The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher

I’d come home from my nine-to-five job, make myself a tall glass of Tanqueray gin, grapefruit juice, and soda, and retire to my room to drink, read Hemingway, listen to ska, and marinate in self-doubt.

My life in Washington was, for Paw, the ultimate expression of rejection, for if I loved him, surely I would want to stay near him. He couldn’t credit the legitimacy of my professional ambition and personal desire to experience the world beyond our place. Nor could he understand my need to test myself and my abilities as a writer in ways that I could not if I stayed close to home. Rather he saw my decision to leave for the East Coast as a decisive statement that I loved myself more than I loved him and the land and the patrimony he had reserved for his children. What he could not see, what he would not see, was that he could, at times, be so overbearing in his expectations that he made it difficult for me to live around him without feeling crushed.

She was coming to the conclusion, she confided, that happiness matters more than being dutiful.

He also knew that a man sometimes just needs to be alone with his thoughts. Some hurt is beyond the reach of words. They drove on in silence.

In a way all those afternoons down on the sandbar at Thompson Creek, late evenings of margaritas at Que Pasa, nights of pool parties and barn dances and Ronnie Morgan’s campfires followed by pancakes and kitchen camaraderie, and church on Sunday morning—these things were like a levee the people of Starhill had spent a lifetime building together. Now, facing a catastrophe that felt like it had the power to wash them away, the levee was holding.

And yet Ruthie, in her simplicity, was an extraordinarily accomplished theologian—if, that is, a theologian is not one who knows about God, but one who knows God.

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.”

Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you—and it will—you want to be in a place where you know, and are known.

The implication for me was clear: if I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves.

I had become my own man. I built a good career as a writer and journalist, had a wife and three children, and had been a success on my own. I was doing meaningful work, and was happy. I had nothing left to prove to him or to myself. I could therefore afford, emotionally and psychologically, to live close to my dad because my sense of self-worth no longer depended on his favor. He never has understood me, and may never, but I knew that he loved me, and that he needed me to be with him during these last years of his life. That was enough; I had no right to expect more.

There has to be balance. Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.

I have wandered in my own way for half my life, and have no regrets. That was my role for a time. Now, though, I want to track, at my own pace and rhythm, the Little Way of Ruthie Leming.