Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.
It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.
A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.
But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.
Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.
Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.
The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.
The scene continues:
Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.
The last line is vintage Berry.
Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.
As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:
Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].
After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.
What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?
Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people
But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.
For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.
As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:
The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”
This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.
We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.
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