While I rarely have the luxury of reading a book in one sitting, last Sunday afternoon was an exception. I settled myself in my wife's green "ladies' chair" and cracked open Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. Five hours and 268 pages later, I stood up, finished, and walked out the door to the far corner of a wooded back yard. I turned to face my home of 28 years, trying to see it as a stranger might, wondering about the life of the family inside, about what joys and trials they may have had, the dynamics of relationships. Mostly, those are matters I keep close. But Rod Dreher did write about the inner life of his extended family, and we can all be glad he did.
The Little Way has as its heart the loving but conflicted relationship between Dreher and his younger sister Ruthie, all as set against the backdrop of the small-town community of Starhill, Louisiana. Ruthie stayed home, married, and had children, taught school, and embraced the small community in which she lived. Dreher, on the other hand, ached to escape its suffocating smallness, much of its bucolic charm lost on him. After college at LSU, he left both home and faith, working as a journalist in Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia - in short, anywhere unlike the town in which he was reared. "You were our dreamer," his mother said. "Ruthie wasn't. She was satisfied with what she had in front of her. You had your head in books all the time. She loved nature, and being outside."
Ruthie shot deer, skinning a buck herself. Dreher gagged, retreated to books and to worldly spinster aunts, and once having his intellectual interests piqued by the academic atmosphere of LSU, never turned back. All this was a mystery to Ruthie. Listening to a philosophical discussion between her brother and a friend once at LSU, where they were both in college, Ruthie, exasperated, said "What is wrong with ya'll? Listen to you. You sit her for hours talking about this crap, and it doesn't mean anything. You're just talking; you're not doing anything!" Over time, a wall grew between Ruthie and her brother. And yet Ruthie was one of the most loved people in Starhill and West Francisville Parish, never giving up on difficult kids, believing the best about all, and accepting her last illness without anger at God, at peace with God and man, except, perhaps, her brother who, inexplicably, left, while she stayed.
In writing this memoir, Dreher throws open the door on life in his family, exposing the hearts and minds of many family members and friends who still live in the small town of Starhill, revealing his own struggles with his father, the smallness of his world compared to the "little way" of Ruthie. While the author found his way back to faith, albeit Catholicism and then Orthodoxy, he also quite surprisingly found his way back to Louisiana, recognizing the value of place, of home, when Ruthie contracted lung cancer just shy of her 40th birthday. In watching her gracefully deal with that awful reality and seeing a community that rallied around her, he realized that there was much to gain from staying put or, failing that, from going home, from the ties that bind. In leaving, he was able, finally, to come home for the first time.
Dreher reflects on why we leave our communities, on why so many live an unrooted life:
Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you - and it will - you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want - no, you need - to be able to say, as Mike [Ruthie's husband] did, "We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other."
Dreher acknowledges that we can't all go home, that we can't (indeed, shouldn't) all stay, even that the places from which we come are, for all their goodness warped by sin. Even selfless Ruthie could not quite, in the end, forgive her brother for leaving. But the lesson, perhaps, is that we shouldn't be so quick to leave home or whatever place in which we find ourselves, that we should do the hard work of building relationships and binding ourselves to the streets and buildings and landcapes in which we providentially find ourselves. We should, in other words, go out for walk, make a mental map, build up a reservoir of sounds and sights, of a place and its people. Much as God did in the Incarnation, we should move into the neighborhood, living fully embodied lives in the places assigned to us, so that one day, we may say, with the Psalmist, "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Ps. 16:6, ESV).
If Dreher had not written this book, few of us would know Ruthie Leming. Her "little way" would be unknown, a story remembered by a few hundred people in Starhill, Louisiana. And yet, because he did tell it, we see now in that little story a much grander story, one universal in scope, a modern (true) myth of what it means to live unto God in a world that swirls around us. The message: Stay. Go home. Or make a home. But for God's sake, settle down.
Standing there in my backyard, looking at our home, I'm full of questions: Could it really have been 28 years? Can my children really be grown and off on their own? Looking down at the stones marking the graves of a beloved dog and cat, I shake my head, incredulous that they have been dead over 12 years. Is it really possible in a culture of shifting allegiances that I still work and worship and walk in the same places and am wed to the same one after all this time?
I'm very, very glad I stayed. I'm very glad to be home. In this holy land, I see Home.