Here on the river I have known peace and beauty such as I never knew in any other place. There is always work here that I need to be doing and I have many worries, for life on the edge seems always threatening to go over the edge. But I am always surprised, when I look back on times here that I know to have been laborious or worrisome or sad, to discover that they were never out of the presence of peace and beauty, for here I have been always in the world itself.
Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow is a lot of things. It’s the story of the decline of a way of life. It’s a weaving together of stories about small southern town antics told by its barber. It’s the weaving together of thoughts and ideas about philosophy, theology and economics also from the point of view of Port William, Kentucky’s barber. It’s the story of one man’s vocation, community and purpose. And it’s an odd but beautiful story of unrequited love.
For me personally, though, it’s a novel that in its own little way got me through a dark time in my life. During the week of Father’s Day in 2009, my wife and kids and I drove down to Myrtle Beach to hang out by the ocean for a few days. It was in the midst of what is now sometimes called The Great Recession and I had been unemployed for four months. I remember it being unusual because during most vacations I think of coming home and going to work again. With this trip, I kept wondering what was the point of going home.
But on the beach by the ocean I happened to read Jayber Crow for the first time and it was also my first time reading Wendell Berry. The title character, also the above mentioned barber, learns early on in his life that he doesn’t like dealing with what he calls “the man behind the desk” – which for him represents anything organizational, institutional, or corporate. He proceeds through his life to determine his own community, friendships and purpose outside of “the man behind the desk”. I can’t say that I’m completely free from this idea as Jayber but in 2009 it was nice to know there was someone -whether Jayber or Berry or both – who felt the same way I do on many days. And it was nice to know that someone – even fictionally – succeeds in separating himself from these things.
I also found a kindred spirit in Jayber as he talks about his relationship with the church in his small town. In addition to barbering, he also serves as the church’s janitor. He never really addresses his reason for going but always stresses how he feels like an outside man even when he was inside – but he kept going. I loved the way he said that some of his best ideas came when he was NOT listening to the sermons that were being preached. I don’t know if this was one of those ideas but it jumped out at me on the beach and it hasn’t left me yet; hopefully it never will:
I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.