The ‘Little Way’ of Staying

I knew what I was getting into when I picked up Rod Dreher’s memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming — a story about the irreplaceable value of community, of leaving and coming back. But I didn’t anticipate how many similarities I’d find between our stories.

Dreher builds Little Way around his sister’s small-town life and how her community rallied as she was dying of cancer, all of which prompts him to return once and for all to his hometown in Louisiana.

Dreher opens by describing his formative memory of Ruthie, the “one thing” he wants you to know about her, beginning what is in many ways a veneration that runs throughout the book. His praise for Ruthie, his father and the townspeople is so earnest these folks appear unbelievably good.

As the book draws to a close, though, Dreher reveals the conflicts and genuine failings that bring them back to earth just enough to more fully appreciate their goodness.

I was caught off guard quickly by how much of myself I saw in Dreher and the many ways his story had me thinking of my own.

Like Dreher, I grew up with a father who didn’t really understand me, along with a sibling who he much more naturally related to. And like Dreher, I was already looking for a way out of my small town by high school.

My dreams weren’t fueled by the stories of relatives, as were Dreher’s. They were born on the streets of New York City, where I visited with my aunt and uncle the summer I was eight, and again the next year. My personal theme song became Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City,” not coincidentally because it was featured in a VHS tape about the 1986 world champion Mets.

I remember a young childhood in the suburbs of Atlanta, and being angry when we left for rural Alabama. It didn’t get any better when we moved from tiny Ohatchee to small-city Anniston. I didn’t fit, and I knew it.

When my then-fiancee and I moved away in 1999, I knew I’d never be back.

Some years later, I discovered the writings of Wendell Berry. His book of essays What Are People For? makes the case for community and commitment to place so beautifully he almost had me packing for ‘Bama.

Like Dreher, cancer had brought me a reunion and an opportunity for healing—without my having to load a U-haul. Not long after my father was diagnosed, he moved in with us so he could be treated here in Chattanooga and while he stubbornly waited for a duplex apartment to open up across the street from us.

There were days he drove me crazy. I’m sure he felt the same way. But his move was one of the best things that ever happened to us. I’ll always be grateful we had that time together before he left us.

By the time I discovered What Are People For?, half my family had relocated here. And we’d slowly but surely grafted ourselves into a tight community of friends here.

As I’ve written about before, they have covered us in grace during times of need. And I hope they’ve seen measures of faithfulness from us. We already have what Dreher celebrated about his hometown; we’ve made this our home for over 13 years.

Seeing Dreher quote Berry in the second half of Little Way was something of a spiritual confirmation.

There are days when I daydream of pursuing new experiences by moving around the country or around the globe, but they could slip through my fingers in a way that slow-building, deep relationships won’t.

And when I think of what I want for my children, I want to model values that will last them a lifetime.

On those days when my mind begins to wander, I want to remember Little Way so I don’t have to leave and come back to know this is where we belong.

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