Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

I actually finished Hannah Coulter 2 weeks ago, but I marked so many passages with my porcupine method that I haven't taken the time to sort through them and type them out. Needless to say, this book is memorable - beautiful and poignant, idealistic, and at the same time realistic, reflective and timeless.

Parts of it could have been written by my grandmother, who was raised in rural Kentucky until she moved to Ohio where she and my grandfather, whom I never knew, bought a farm and paid it off in just a few years, just like Nathan and Hannah Coulter did (119). My mom grew up on that farm, and I was raised there too, though it wasn't a working farm by that time. I understand the idea of place that figures so prominently in Hannah Coulter's mind. I miss the place that that Ohio farm was in my childhood. I know I'll never live there again, but it will always be a place of peace for me, a memory of quietness and openness that I hope to find somewhere again. Somehow looking into neighbors' backyards in our subdivision just isn't the same as looking out over a ten acre field of corn or soybeans, or watching deer traverse the one acre garden that comprised the backyard, or driving down the long lane to see my tree-y tree (a perfectly formed maple) emerge around the bend.

But this book not only evoked memories of my family's homestead, it was a challenge as well - a challenge to find that place of peace (like Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet) even in the subdivision (see quote from p. 83 below), to create a life of purpose for my family, to help my children learn to value what is really important and at the same time give them the freedom to find their own place. These were some of the ideas that we talked about when Captive Thoughts Book Club discussed Hannah Coulter in November.

I think the only part I didn't particularly enjoy about this book were Hannah's chronicling how her children had all left their place. Like I said above, I think that children need to have the freedom to find their own place, and a meaningful place does not necessarily need to be in the country or the family farm.

But without further ado, the memorable quotations (all from Berry, Wendell. Hannah Coulter. (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004.)~

"It is our story, for I lived it with him. It is the story of our place in our time..." (5)

Describing her father: "He was a humorous, good-natured man, maybe because he hoped for little and expected less and took his satisfactions where he found them." (8)

"Grandmam was the authority and head worker...She was always busy. She never backed off from anything because it was hard." (10)

"She wore dresses. Being a widow, she wore them black. Being a woman of her time, she wore them long. The girls of her day, I think, must have been like well-wrapped gifts, to be opened by their husbands on their wedding night, a complete surprise. 'Well! What's this?'" (10)

"Grandmam, as I have seen in looking back, was the decider of my fate. 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..." (11)

"'All women is brothers,' Burley Coulter used to usual, he was telling the truth. Or part of it." (22)

"They were men with long memories who loved farming and whose lives had been given to ideals: good land, good grass, good animals, good crops, good work." (23)

"Virgil spoke of that as something old in the world that caused an ancient happiness in him. He was trying to show me the shape of his life, and what might become the shape of it...We were coming together into the presence of something good that was possible in this world. I have to see it now as a sad hope, because we were able to use up so little of it, but it was no less a beautiful one." (28) What a beautiful way to describe marriage - "something good that was possible."

"The river ran below us, its double row of shore trees swinging in against the hill on our side, leaving a wide bottomland on the other. It needed a long look because you had to think of how old it was, and of how many voices had spoken and hushed again beside it." (34)

"Someday there will be a new heaven and a new earth and a new Port William coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband, and whoever has known her before will know her then." (43)

On Sundays during the war: "And we would hear also a sermon in which poor Brother Preston would struggle again with his terrible duty and need to bring comfort to the comfortless, to say something in public that could answer the private fear and grief that were all around him, and he would mostly fail. We would shake his hand at the door as we went out, trying, I suppose, to console him for his wish to help what only could be endured." (46)

"To be in love with Virgil was to be there, in love, with his parents, his family, his place, his baby. When he became lost to our living love in this world, by knowing what it meant to me I couldn't help knowing what it meant to the others." (50) This view of marriage as an extended community is all but lost today.

