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There is no more profound and irresistible question than to ask what it means to live a good life. The shadows of the greatest thinkers through the ages fall across the page of the writer who has the chutzpah to take it on. The Stoic philosophers, to whom I'm rather partial, boiled the good life pretty much down to: Pursue virtue; do good to those around you; and avoid causing harm. Doubtless Epictetus' Discourses and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations brought comfort and inspiration as the Romans rode into battle to conquer the known world, but we angst-ridden moderns tend to look for more full-bodied annunciations of goodness to get us through our own conflicted days.
And stories don't come more full-bodied than Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which comes closer than almost anything I've read to lassoing the concerns and peculiar anguishes of 21st century men and women. The book is subtitled A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, and the good life here is the one lived out quietly by Dreher's sister, Ruthie Leming, in the sleepy riverside town of St. Francisville, La. (pop. 1,712), until her death at age 42 from a rare and virulent lung cancer.
Part of the conceit and attraction of the book is the contrast between the two central characters, brother and sister, both immensely appealing, both at odds with each other. Rod is a self-confessed bookish, philosophizing foodie and urbanite journalist; and Ruthie, beautiful, practical, popular, "perhaps the only homecoming queen who could really skin a buck," who was content to stay in her hometown as an elementary school teacher.
The relationship between brother and sister is complex, similar to so many of us siblings who grow up under the same roof and go our separate ways, philosophically and spiritually – as well as loading up the U-Haul to set up various homes, as Rod did in New York, Dallas and Philadelphia, pursuing career goals and, as he put it, "collecting experiences." Rod was bullied at school and preferred to escape into books, music and the urbane Yiddishism of Mad Magazine rather than the robust heartiness of the hunting, fishing, shooting camaraderie of his dad, Paw, and his southern cronies. It was the younger Ruthie who adored fishing and hunting, who married her high school sweetheart – big-hearted, big-muscled Mike Leming – and stayed to raise a family a stone's throw from her parents' house. Rod shook the river mud off his boots, first with a scholarship to a boarding school for academically gifted kids and then with a move to New York as a journalist for the New York Post.
Brother and sister couldn't have been more different. Ruthie didn't appreciate Rod's long, beery arguments over existentialism while he was majoring in journalism and minoring in philosophy. "What is wrong with you all? You sit for hours talking about this crap and it doesn't mean anything. You're just talking. You're not doing anything. What does any of it mean in the real world?"
The real world for Ruthie was supporting Mike in his work as a firefighter, keeping family spirits up while he was fighting in Iraq, helping the less-well-off kids at her school, cultivating friendships, raising her three daughters to love fishing and baseball as much as she did and keeping an open kitchen – always chili or muffins or grits washed down with coffee or beer to be had over at the Lemings'.
The siblings talked on the phone and emailed regularly, but they lived in parallel universes. And that's how it might always have been, as it is for so many of us. Occasional visits home, barely concealed grievances and misunderstandings simmering at the supper table.
There's a wonderful set piece in a book that's full of great set pieces (you can just see the movie!) where Rod and his new wife return home to St. Francisville and spend all day preparing a meal for the extended family. The meal was a French bouillabaisse and francophile Rod spared no trouble sourcing the best and most authentic fish and herbs and baguettes to lavish on his family. The Lemings and the Drehers gather, grace is said – and no one wants to touch a spoonful of the "uppity French soup that they had never heard of." Instead, Ruthie makes a hurtful jibe about a "good country cook." The family moves on, as families do, but not without lingering hurt and resentment. Resentment, Rod claims, that never had the time to dissipate in the natural, easy way it would have if he'd seen his family on a daily basis.
There were what psychologists like to call life events that heightened Dreher's desire for kith and kin: the birth of his first child, and witnessing and covering the Twin Towers on 9/11 chief among them. The contrast between Rod, out there in the wild concrete jungle, and the family, close knit in their small town, was never sharper than on September 11. "They all thought – Ruthie foremost among them – that [the hamlet of] Starhill was the only truly safe place in the world. You knew folks and were known by them. You could count on people and you could count on things never changing much…the world made sense." Not long after, Dreher moved to his wife's hometown of Dallas; a day's drive from Ruthie and the family.
It must have been around that time, after the birth of the first of his three children and before the move to Dallas, that I met Rod Dreher. It was early 2000, and we were both in Jerusalem covering Pope John Paul II's tour of the Holy Land – he for the popular blog Beliefnet and I for CBC Radio. Of all the odd places to meet someone, we ran into each other at the Rock of Golgotha inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and were introduced by our mutual friend, Terry Mattingly, founder of the popular blog GetReligion.
