This week in chapters 6-7 we read about longing. Longing to belong. Longing for purpose. Longing for adventure. Longing for another world, or maybe a redeemed understanding of this world. What does this have to do with writing? What does it have to do with creative work? Are those two things the same thing? (Spoilers: No, not quite.) Before we dive into those conversations, let’s see what Andrew has for us in today’s excerpt.
I was born homesick. Maybe we all were. In 2006 I was in our subdivision house on Harbor Lights Drive, holed up in the spare bedroom-turned-office while the kids bumped around in the living room and Jamie cooked dinner. When I read the last few paragraphs of Wendell Berry’s towering novel Jayber Crow I felt such an overwhelming collision of sadness and joy that I literally slid out of my chair and curled up on the floor, weeping in a patch of sunlight. Other than the end of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia I’d never been so leveled by a book.
But why? I wondered. What was it about this particular book that resonated with me so? If I ask myself the same question about Narnia and Middle-earth, the answer becomes clearer: I wanted to find my way through the wardrobe; I wanted to sail with Frodo to the Grey Havens. I longed to belong. Jayber Crow is about a lot of things, but one of its major themes is community, or in Wendell Berry parlance, membership—by which he means belonging to both a people and a place. Looking back, I realize I’ve always been on the hunt for belonging. We left small town Illinois when I was seven and, though I really tried to make it work, small-town Florida never felt like home. I lived a sort of half-life there through middle and high school, and got out of Dodge as soon as I could. Jamie and I ended up in Nashville, where we’ve stayed long enough that at least all our kids can say they belong to a place. They’ve always lived within a few miles of where they were born. It’s a start.
During our first ten years here, our family lived in four different houses. We liked the adventure of a new place. But after Jayber Crow I was done with transience. I was stirred by a longing to care for the land under my feet, to work in partnership with the earth instead of in opposition to it, to learn the names of the birds and the flora and fauna as well as the names of my neighbors, and to shepherd some corner of this planet for the sake of the Kingdom. As far as it was in my limited power to do so, I wanted to mend the world—even if it was just a few acres of it.
As nice as it was to live in a little Nashville subdivision, pushing a stroller through the neighborhood in the evening and being close enough to Percy Priest Lake to take our little Sunfish sailboat out at a moment’s notice, Jamie and I both knew it wasn’t the house we wanted to die in. Our neighborhood, like so many subdivisions, practically embodied the word transitory. Neighbors came and went. New streets were always being carved out of the tree line. Every other day, it seemed, a “For Sale” sign showed up in someone’s yard. It wasn’t the kind of place we could imagine our grandchildren getting excited to visit.
By then, several of our friends had moved to East Nashville, where at the time you could still buy a pretty bungalow and renovate it on the cheap. There were cool restaurants and historic neighborhoods (a little known fact: the outlaw Jesse James lived there for a while when he was on the lam). Now East Nashville is the hipster center of town and the bungalows are priced like mansions, so we missed that boat. Then one day we visited my old roommate Mark (the same Mark who picked me up from the bus station and helped me record my indy EP all those years ago) because he had just moved with his wife and kids to a farmhouse in South Nashville. Only minutes from the city, a winding road took us past cattle ponds and ramshackle barns, over bridges that spanned Mill Creek, and finally up a gravel drive to their hundred-year-old farmhouse. As soon as we arrived, I broke the tenth commandment. Sort of. I didn’t exactly covet my neighbor’s house, but I coveted the land. I coveted the peace and quiet, the story of the farm, the stands of hackberry and white oak and cedar. I immediately wanted to move there. By this time I had found in Nashville a people to belong to—could this be the place? …
Then about a year later, Mark called and said his neighbors had in fact decided to sell, at a price we just might be able to afford. …
The catch was, the house was 25 percent smaller than our current one. And it wasn’t exactly pretty. The kitchen was literally the size of a walk-in closet and the décor wasn’t, shall we say, “aligned with Jamie’s taste.” But the building itself wasn’t what interested me. All I could see when I looked out the front window was that daydream of Skye’s pigtails bouncing through the meadow. (The boys probably weren’t in the daydream because they were busy building forts in the daydream woods.)
In the end, we went for it. Without knowing America was on the verge of the Great Recession, we sold our subdivision home for a tiny profit and bought a house in one of the last rural pockets of Davidson County. The day we moved in, Jamie cried. They weren’t happy tears, mind you. Our kids were growing by the minute, I was touring more or less constantly, and we had just done a very un-American thing: we had downsized. We had also down-styled. The old vinyl flooring was, well, old. One corner of the outdated carpet had been chewed up by the former owners’ cat. The kitchen, as I said, was miniscule. None of this would have been hard for her except that we had gotten used to the relative niceness of the subdivision house. “But look at the land,” I would say, encouragingly, with a grand sweep of my hand. Bless her heart, she took a deep breath and dug in. I love that woman.
“Can we please replace the carpet sooner rather than later?” she asked on the day we closed.
“Of course,” I said without really looking at how bad the carpet was. “We’ll get to it.” My mind was on cutting trails and building tree houses. I went out for a weekend of shows and came home to a shock. There was a pile of old carpet in the front yard. Jamie had singlehandedly torn it up and hauled it out with an iron will.
“Now. About that carpet,” she said with a smile. “Here are some choices for hardwood flooring.” Like I said, I love that woman. Without delay, she began making our house beautiful. And I started reclaiming the land. …
Downsizing ain’t easy, especially with three small children. … But when the kids came in with skinned knees from climbing trees, or when the sun threw golden light at the hill in the late afternoon and we all went out to watch the clouds catch fire, or when we woke in the misty morning and walked the trails in Warren Wood and saw the kids’ tree forts quietly awaiting their return, or when we sat on the porch on warm nights and listened to the barred owls calling to each other from the dark branches, we knew we had chosen wisely. God had provided a place we could love, a place our grandchildren could love as much as our children did. About five years in, we were able to build an addition that made the inside as lovely as the outside—and once again it was because Jamie, too, had a picture in her mind, and did the hard, creative work of incarnating it.
I tell you all this because place matters.
Of course, not everyone can move to the country, nor should they. But wherever you are, you might as well go ahead and pull up the carpet.
Discussion: Do you relate to the need to belong, to a place and a people both? Do you have one or the other? neither? or both? In what ways can you “pull up the carpet” in the place where you live?
And back to the question at the top: What does this have to do with writing? Are writing and creative work the same thing? And what kinds of creative work matter if pulling up carpet and building rock walls matter?
Come talk to us in the forum about this stuff, or about anything else that’s in your head after reading these two chapters. There’s a lot to discuss. 🙂