"I began to know my story then. Like everybody else's, it was going to be the story of the living in the absence of the dead...Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery...And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude." (51-52)

"To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought forth into the world by my pain and strength - that changed me....I would feel milk and love flowing from me to her as once it had flowed to me. It emptied me. As the baby fed, I seemed slowly to grow empty of myself, as if in the presence of that long flow of love even grief could not stand." (54-55)

"My life with Virgil was a romance, because it never had a chance to become anything else...My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, an actual marriage, with trouble in it...Troubles came, as they were bound to do, as the promise we made had warned us that they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude." (62)

"I was aware of that look a long time before I was ready to look back. I knew that when I did I would be a goner. We both would be." (65)

"Your first love for somebody can last, and this one did, but it changes too after promises have been made and time has passed and knowledge has come." (66)

"Now I know what we were trying to stand for, and what I believe we did stand for: the possibility that among the world's wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a very long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of loving their place. This love would be one of the acts of the greater love that holds and cherishes all the world." (67-68)

"I began the wish, that stayed with me for the rest of his [her father-in-law, Jarrat Coulter's] life, to hug him for the sweetness I had learned was in him. I never did, for fear of embarrassing him. Now that I am old, I know I could have done it, it would have been all right, and I'm sorry I didn't." (79)

"And so I had put myself in Nathan's hands, mindful also that he had put himself in mine. We were each other's welcomer and each other's guest. And so we had come to our place." (81)

"A lifetime's knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of a person who knows. The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation..." (82)

"Most people now are looking for 'a better place,' which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one...There is no 'better place' than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we've got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven." (83)

"Nathan's rules from the start were never to plow too much in any year, never to grow more grain than we needed to feed our own livestock, and never to have too much livestock." (84) No temptation to "bigger barns" here.

"The stream and the woods don't care if you love them. The place doesn't care if you love it. But for your own sake you had better love it. For the sake of all else you love, you had better love it." (85)

"I have to quiet myself before I can hear the quiet of the place...But I listen and wait, and at last it comes. It is an old quiet, only deepened by the sound of the creek, a bird singing, or a barking squirrel." (87)

"And I remember especially how much we belonged together then, how complete we seemed with our fire and our meal, what a unit we were, and the pleasure of it." (90)

"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." (94)

"The making of the place was the thing that ruled over everything else, for we were living from the place...You can see that it is hard to mark the difference between our life and our place, our place and ourselves." (106)

"We had differences...There were the differences of nature and character that were sometimes happy and sometimes not. Some of the things that most endeared Nathan to me - his quietness, his love of his work, his determination - were the things that could sometimes make me maddest at him." (107)

"But now, looking back, it is hard to say why we fell out, or what we fell out about, or why whatever we fell out about ever mattered. Even then it was sometimes hard to say." (108)

"You have had this life and no other. You have had this life with this man and no other. What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will just have to be content for it to be that way." (109)

"The room of love is another world...It is the world without end, so small that two people can hold it in their arms, and yet it is bigger than worlds on worlds, for it contains the longing of all things to be together, and to be at rest together...You take it all into your arms, it goes away, and there you are where giving and taking are the same, and you life a little while entirely in a gift." (110)

"The way of education leads away from home. That is what we learned from our children's education." (112) As a lover of education, I must protest that it is not necessarily a bad thing that education leads one from one place to another. Good places can be found in many ways.

"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...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 everything give thanks.' I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions." (113)

"We had a debt on the farm, of course, for what seemed to us a lot of money in those days, but we went straight to work to make it worth more than Nathan had paid for it. We paid off that debt in nine years, and from then on, as Nathan liked to say, we never owed a nickel to anybody." (119)

On the relationship between her son Mattie and husband Nathan: "They weren't always at odds, but when they were the space between them was occupied by, of course, me. And of course they complained to me about each other. And of course, loving them both, I tried to defend them to each other. The good part was that I could defend them to each other." (122)

"I have this love for Mattie. It was formed in me as he himself was formed. It has his shape, you might say. He fits it. He fits into it as he fits into his clothes. He will always fit into it. When he gets out of the car and I meet him and hug him, there he is, him himself, something of my own forever, and my love for him goes all around him just as it did when he was a baby and a little boy and a young man grown. He fits my love, but he no longer fits the place or our life or the knowledge of anything here." (123-124)

"His children...when they are here they don't know where they are. And maybe it is not possible for them to find out. They don't want to know...they don't know enough to like it." (124-125)

"I don't think there is an argument for being a farmer. There are only two reasons to farm: because you have to, and because you love to. The ones who choose to farm choose for love. Necessity ends the argument, and so does love." (129)

"But there is some pleasure in expectations too, and I should not be regretful about ours. After your expectations have gone their way and your future is getting along the best it can as an honest blank, you shape your life according to what it is." (131)

"Caleb is incomplete...He is always trying to make up the difference between the life he has and the life he imagines he might have had." (131)

"One of the attractions of moving away into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership with all its cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use." (133)

