Rod Dreher's memoir of his sister, Ruthie, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, is a simple story as the subtitle suggests of "A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life." Yet, it is much more.
It is a story of many layers, dealing with the realities of small town life, how we as modern people deal with death, and ultimately, in its own way, a mirror of America in the 21st century reflecting the fragmentation into societal enclaves of rich and poor, urban and rural, communal and individualistic, and the local and the global.
The story is told through the perspective of Rod, Ruthie's older brother, who grew up as the son who sought adventure through the world of ideas as a journalist, living for two decades in Washington, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia. His ambition was viewed with suspicion by his sister, who thought him "uppity" for leaving the small Louisiana town of St. Francisville and their families corner of that rural world, Starhill. As the teller of the story, he shows his frustration at being mistrusted for his longing for new worlds, as if the world of home was not enough to build a life upon.
As Rod tells this story, this conflict between he and his sister is never truly resolved. Ruthie dies without Rod and her truly reconciling the differences that had existed since childhood.This makes their story more indicative of the way families actually are. This isn't a story with a Hollywood ending, though there is much wisdom and goodness to be discovered in it.
Their relationship rings true as symptomatic of many modern relationships. Each are individualists, even Ruthie in her singular focus on family and homeplace, could not see beyond her own individualistic preference to see that her brother was pursuing his own desire for meaning in life. Her care for her students, believing in those from the most impoverished, least advantageous backgrounds, stands in contrast to her relationship with Rod.
Having spent some time with Rod as he came to Asheville on his book tour, I identify with how family relationships are sometimes much more difficult than our social and professional relationships. In effect, there was only an upside in believing that her students could become anything that they set their mind to doing. But there is conflict within a family when the family traditions are not sufficient to hold some members at home. I see this attachment to the past, which is what it is, as a way many people refuse to address the realities of the contemporary world, and as a result end up denying not only their responsibility to a wider world, but also their potential for making a difference that matters.
For me this relationship between Rod and Ruthie is the most interesting in the book, and worth reading by families so that conversation about expectations can be had.
We also see that small town life, for all its communal closeness, is not idyllic. There is a tendency not to be able to see beyond one's own self-interest and that that of one's clan. Urban and suburban communities can be just as self-interested, just as easily denying an obligation to care for those who are less well off.
However, what distinguishes this story is the character of Ruthie Leming. For all her narrowness about her small town, she was a woman of extraordinary love and caring for people beyond her family. In fact, it is quite evident that her impact is global and not just local because of the care she gave to her students. It is people like Ruthie who make communities worth living in. The question is why are there not more like her. I hope the book inspires people waiting for something to move them into action to become more like Ruthie.
Small towns have advantages that big city life has a much more difficult time providing. Namely the closeness of family and friends who meld into one's family in ways that a cosmopolitan existence cannot afford. The ease that people move in and out of the Leming household during and after her death from cancer; how the community rallies to raise money for Ruthie's hospital bills through a concert, and how the spirit of Ruthie served as a bond for community that made life in their little community richer, are pictures of life in rural communities.
Rod tells his own story as a contrast to Ruthie's. He is like many people I know who are very cosmopolitan in their tastes. They find it easy to move between various cultures, finding commonality with people from all points on the globe. Yet, as his sister goes through her bout with cancer, the pull of family and Louisiana eventually uproots the Dreher family from their life in Philadelphia as they move home to Starhill.
Family and place are two of the three themes that make this book a thought-provoking, engrossing read. However, it is the question of the communal and familial nature of death and dying that is played out in Ruthie's illness which may be the most important insight that Dreher provides.
As an ordained minister, who has been in and out of pastoral roles in churches over the past three decades, I can say that we American's do not deal with death well. For Ruthie, she faced it by denial. She trusted her physicians to do the right thing. She went about her life as if the cancer did not have a hold upon her. As a result, she did not talk with her daughters about her illness. As Dreher notes, she answered her daughters questions truthfully, what few questions they did ask. So, she proceeds on with life and then it ends suddenly without notice.
What is clear is that death affects families differently than one's circle of friends. Her friends come to the home and celebrate her life the next day. But her family lives daily with her absence. Life never being quite the same without Ruthie at the center of it.
Reading her story, I was taken back to my own parents' deaths. My mother at the age of 48 in her sleep while on vacation. My father just three years ago this week from a sepsis infection that he acquired following knee surgery. For my mother, I had not seen her in two weeks. She was gone without any time to prepare. I am still numb 35 years later. For my father, we knew he would not survive, so my sisters and I had the time to say good bye. In both cases, the relational vacuum created by their passing is never filled. I'm certain this remains true for the Dreher and Leming families of Starhill.
As I had time with Rod last weekend, we talked about Ruthie. I told him that I had a strong identification with her. Her relationships with people are similar to mine. Her belief in people is very much like mine. I have said in many settings that "I believe in people so they can believe in themselves." I would have loved to have known her, and even though I did not, I miss her. I understand her, her motivations and the way she led her life. I also understand the choices that Rod made as a young man, the course of his life, as I made similar choices that led me away from my family to seek a course in life that we often call ambition or purpose. There is not a simple, single choice to be made between country or city living, or between family and ambition. There are choices we make every day about the kind of person we wish to be, and the life we want for ourselves and our families. In effect, life is lived one day at a time, one relational encounter at a time, with intervening moments of decisions that mark the long course that our lives take.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is an important book. It is a book to be read and savored in conversation with family and friends. Rod Dreher's story isn't about everyone moving back to their home town. It is rather about being much more conscious that all our decisions carry with them both positive and negative implications. Ruthie Leming's life made a difference that mattered to the people of West Feliciana Parish. Rod Dreher's life through his writing is also making a difference by the telling of Ruthie's story. And we the readers of his fine book are the beneficiaries of both of their lives, and for that reason we are richer for it.
Here's an additional thought that I had about the book that I posted to my Facebook page.
Thanks Rod for the posting.Been thinking about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher.
It is such a honest and real book. It is one of truth as it deals with the pain and suffering of life, which is, in large part, familial and relational.
I've been having conversations recently with people my age about how many of us in our 50s and 60s are really unhappy. The people I'm thinking of have achieved everything that wanted. Yet, to talk with them there is a hard edge of bitterness lingering in the background. They aren't happy. I've come to the conclusion that this is so because all their relationships are structured to be professional and non-intrusive. The conversations are built around opinions and making distinctions between people who are with us and those who aren't. It is such a defensive posture to life. No wonder they are unhappy.
In Rod's book, it is James Toney, son of Miss Clophine Toney, his childhood friend, who became an evangelist who says it best as he eulogizes his mother.
"She was carrying a cross, ... because let me tell you something, if you don't sacrifice for your brother, if you don't sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross."
"Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those (Miss Clophine's) meant the most. ... Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give."
You have to read the book to get where this is going.
I wonder about these people I'm thinking of and their unhappiness. Do they have anyone whom they truly sacrifice to love? What is it that they are giving up for others? Or do they see their giving and sacrifice as a kind of victimization?
This is the hard truth of love, that without sacrifice, there is no love, just connection.
First, I hope you'll read this book.
Second, I hope you'll give this book to family and friends.
Third, I hope you'll find someone in that group of people with whom you can talk about the wisdom that can be found in this book.
Happiness isn't a commodity you buy at the store. It is a product of relationship and living a life where giving, and, yes, sacrifice, are part of what gives life its joy.
In a recent blog post, What Defines Us? , I ended with these words,
To live is to love.
To love is to give.
To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters.
Read the book.