A few friends of mine have mentioned over the years how much they love Wendell Berry books. I’d listen with curious attention but hesitated to try one for myself in case their high praise didn’t pull through for me.
This summer I was in the library scanning the shelves, hoping my next read would jump out at me, when my eyes fell upon Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. I pulled it out and examined it. I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but there was something about this one that drew me in.
I was in the mood for a peaceful retreat and the picture of the farm snuggled up in the rolling hills was all I needed.
From the beginning I knew reading this would be like taking a long and slow walk along the scenic route. And it was. I even purposefully read it slowly so I could enjoy it longer before the sun finally set and the story would end.
Like the picture of the farm on the cover, Hannah drew me in. She made me feel what it was like to live and to suffer in the post-war era in a small farming community. It isn’t exactly an adventure story in the extreme sense, yet it is a story of a young girl’s journey from a girl to a young lady, a married woman to an older widow. The journey began in one place and flowed on, like a river, forming itself as it went along.
The writing is rich and overflowing, like the fields of its contents, with the wisdom of life. It’s a fictional story that could be anyone’s real one.
Here are some of my favorite quotes I was able to mark:
From page 5 –
This is the story of my life that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed. So close to the end now, what do I look forward to? “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”Some morning I pray I’ll have the good happiness of the man who “woke up dead”… This is my story, my giving of thanks.
Page 44 –
Time doesn’t stop. Your life doesn’t stop and wait until you get ready to start living it.
Page 54-55 (This is definitely my most favorite) –
We all needed her…We didn’t know how much we needed her until she came among us, and then we knew. She came to us like love between lovers, the answer to a need we would not have had if she hadn’t come.
She was needed, and then there she was among us, growing and changing every day, a living little girl, one of us. At first she was only present, enclosed mostly in her own small being. And then, we could see it happening, she began to look out of her eyes. She began to see the light from the windows. She began to see us. She began to know us. She began to look at us and smile, as if greeting us from a world we didn’t know or had forgotten. She made sounds at first that were just sounds and then she made sounds that were answers and sounds that were calls.
To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought forth into the world by my pain and strength – that changed me. My heart, which seemed to have had only loss and grief in it before, now had joy in it also…
Page 146 –
Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.
Page 148 –
You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remembered now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.
Your life, as you have lived it, is way back yonder in time. But you are still living, and your living life, expectations subtracted, has a shape, and the shape of it includes the past. The absent and the dead are in it. And the living are in it.
Hannah Coulter is available in: