catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 9 :: 2012.04.27 — 2012.05.10


Which good life?

I didn’t plan for it, but suddenly a sense of the good life hit me: I was sitting in a recital hall listening to Maurice Manning reading poetry in his Kentucky drawl, drinking a cup of strong coffee creamed and sugared just the way I like it. His use of rural colloquialisms and tales of neighbors past evoked many of the themes from a hard week in our small town of Three Rivers, Michigan, with the relatively dramatic deaths of two local icons-of-sorts. For what felt like the first time in a month, I took a deep breath and it felt like I was releasing the exhaustion of a good cry.

Then someone sat down right next to me and started clicking away on the buttons of her flip phone.  Was this her vision of the good life, scrolling through photos with half her brain while the other half took in a reading?  Or was it just another instance of epidemic boredom breaking in on my daydream?  Does it matter?

Losing two neighbors in one week has prompted a lot of consideration and conversation about what constitutes a good life, including the variety of forms such lives can take.  One of those neighbors, Joanne Holden, probably deserves whatever our local version of canonization would be for the unconventional good life she pursued.  Even before her body was found last Tuesday, curled up in a clearing in the woods a half mile from home, her story was already settling into the gray area between fact and fiction that we might call “myth.”  That she swam across a local lake after she closed her shop each day is true and eccentric enough, but did she really break through the ice in the spring to go for a dip?  Does it matter?

One story that I’ve heard a couple of times in the past week was how Joanne responded to questions about her retirement.  Into her 80s, she was still running Long Lake Food and Book Shop, an eclectic blend of cottage supplies, microbrews, Latvian baked goods, new and used books, art supplies, penny candy and geological survey maps.   Urged to consider selling the store by folks concerned for her health and safety, she would reply, “I’m already retired, and I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

Joanne simply doing exactly what she wanted to do has had ripple effects far beyond what she probably knew, and she’d probably brush you off if you tried to tell her how much you appreciated her.  In fact, Long Lake Food and Book Shop was one of the places that worked its wonderfully weird way into our hearts early on in our time in Three Rivers, and wouldn’t let go.  In years it was open between when we discovered it in 2003 and when Joanne’s health required her to close it in 2011, we took dozens of visitors there, including groups of students.  What better classroom in which to experience the wonders of imagination and challenge expectations than Joanne’s dusty maze of treasures that, though thousands had browsed them, always made you feel like you were the first explorer to stumble on such a strange land?  Endlessly curious about others, but also resistant to people’s endless curiosity about her, Joanne cultivated a “curiosity shop” in the truest sense of the term — the obsolete Gwen Frostic calendar might cost $12, but the sense of wonder you left with was altogether free for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Thinking about Joanne over the past week has reminded me that living a good life includes good work.  Though poetry readings and vacations and unscheduled Sabbaths allow us to glimpse good rest, the good life can’t be limited to what we do in our free time, or what we dream of doing “some day” when we retire.  And good work doesn’t have to be work that takes us to the top of our field or funds a jet set lifestyle.  It’s a lot simpler and more complicated than that.  In his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Wendell Berry writes,

Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. But such blasphemy is not possible when the entire Creation is understood as holy and when the works of God are understood as embodying and thus revealing His spirit.

And if Joanne reminds me of the necessity of good work in a good life, Berry reminds me of the necessity of contemplation, because it’s hard to comprehend the holiness of creation while we’re sprinting on a treadmill of obligation and acquisition.  On the treadmill, we fear getting sucked under as soon as we lose our focus, so we just keep running.  Off the treadmill, whether in rest or worship or retreat, we gain the critical distance to discern where we’re running, and why, and whether our worst fears really will come true if we just…stop.  Like many others who have given up professional careers in exchange for deep connection with people and place in Three Rivers, Joanne seemed to have discovered that you don’t, in fact, die when you stop running — quite the opposite, in fact.  I might say that, with another nod to Mr. Berry, she was practicing resurrection, even as she walked out into the woods to return her body to the soil.

That she was suffering from dementia was true enough, but is it possible that she knew she was going to die soon and chose the forest over the nursing home, as decisively as she chose downward mobility?

Does it matter?

your comments

comments powered by Disqus