As a librarian, I’m asked a lot (mostly by kids) what my favorite book is. I always hedge. How can one pick a favorite book, when there are so many great reads, so many books, so little time…

But I hadn’t yet read Hannah Coulter.

Yes, yes, I know. This is supposed to be a blog about the cottage, but the subtitle is the circle of life; if anyone knows how to write about the circle of life, Wendell Berry does. His writing is lyrical, a pleasure to read and savor, yet so truthful as to bring pain… My fingertips ached with the beauty of his thoughts, transferred with such clarity into the thoughts of a woman, Hannah Coulter.

Hannah is in her seventies, a widow who has lost two husbands; she has lived her life on a farm in rural Kentucky, her children have grown up, gone to University, and gone from the farm. This is her memoir, but it is more. It is a mourning of the rural life, lost to modernity; it is a mourning of the loss of community that modernity brings; yet, it is also a celebration of love, faith, trust, and the hopes of the human heart.

I’ve been scraping the paint off the cottage this weekend, and that has given me time to ponder the circle of life. The paint was peeling terribly on this weather-beaten, sun-scorched side of the house, yet the warmth of the autumn sun made it lovely weather for scraping — scraping old paint from siding that was probably put on and painted originally by my grandfather. And then re-sided and rearranged by Michael’s dad, Joe. Yet they never knew that this place made by their hands would someday be also lovingly touched by their children’s and grandchildren’s hands… Here is what Hannah says about that…

“As I went about my work then as a young woman, and still now when I am old, Grandmam has been often close to me in my thoughts. And again I come to the difficulty of finding words. 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.” Chapter 14, The Room of Love

I remember making applesauce with Nanny, my grandmother, in her kitchen. She was peeling the apples with a perfect stroke so that the peel dangled in one long piece from the apple. I was awkwardly scraping the apple and only getting little bits of peel to fall into the sink. “It’s all in learning how,” she told me gently. “I couldn’t do it when I was young either. You’ll be able to do it with practice.” I think about that every time I peel an apple in one piece.

Education was important in our family. My grandfather and his brother both left the family farm together to go college and become teachers. But Pa was always a farmer; even while working as a principal, and later, as the superintendent, he farmed. Cows first, then apples, then peaches. Here is what Hannah has to say about 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. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for awhile after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true.” Chapter 15, A Better Chance

Yet most of us have gone from our home places to the Great Away, and we are inclined to think (or be taught) that it is just the nature of growing up and moving on. Life ever changes and if we are to get on in this world, that’s just the way of it. I know very few who stayed. And now that I am back in my home place, I envy the rootedness of those who stayed. I envy them their place in the community — not their standing or their accomplishments — but their place. Their membership. Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

This was our membership. Burley called it that. He loved to call it that… The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come…The membership includes the dead… The members, I guess you could say, are born into it, they stay in it by choosing to stay, and they die in it. Or they leave it, as my children have done… And so an old woman, sitting by the fire, waiting for sleep, makes her reckoning, naming over the names of the dead and the living, which also are the names of her gratitude.” Chapter 11, The Membership

I have given up my membership once, twice, three times maybe, and now I am about to give it up again and move back where I started. A circle. A wandering circle. And though I will miss friendships and those left behind, there is also an excitement. And herein, I think, is part of the problem. We are always searching for the new, the exciting, the next big thing. Eve probably picked that first apple and gave it to Adam because she was bored with the same old grapes every day for breakfast. What we know, we know, and it has become the routine, the boring. What has become of steadfastness, neighborliness, rootedness to a place, community? Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

“The old neighborliness has about gone from it now. The old harvest crews and their talk and laughter at kitchen tables loaded with food have been replaced by machines, and by migrant laborers who eat at the store. The old thrift has been replaced by extravagance and waste. People are living as if they think they are in a movie. They are all looking in one direction, toward ‘a better place’ and what they see is no thicker than a screen. The houses in Port William and even on some of the farms are more and more being used as temporary lodgings by people who temporarily, as they think, can do no better.” Chapter 22, Next?

When I was finished scraping the paint from one small section, I found an old brush and began to paint primer over the bare wood. As I was covering over the ugly, patchy, half-scraped wood, I wondered what are the differences between those of us who leave and those of us who stay?
Mr. Berry believes that to our detriment, and perhaps our demise, rural life has never been seen as desirable in society, in education, in culture. Indeed, when one of my good city friends discovered I was originally from Greene County, she shouted, “You’re a Hoopie!” Indeed, when I was in high school, the ultimate insult was to call someone a Farmer. Indeed, when my kids were in high school they shook their heads (as did I) over the kids who were choosing to stay. Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

Oftentimes after it no longer matters whether things are clear or not, they become clear. After not liking school at all, Caleb had got to liking it too much… He liked knowing the things he was learning… He was, maybe you could say, tempted by it. And I know, I can almost hear, the voices that were speaking to him, voices of people he had learned to respect, and they were saying, ‘Caleb, you’re too bright to be a farmer.’ They were saying, ‘Caleb, there’s no future for you in farming.’ They were saying, ‘Caleb, why should you be a farmer yourself when you can do so much for farmers?’… These were the voices of farm-raised people who were saying, ‘Caleb, why go home and work your ass off for what you’ll earn? Things are going to get worse for farmers.’ And they were true prophets.” Chapter 17, Caleb.

We leave for so many reasons — a new chance, new friends, a better job, a better place, marriage, escape — for good reasons and for bad ones. But sometimes we expect that someplace else will be better or different, when we really just need to see in a new way. Expectations, Hannah says, are most often a bucket of smoke…

Life may surprise us, it may not turn out how we expect, but always we are asked to see what is and call it good. And until we stop breathing, there will always be surprises. Here is what Hannah says about that…

“Life without expectations was still life, and life was still good…The world that so often had disappointed us and made us sorrowful sometimes made us happy by surprise. You think winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light. Under the bare trees the wildflowers bloom so thick you can’t walk without stepping on them. The pastures turn green and the leaves come.” Chapter 19, The Branches.

And as I was scraping away years of dried paint, I was thinking how can I write these things without those who know me thinking that I am being regretful, or feeling guilty, or making them feel guilty? But there is no guilt — just thankful thoughts about what was and what is. And here is what Hannah says about that:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” Chapter 15, A Better Chance.

Yes, indeed, those are the right instructions…


6 thoughts on “35. The attitude of gratitude : Hannah Coulter and I

  1. When are you going to start charging for your blog Carol? It’s great. I just tried ordering the book and will do so tomorrow. Rejoice evermore. Now that is a worthy challenge.


  2. Your post made me cry (in a good way). I thought of my Mom, my grandparents, and others (all passed away many years ago when I was a young wife)… their legacy and influence on my life lives on. Thanks for your words and sharing from your heart. Also, I’ll have to read that book :)


    • Thank you. That book really affected me as well, and I’m glad I could pass some of it on. As Hannah would say — they are all our membership, those alive and those gone — and they are the names of our gratitude.


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