Not surprisingly, we talked about religion. Dreher had converted from Methodism to Catholicism, and I remember being struck by his devotion to his faith. He scoured the Old City for icons and made repeat visits to priests so they could be properly blessed. I think it must have been those same icons he describes gathering his family around to pray for his sister through her illness. Perhaps devotion is too light a term; the truth is, I thought Dreher was crazed about his Catholicism. On the day that the Pope visited the Western Wall, Dreher broke through the security cordon, past the armed Israeli guards, to kiss the Holy Father's ring. Dreher recounted the exploit to me that evening at the hotel bar. He managed the kiss and received a blessing before being yanked back by a guard. He hadn't been hauled away though. He'd stood and watched the Holy Father climb into his chauffeured vehicle.
That night over bourbon, eyes flashing with excitement, he told me, "I got on my phone and I said to my wife – honey, you're not going to believe this. I am waving at the Holy Father right now – as I'm speaking – and he is smiling and waving at me." This went on for many long minutes as the car was trapped in Jerusalem's cobbled, crowded streets. And Dreher said, "Finally, I had to go. You can't look even at the Holy Father forever."
I loved that lack of pretension and honesty in him, and it's there in the book, too. There are lots of stories that show up Dreher's predilection for philosophizing and existential angst, most memorably his attempt on a patio in Paris to compare God to an oyster (to the annoyance of his recently bereaved niece), but they are always told with a winsome touch of self-deprecation.
This propensity for talk over action is a recurring theme in the book, and one that I found particularly indicting. I recall telling Dreher over shawarma about co-housing communities in Scandinavia that were beginning to be copied in the United States and how animated he became. The idea of community was obviously important to him, and we blue-skied about the possibilities of home-schooling our respective – and still to come – children. I don't remember him talking about Louisiana at all, an ironic blind spot he describes in pangs of self-knowledge: "I was long on word, short on deeds. She [Ruthie] was the Christian soldier and I the armchair theologian." Reading Dreher's book, I couldn't help but feel how lucky he was that the community we fantasized about during our Middle East junket was waiting for him all the time back home, though it took his sister's death to make him realize it.
Dreher's style for the most part eschews the florid and the literary. There are some beautifully rhythmic passages, but the writing is mostly spare, disciplined and taut, especially when dealing with the panic of illness. He charts the phone call he'd been dreading. "Baby, it's Cancer," Mam shrieked. "It's cancer! It's malignant. Sister has lung cancer." That specific southern use of "Sister" drives home the primal, familial bond and cuts through the reader's attempt to distance herself from the pain of the unfolding tragedy.
And then, in the face of the horror, there's Ruthie surrounded by family and friends, commanding her young daughters: "We are not going to be angry at God, girls."
Dreher has used his interviewing skills to good effect and picked through hours of transcripts to create a sense of the undulating warp and weft of his sister's life, the myriad of people she influenced and their response to her illness and her death. We are given the poignancy of daughter Claire not wanting to leave her dead mother lying in the hospital bed alone. "Can I get a sip of water? Is it okay for me to leave her?" And the youngest one rushing out to the car to get her lunch box because she realized she hadn't eaten her sandwich and so hadn't seen the yellow Post-it note with her mother's last loving words to her. The quotidian complexities of modern North American life that grind on, even in the aftermath of death: the daughter in biology class with her cell phone turned off; the friend who drove her and the Jeep that broke down on the highway; the kindly passerby who rushes her to the hospital and quietly leaves; the local auto repair guys who fix the abandoned Jeep, deliver it to the family home and don't send a bill. And of course, the piles of food and clean counters the distraught family returns home to. Ruthie's friends sitting in her kitchen, drinking coffee and beer, eating food and sharing stories about Ruthie – a celebration of life that went on for days. Ruthie's friends kicked off their shoes and danced barefoot because that was exactly what Ruthie would have done. "There was pain and there was exhaustion, but above all there was peace. Mam was right: Ruthie's spirit was there. The most terrible thing had happened, God knows, but somehow there was a sense of order, and purpose, and serenity. Just like Ruthie told us there would be."
This kind of exaltation in the face of death was not common in St. Francisville, as it's not common anywhere on earth. But Ruthie was a singular person and her way a singular way, Dreher tells us. The title of the book is a riff on the little way of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun who died even more prematurely than Ruthie and who taught that holiness was to be found in living ordinary and everyday life with love and the spirit of service and obedience to God. Ruthie didn't have a complicated theology; she loved God and she believed He would never abandon her.
The result, the rewards, "the effects of Ruthie's love, given and returned," forced Dreher to examine his own choices, his own path. At Ruthie's funeral, he was particularly struck by the shy and troubled kids who showed up to pay their respects to a loved teacher. Before her death, the community had rallied to put on a Leming Aid concert to help defray the family's medical bills. The concert raised over $43,000, but it wasn't so much the grand gestures as the small things that challenged Dreher to rethink his priorities.
