Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rod Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming

This strange little book chronicles the relationship of conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whom I read regularly and have quoted several times on this blog, and his little sister Ruthie. They were born in Starhill, Louisiana, which is a sort of suburb of a town called St. Francisville (pop. 1700). The most interesting thing to me about this story is that although Rod and Ruthie were born of the same parents in the same place, they could not have been more different people.

Ruthie, in Rod's telling, was born to live in a small southern town. She loved hunting and fishing, loved working outside, loved to hang out with her neighbors at barbecues or high school baseball games. She loved being with her family. She accepted everything about her family's life and questioned nothing. She went to LSU, a few miles down the road in Baton Rouge, came home, married her high school sweetheart (a fireman), built a house on a piece of her family's land, had three children and became a school teacher.

Rod, meanwhile, was a bullied outcast in St. Francisville. He hated hunting and fishing and always wanted to be inside with his books and music rather than out in the woods. He questioned constantly and fought with his father about everything from music to religion. At 16 he took the first chance he was given to get away from home, winning a place at a public boarding school for gifted students. He also went to LSU but he spent his time there reading philosophy, becoming a socialist, and and generally getting as far as his mind could take him from Starhill. After graduation he became a journalist and lived in several cities: New Orleans, Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia. He became a foodie, a lover of Paris, something of a hipster. He also embarked on a spiritual quest that took him away from the Methodism of his family, first into Catholicism, and then, after covering the scandal surrounding abusive priests provoked a new spiritual crisis, into Orthodoxy.

Rod continued to go home regularly and kept in close touch with his family, but a coldness grew between him and his sister. She thought he was a snob and a fraud. She (and his father) experienced his leaving home as a rejection of them and their ways. She didn't understand why he had to think so hard about everything and couldn't just relax and let things be. Why did he have to become a Catholic? Their church wasn't good enough for him? Why did he want to live in a city? People like his family weren't good enough for him any more? Why would he rather go to Paris than go to the beach with them? And so on.

I suppose a Buddhist might see this story as an argument for reincarnation: here we have two siblings who came into the world not just with different personalities but with different missions. Ruthie came to dwell in one place and live its life fully, whereas Rod came to break free and explore the world. For Rod it all has something to do with God and his plans, but don't ask me to explain that because this book brought home for me again how weird I find the thinking of most religious believers.

At the age of 40, with three children under her wing, Ruthie was diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer that killed her just over a year later. This tragedy brought Starhill together in an amazing way, as everybody pitched into help with Ruthie's children, help raise money for her expenses, and help the Drehers through the crisis. Ruthie was a much-beloved person, and the whole town plus many of her former students came to her funeral and testified to her simple saintliness. This experience had such a big impact on Rod and his wife that they left Philadelphia and moved into an old house in St. Francisville, where they hope their children can grow up in the sort of close and loving community that produced Ruthie and sustained her family through her death.

Whether this will work for a restless, tortured soul like Rod Dreher I have no idea. Maybe he will find a strength and peace in going home that he never found on his travels. Maybe he will find in St. Francisville the "good life" that he thinks his sister had there. I have to say, though, that I doubt it. The impression I get from Dreher's book -- which is also my own experience -- is that some people are born to be happy with small town life, and some are born to flee from it. By moving home, Dreher is denying his own nature as he himself describes it. He thinks he is now trying to follow the path laid out by his sister, but I would say the opposite: she lived exactly as her nature intended, whereas he is now trying to live against his own grain. Can that lead to happiness? I guess we'll find out.

No comments: