I received a frantic call from my mother in the early morning hours of July 29, 2007. My grandfather, who never complains of anything, was being taken to the hospital for severe back pain. Being half asleep, I didn't really think much of it. I simply hung up the phone, said a quick prayer and snuggled back into bed. A few hours later my mother called again, this time to let my know that my Pawpaw has passed away. I became numb.
I tell the above story because that was the start of my down hill emotional roller coaster. Shortly after my grandfather's death I became pregnant with our second child. At 5 months pregnant I woke up in a puddle of my own blood. My placenta had abrupted. I was sent to the hospital where I was told that the outcome did not look good and because of this I would be on bed rest for as long as they could keep me from going into labor. I was confined to a private hospital room and given strict orders to “be still.”
Over the months I had plenty of time to think. Most of my days were filled with mindless reading, late night discussions with my husband, and phone conversations with my parents, in-laws, and friends. At one point my husband reminded me of a Wendell Berry novel that I had read during college, Hannah Coulter, which sparked my desire to read more of his fiction.
When I first read Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack it was less from a theological point of view, I wasn't even thinking of seminary at the time. I read the novel from the point of view of a grandchild grieving the loss of her grandfather. The character Old Jack reminded me of my Pawpaw and the town in which he lived, the people that he was surrounded by. More than anything Wendell Berry's fictional town of Port William reminded me of my hometown and the Thacker Family Farm I grew up on. Never before had I come across a book that described rural Kentucky life the way that I experienced it; beautiful, simple, and simply beautiful.
Years before my Grandfather passed away he would jokingly say as he patted and stretched the wrinkled skin on his left arm. “You know, this is just a shell. When I die I wont be in this old body. I'll be in heaven. I don't care what you do with this old shell. Just go throw it in one of those sink holes over there in the field.” I thought of that when I read page 157 in which Jack's nephew, Matt, after hearing of old Jack's death, ponders how Jack would demand to have his funeral if the dead man had any say.
“He would be taken in secret to a place at the edge of one of his fields, and only the few who loved him best would be permitted to go that far with him. They would dig a grave there and lay him in. They would say such words as might come to them, or say nothing. They would cover him and leave him there where he had belonged from birth. They would leave no stone or marker. They would level the grave with the ground. When the last of them who knew its place had died, Old Jack's return would be complete. He would be lost to memory in that field, silently possessed by the earth on which once established the work of his hands.”
In Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack, we are introduced to many characters within the the fictional town of Port William. The tension that is the focus of the book is between a materialistic life and a life of holy simplicity. Jack is a simple farmer who wants for nothing he doesn't have. He marries a woman, Ruth, who desires social ambition. As you can imagine, the two clash. Ruth tries to convince Jack that his main goal in life should be to acquires more land in order to gain more respect amongst his fellow human beings and enough money to be able to move into town. The problem is that Jack loves his work, his little farm, his old run down house, and has no desire to move into town. But, like any man in love with a woman, he slowly begins to purchase more property.
With the accumulation of more land came more work than Old Jack could handle. He was forced to hire on a farm hand to help with the labor. As a result “[...] he had destroyed his old independence” (p.58) As the work increased, the joy of the labor decreased. He found himself succumb by a new desire, a desire that was, before Ruth, unknown to him. He began to want more than what he had.
As the story goes on we learn that Old Jack starts to have money problems, and ends up losing all that he had acquired after marrying Ruth. He, in the end,is back at his starting point with the small farm and old house. However, with his loss comes a knew found knowledge and appreciation. Jack discovers his place in the world, discovers that his joy comes from his labor and the people that are around him. His joy does not come from what the world deems as successful or what the world thinks of him, or whether or not he has ambitions. His joy comes from “[being] faithful to what he belonged to” p.140. He belonged to the land, to the people within his community
Being from a small farming town, I went away to college seeking to, as the characters in the book say, “better myself.” I fought through years of over work, and mental and physical exhaustion, in order to receive a bachelors degree from a good liberal arts school. I was going to make something of myself. I was going to go places. But that all began to change as I sat for days upon days in a single occupancy hospital room wondering whether or not I would be planning a funeral for the child whom I had yet to meet.
The Memory of Old Jack, along with other books that I was able to read on my little hospital sabbatical, touched something in me that got my mind and soul working together. I slowly began to see that there was more to life than social ambition.
Through the years I have found myself freed from the worldly bondage of success. Like Old Jack, I am content with where I am. I desire for nothing that I do not have. Like Old Jack, I look around at this old house that I share with my little family, and see things that need to be fixed or tended to, but I know, like Old Jack, I will find great satisfaction in tending to them.
As Christians I believe that we are called to holy simplicity. We are made aware that this earth is not forever and the things that we have can not be taken with us. Like Wendell Berry shows through his character of Old Jack, we Christians should be good stewards of what we have been given. We should be faithful to the community in which we have been placed. And most of all, we should not desire what is not ours and be content with what we have. The Memory of Old Jack allows the reader to step back from the world for a bit in order to see the silliness that is the American Dream. Through the character of Old Jack, Wendell Berry shines a light on the darkness that has consumed our culture. In doing so, we, the readers, are given the great gift of reexamination.