He began to notice the small good things that people in St. Francisville do for one another. You're going through a hard time and your grass gets cut, or the power goes out and your neighbour runs an extension cord across three yards to power your freezer with his generator. And in the centre of it all, Dreher saw Mam and Paw, who had cultivated goodness in this same small patch of home for all their lives, as their own parents had done and as Ruthie had done with her family. "You live in one place long enough, and live that way, the interest on your good deeds will add up."
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Dreher points out with forensic accuracy that when you get sick, the insurance company – if you're lucky to have one – will pay your doctors and pharmacists but "it will not cook for you and your kids when you're too sick to cook for yourself or your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school. A bureaucrat from the state or insurance company won't come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you... Only your family and your community can do that.
"I was able to see the effects of Ruthie's love, given and returned, in steadfast acts of ordinary faith, hope and charity. The little way of Ruthie Leming is the plainest thing in the world, something any of us could choose. And yet so few of us do."
These observations cannot but cause the reader to ponder: Whose lives have I changed? To whom have I really made a difference? And ultimately, when I die, will my life have added up to anything? Will mine have been a good life?
The answers don't come easy, especially when you've lived your life in contrast to an adored sister. Dreher is unflinching in his self-examination. "Ruthie plainly loved me, but she just as plainly thought that I was a snob and a fraud." Her friends told him – it's a sibling thing – "but it stinks being the only guy in town who could tick off a saint."
Dreher examines how sometimes it's a single comment, perhaps misunderstood, perhaps intentional, that makes all the difference in our lives. How a few words can hit a sensitive, raw spot and cause us to change our life's course – for good and for ill. He had nearly come home once before until his father made an offhand comment: "I'm so glad you came back home, son. You realize now that I was right all along." That remark, even though it was said kindly, was enough to send him running off again seeing, as he puts it, prison bars where he later saw pillars of communal support. If the wounding takes a moment, so sometimes can the salve. Months after returning home for good after Ruthie's death, it was a quiet exchange with Mam that undid years of anger and brought reassurance that after all, his sister had believed "that I was good underneath."
It all reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's great comment from the Father Brown mysteries, redacted in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, which is also occupied with what it means to lead a good life. It's the idea that each of us is fixed with a golden thread of faith that is long enough to let us wander to the ends of the earth and yet strong enough to bring us back with a quick tug.
That tug of Ruthie's death on the Louisiana boyhood threads of family and faith and community was enough to bring Dreher back home, and today he works as a senior editor of the American Conservative from St. Francisville. He is quick to point out that the community has its share of problems – drugs, alcoholism, poverty, lack of opportunity, narrowmindedness – but for him the continuity of real relationships trumps the negatives and gives him impetus to engage the problems. Dreher is actively involved in local politics, trying to make a good place even better.
I read this book three times and I wept each time. It wasn't just the story of the three young girls left motherless – the pointlessness of Ruthie's death, which might even have been prevented with an earlier diagnosis – though the book deals with this well. Ruthie's eldest daughter, Hannah, sums up our creaturely ennui when she cries out to her uncle, "We're here and then we die. What's the point of any of it?" She had seen her good mother, who poured out her life for others – her pupils, her family, her friends – die young and in pain. How could a good and loving God – as her mother believed there is – allow this to happen? Dreher responds to his niece, and to us: "She didn't try to understand the mystery. She just tried to live it. We have to try, too. There is no other way."
No, it wasn't the girls' loss that I wept for. It was my own. Where is the good life to be found for those of us whose families are divided or itinerant or exiled? Those of us who have no homestead to return to? No generations of good deeds to cash in? Perhaps for us, for me, with family flung across various continents, the lesson from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a little different. We immigrants must find our community where we can. We are not to underestimate the value of digging in where we find ourselves. And church communities, with their intergenerational medley and potlucks and recurring liturgical rhythms, can be great places for transplants to root.
There's also the profound lesson here of the need to give each other a soupçon of grace. We never truly know the consequences of our words and actions. For parents, this truth holds a special terror. It was that tossed off, lovingly meant phrase of his father's that caused Dreher to abandon an earlier attempt to return home. It was that well-intentioned French meal that solidified a rift. But love, as he says anyone who has heard a bridesmaid read Corinthians 13 knows, covers a multitude of sins, intentional or otherwise. And perhaps love is always a mystery.
A good story to end on (and perhaps the starting point for the movie the book deserves to become) is the one about young Rod teasing his sister to the point of incensing Paw to a rare but severe beating. Rod is stretched out on the bed waiting for the belt to go flying when Ruthie, age five, charges in and flings herself on top of her brother. "Whip me, Daddy! Whip me!" she cries. Now that's love.