"...yet for a while there I would think that this, this right now, was all the world that I held in my arms. It was like falling in love, only more than that; we knew too much by then for it to be only that. It was knowing that love was what it was, and life would not complete it and death would not stop it. While we held each other and our old desire came upon us, eternity flew into time like a lighting dove." (134)

"He said, 'Margaret, my good Margaret, we're going to live right on.' I heard him say that only three of four times in all his life. He said it only when he knew that living right on was going to be hard." (141)

"So how come he ended up leaving his wife and boy, talking about 'fulfillment' and his 'need to be free'? 'It's the time,' I thought. 'The time wants men to be as silly in character as they are by nature.'" (142)

"...he would have his hair in some odd arrangement or color and a ring in his ear and a stud in his nose - I guess to show his father he didn't give a damn, which of course he did or he wouldn't have been trying so hard to act like he didn't." (145)

"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.' But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation." (146)

"The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflied that fly up in flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail." (147-148)

"You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can't remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise." (148)

"Compared to nearly everybody else, the Branches have led a sort of futureless life. They have planned and provided as much as they needed to, but they take little thought for the morrow. They aren't going any place, they aren't getting ready to become anything but what they are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering." (152)

"Sometimes...I wander about in this house that Nathan and I renewed, that is now aged and worn by our life in it. How many steps, wearing the thresholds? I look at it all again. Sometimes it fills to the brim with sorrow, which signifies the joy that has been here, and the love. It is entirely a gift." (158)

"My steadfast comfort for fifty years and more had been to know that I was on his mind. Whatever was happening between us, I knew I was on his mind, and that was where I wanted to be." (160)

"His life was being driven by a kind of flywheel. [Mattie] had submitted to it and accepted it. It was turning fast. To slow it down or stop it and come to a place that was moving with the motion only of time and loss and slow grief was more, that day, than he could imagine." (164)

"I had to think of all it had cost, of all the engines that had run, just to give one man a few minutes of ordinary grief at his dad's funeral, but I was completely glad to see was as it should have been." (165)

"After she left, the house slowly filled up with silence. Nathan's absence came into it and filled 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." (166)

"I began this practice of sitting sometimes long hours into the night, telling over this story, this life, that even when it was only mine was wholly Nathan's and mine because for the term of this world we were wholly each other's. We were each other's chance to live in the room of love where we could be known well enough to be spared. We were each other's gift." (168)

About WWII: "It was a world where no place was safe, where you or your friends could be killed in any place at any minute." (169)

"You can't give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering. You can't give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. It is tis body of our suffering that Christ was born into, to suffer it Himself and to fill it with light, so that beyond the sufferig we can imagine Easter morning and the peace of God on little earthly homelands such as Port William and the farming villages of Okinawa." (171)

"And so I came to know, as I had not known before, what this place of ours had meant to him [Nathan]. I knew, as I had not known before, what I had meant to him. Our life in our place had been a benediction to him, but he had seen it always within a circle of fire that might have closed upon it." (173)

"[This homeland] was as familiar as my old headscarf and coatand shoes, as my body. I have lived from it all these years. When I am buried in it at last my flesh will be the same as it, and hardly a difference made. But I have seen it change. It has changed, it is changing, and it is threatened." (179)

"I want to leave here openhanded, with only the ancient blessing, 'Good-bye. My love to you all.'" (185)


Laura said...

I recently read this book and enjoyed it. Like you, it reminded me of my granparents, but their little farm was in Alabama, not Kentucky.

Beautiful review!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Laura--this is a beautiful review. I just reviewed Hannah Coulter on my blog a few weeks ago. I love Wendell Berry's fiction. I enjoyed reading all the quotes and reliving a little of the novel.

Page Turner said...

Laura - I'm surprised at how many people have connections to a farm a few generations back. It just shows how much change took place over the 20th century.

HopeIsTheWord - I'm glad you made it through all those quotes! It's a long post, but I wanted to be able to look back on the highlights later.

Sandra said...

The quotes convinced me that I need to read this. I am a country girl, forced to live in the city for 38 years now, and I never did get used to it. Thanks for a lovely review. I am enjoying going through your blog.

Anne said...

Heather - I'm reading Hannah Coulter right now and finding it beautiful. (As is your review!) I don't have the porcupine habit you do of marking spots, and one quote in particular kept running through my head. I was sure someone would have posted it online, saving me from actually searching the book, lazy woman that I am. And where did I find it? Right here on your blog! I love that our
reading tastes overlap so frequently!
And I love the selection of quotes which makes for a nice summary of the book. Have you read others of the Port Williams books?