Friday, January 13, 2012

“Hannah Coulter”: The Meaning of Place

For a long time I was restless—never in my marriage, seldom in my work, but most often simply in my location. I wanted to move to Maine, to Ireland, to North Dakota. I hear Katie screaming, “North Dakota?! Have a nice time—by yourself.” I thought that life would be better if I moved: easier, greener, more serene. I was looking for a geographical cure.

But I am married to a wise woman, and usually when I got those ol’ relocation blues, Katie would lean gently but just hard enough in the opposite direction to make me consider both sides of the issue. Life, fate, or my guardian angel has helped too. We thought we were moving to Maine on business, but that fell through. We put down a deposit on a house in Ireland, but we were stymied by zoning. North Dakota? For a song, I could have bought the beautiful, well-kept Victorian house in which my Grandfather Bull was born, hard by the Red River of the North in Grand Forks, but—well, that was just stupid.

Becoming Catholic helped cure my restlessness: I belong to my parish as I have never belonged to any other community. So did getting older and seeing my children grow and go. I have lived in the same house for 34 years, with Katie for 27 of them. It’s too much house for us now with the “girls” gone, and there’s nothing special about it, except that it is our home. This is our place. I have a garden, and if city codes and the Catholic Church would allow it, I would ask to be planted here.

My friend and reading muse Suzanne recommended Wendell Berry’s 2004 novel Hannah Coulter, and like most of her recommendations I took it. Hannah is a novel written as the memoir of an elderly woman living as a “member” of Port William, a small fictional community in Kentucky, Berry’s home state. Berry’s distinguished body of work is mostly about what he and his characters term the Port William Membership, a wonderful way of signifying the sacred binding power of place.

Hannah is bound to her place, which did not begin as her place but became it through her marriages to Virgil Feltner (killed early in World War II) and Nathan Coulter (survivor of Okinawa). The book is a simple, nearly event-free meditation on family, aging, and place. Halfway through the book, I e-mailed Suzanne to say that the prose was beautiful and buttery, but “Does anything ever happen?” Last evening, as I was reading the final chapters across from Katie, I repeatedly blurted, “You have to read this book, honey!” The final chapters take Hannah through the departure of her grown children, the death of her beloved husband, a deepened understanding of his experience, his heart, and finally a rich, satisfying, and unexpected reconciliation.

Yes, things happen in Port William, the way they happen in life: without a soundtrack and usually before you know they’ve gone by.

Let me tempt you with a few short excerpts from the book, none of which will spoil anything. Since little happens, there’s little to spoil.

Early on, Hannah speaks of the eternal place-ness of Port William:

You could say that Port William has never been the same place two minutes together. But I think any way it has ever been it will always be. It is an immortal place. Some day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and a new Port Wiliam coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband, and whoever has known her before will know her then.

Writing about Port William to Virgil in his absence and distance, I realized that the story of even so small a place can never be completely told and can never be finished. It is eternal, always here and now, and going on forever.

There is a deep meaning in one’s place, Hannah reflects:

Most people now are looking for a “better place,” which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.

A bit further on, she says:

The place doesn’t care if you love it. But for your own sake you had better love it.

Much of the beauty of Hannah Coulter stems from the marriage of Hannah and Nathan, and the place they make together:

The making of the place was the thing that ruled over everything else, for we were living from the place. [Our children] were living from the place. You can see that it is hard to mark the difference between our life and our place, our place and ourselves.

As the book and Hannah’s life near their ends, she experiences great sadness over departures and deaths and lives gone wrong. But she never expresses regret. That’s because her faith or philosophy calls for a commitment to the place God has given us to live in. That faith is well summed up in this passage:

The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of such, but those are the right instructions.

* * *

I am heading to New York City this afternoon for the CL National Diaconia and the New York Encounter, and I will be carrying Berry’s novel Jayber Crow with me on my Kindle. Jayber is the barber in Port William, so you can expect some posts about hair-cutting.


  1. I have been restless my entire life, unfortunately also in my marriage.That problem ended with my conversion, but I'm still restless about the place where I live. It's true that, although I like this town and have friends here, as an Italian from the South I can't avoid hating the weather (too cold or too hot-humid) and missing the sea. I'm dreaming California and praying that God will allow me to end my days over there!

  2. I'm glad you linked to this post today as I missed it the first time. Wendell Berry's books changed my thoughts about place. We lived in a rural area where my husband had grown up. I had never felt at home there until reading Berry about five years ago. Then I settled in completely and learned to love the place. Imagine my difficulty in accepting a move this year that was clearly part of God's plan for my family. I didn't want to leave our home but God has given us a new home and a wonderful new parish. I still miss the people and places of "home" and think of Port William often. :)

  3. Thanks Sandy. Glad you are a Berry fan. I am now following your blog with the great title, “God, Family, Baseball.”


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