Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Connections that Made Me

Early in Hannah Coulter, a novel by Wendell Berry, the narrator recalls her grandmother, “Grandmam,” as “the decider of my fate.” Raised on a farm far from any urban network, Hannah understands that Grandmam “made the connections that made my life…

“If it hadn’t been for her, what would my life have been? I don’t know. I know it surely would have been different. And it is only by looking back, as an old woman myself, like her a widow and a grandmother, that I can see how much she loved me and can pay her out of my heart the love I owe her.”

Only 7 percent of the way through Hannah Coulter according to my Kindle, I am already struck by Berry’s book. I am struck by nothing more deeply than this statement of Hannah’s. Who, I ask myself, “made the connections that made my life”?

I think it’s a question worth asking, a question that leads me toward a central point made by Fr. Luigi Giussani in The Religious Sense—that life is given to us. “The very word ‘given,’” Giussani writes, “is vibrant with an activity, in front of which I am passive; and it is a passivity which makes up my original activity of receiving, taking note, recognizing.”

A child is aware of this passivity, or at least experiences it, but as adults we forget our debt for what we have been given. Then in old age, the age from which Hannah writes her fictional memoir, it seems that we begin to acknowledge that debt once again, “becoming as little children.” This—and not the decline of the Catholic Church—may explain why I see so many gray heads at morning Mass. It certainly explains the five dozen memoirs I have helped write for clients, in which most of the remembering is done not about the self but about the men and women who made the connections that made the life.

I turn the question inward and ask: Who are my Grandmams? Who decided my fate? The ultimate giver—and this is Giussani’s point—is God, but God has his angels working on earth. From my experience, grandparents are often our first angels. Then come important teachers, pastors, mentors, sponsors—people who make our welfare their concern.

Although I have deep roots in the Midwest, I was not raised on a farm, where the isolated child is more at the mercy of Grandmams or less benevolent influences. I was raised in suburban Minneapolis and then suburban New York City, and I now live in suburban Boston, where it seems much easier to imagine that “I make myself.” In this complex fiber-optic network of lives circling a city, it is hard to keep track of all the filaments. So most of us end content with the illusion that we are “self-made men.”

So sometimes we have to look upward. In the suburbs it is often hard to see the stars, but when I look up into my life I see two kinds of heavenly objects: suns and black holes. Some adults have intentionally “made connections” for me. These are the suns, radiating goodness. But some are black holes, those who demanded attention, power, control, without ever giving my needs a thought. And (this is too long a story) I have even experienced an extraordinarily powerful black hole in which, I now understand, there lives a dying sun, still to this day.

I am mildly famous for introducing people who already are acquainted with each other—because I introduced them. “Mary, do you know Joseph?” “Yeah, you introduced us last week.” Some see this as a symptom of early-onset Alzheimer’s. I see it differently. In my small, disjointed way, I enjoy “making connections” for people, not in the common sense of networking but because I truly want my friends to know my friends. I think this is a good impulse. Perhaps it is even the kernel of the Grandpap in me. I will try to follow this impulse more religiously from now on, even though I may receive in return more awkward chuckles than grateful smiles.

NOTE: Hannah Coulter was brought to my attention by Suzanne Tanzi, my editor at Traces magazine, my friend, and my unofficial reading muse. In fact, she is one of many people who have made my reading life.

1 comment:

  1. Thought you might be interested in this:
    http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2011/12/wendell-berry-on-patriotism/

    ReplyDelete

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