More than a book, it’s the Soundtrack of a lifetime.
Music, movies, and books have a way of connecting to you at a certain point in your life and then becoming the soundtrack for that moment in your personal history. Each stage in my life has a vibe that was carried on by someone’s album or book. Then there are the books, music, and movies that change you. The phrases, ideas, characters and places alter your life and path. They become echoes that you carry with you. When you return to them, it feels like coming home.
In 2013, I read “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry for the first time. Berry is a Kentucky native from Henry County and I had heard of him but knew nothing of the book. Like Leo Tolstoy, Berry’s books have a way of interweaving a philosophy of life into a great story or poem. His love of the land, of his town and community, and of Kentucky lie like seeds beneath the surface throughout the entire storyline. Berry isn’t just telling you about Jayber Crow; he is telling you about a place and a time in history. He is telling you the history of a fictional place that resembles the place of his youth while, at the same time, he makes you look up and see how beautiful your own town is. You start to wonder what your community was like and you begin to see how changes effect our lives here.
“Jayber Crow” follows the life of the title character. The story is told in first person as Jayber recalls his life and lets the reader into his thoughts and history. Jayber starts by sharing his limitations: “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”
Instead of reaching into the granary of Jayber’s story and handing it to you in the form of a summary, I want to reach into my own granary and offer you the kernels of wheat that I got from Jayber. I was 29 years old in 2013, when I read Jayber Crow for the first time. Since then, I have read it at least once a year. I’m currently reading it now and this will make my 10th time through. I bonded with the life of a boy who grew into a barber. At one time in my life, I wanted to be a barber myself. I love the setting of older people loafing around telling stories and talking. It is still an endless source of interest for me. “Jayber Crow” is full of stories and conversations that you would have heard if you were a barber in a small town in Kentucky. Wendell Berry makes you appreciate things that have aged and have history.
After I finished the book the first time, I went to the library to look up the history of Creelsboro. There are tapes and manuscripts of people telling of early life in the lower end of Russell County. I sat in the Jamestown library and absorbed them all. I made more trips to Rockhouse Bottom, where my parents and grandmother own a farm. As a kid, I was always my grandma’s sidekick in work, but now, listening again to her stories and helping her garden felt different. My dad’s farm meant more to me with each chapter of the book. At the time, I lived in apartments next to Lindsey Wilson College’s soccer field. I built a garden box and bought pots and upside-down tomato planters. In a two-bedroom apartment downtown, I had six green pepper plants and nine tomato plants. Trips to the Amish, in Casey County, became more regular.
In 2012-2013, I was in the middle of a doctrinal and philosophical crossroads. I was asking questions about things that people are afraid to ask. When I picked up “Jayber Crow,” I followed his story to the point where he is in seminary. Jayber is plagued with a lot of the same questions, and he has no answers. When he brings these questions to his professor, Jayber is given this response:
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
I am listening to the audiobook of “Jayber Crow” now. As I listened to this passage this morning, I saw the younger version of myself—a version of myself so stressed out with questions—and I smiled. Since finishing the book the first time, I too have been living out the answers to my questions from so long ago. After this conversation, Jayber leaves the seminary and becomes a barber, a trade he learned as a “twice orphaned” boy in an orphanage. His travels lead him eventually back to his hometown, Port William.
I too have lived out some of the answers to the questions that I had. I, like Jayber, have felt that I was called to something and it was not what I originally planned. Questions had a way of pulling at threads and unraveling the garment that I was wearing until I couldn’t wear it anymore. What I was left with was a lighter, freer place to start over as a traveler not knowing my destination. The questions had to be lived out and walked through.
In a short chapter of the book, Jayber tells of Athey Keith, a local farmer, who was farming well and “he was improving his land; he was going to leave it better than he had found it.”. This became a life statement for me. I wanted to leave each place that I went , better than I found it. If I went to a restaurant or hotel, I cleaned up my table or room to as close as I found it. I hoisted this idea into my relationships and interactions and made it the overarching theme that I wanted to leave. Leave this Earth better than you found it. It is still something I consider a decade later.
Intertwined throughout the entire novel is a love story. After Jayber moves back to Port William, he notices a young girl named Mattie Keith. Mattie is Athey Keith’s daughter. The two never share the intimacies of an official relationship; they never even share a hug or kiss. Mattie never knows the depth of Jayber’s love for her. Yet, Jayber exhibits a fidelity to her that might be the purest form of love. Their relationship evolves around the love of Mattie’s aging father and comes to a culmination in the last sentence of the book.
“Jayber Crow” is full of beautiful sentences, passages, and conversations. They will make you smile, think, laugh, cry, or stop reading altogether so that you can absorb all that was just said. One of my favorite passages in the book comes towards the end. Jayber sums up his journey through life:
I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.
I have seen my life as a journey, which is why I named my first book of poetry after this idea. I have wandered around often making wrong turns and meandering down paths that I didn’t know were there. Ultimately, I have felt led; yet, not in any divine sense. Led in the way that Frodo was led to Mordor and back home. It wasn’t a straight line and, sometimes, Sméagol has to get you part of the way there. (But that’s another story).
“Jayber Crow” has been a defining soundtrack for not just a season of my life, but my life as a whole. I found myself written into the pages and I have echoed it back. On the tenth time, it is better than the first. The characters have become a part of me and I visit them often. I hope that you find yourself as the pages turn. I hope that you, too, will see your life, your place in it, and the place that you live with a different light.