A long time ago I wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that “the world sucks and nothing makes it better.” I was referring to the paradox that so many of the things that we do to try to improve ourselves—yoga, reading books, religion—don’t always (or even usually) produce tangible benefits in terms of our health, our morality, or our overall well-being. And, to make things worse, the fact that we go into these pursuits expecting self-improvement actually leads us to build up a sense of self-righteousness in our performance of them. And so there’s a real risk that these things can make us worse.
I thought that there was a way out of the paradox in Kristen Case’s application of the concept of grace to the English classroom. Case writes about transcendent moments she’s witnessed while teaching, times when her students took steps “away from a complacent knowing into a new world in which, at least at first, everything is cloudy, nothing is quite clear.” But Case doesn’t overstate what these moments mean: “They are difficult to characterize and impossible to quantify. They are not examples of student success, conventionally defined. They are not achievements.”I’ve had these moments as a teacher (and as a student), too, and I’d add that because they can’t be quantified, they can’t really be predicted either. And though they take work, they aren’t earned, really; there’s no clear relation between effort and reward. Lots of times, lots of semesters, you work and work and work and nothing like this happens. So these moments don’t breed pride, because you know they’re a sort of gift— and that’s another reason that Case’s choice of the word “grace” is particularly apt.
I mentioned there was a death in my family. I don’t know why I didn’t say who it was; blogging is weird, I guess, and I’m never sure how much to reveal. But it was my grandmother, my mom’s mom, and I’m her only grandson, so H and I rushed to Atlanta for her funeral and to see to her affairs. One of the things my wife and I found while going through my grandmother’s belongings was a typed version of a journal she kept in the summer of 1976 while she did a 750-mile solo bike ride across Kentucky and Virginia. It’s an amazing document, and I expect to be writing more about it in the coming months. I’ve spent the past week reading and re-reading it, and while I’ve learned a lot about my grandmother’s state of mind before and during the trip, one question the journal doesn’t really answer is why she did it. Why would a normal forty-five year old woman, a kindergarten teacher with no experience in long-distance riding decide to bike, all alone, from Berea, Kentucky to Yorktown, Virginia?
Obviously, it wasn’t for glory. She did it anonymously, though a reporter from a Portsmouth paper (notified by my mom) was waiting to interview her at the end of her ride.
It wasn’t about being healthy—just about the first thing she did every day in pulling into her campsite was to buy a six-pack of beer and hang a collapsible bucket, filled with ice, from a tree to serve as a cooler.
Nor, from what I can tell, was she riding to prove something, either to herself or to society. When I posted something about her journal on Facebook, one of my friends called her a trailblazer and a pioneer. I guess that’s true in a historical sense: look at how strangely Cheryl Strayed was viewed for hiking alone on the Pacific Coast Trail in 1995, and you realize that it was even stranger for an unaccompanied woman to bike alone cross-country in 1976. And because of when she did this, 1976, one might assume it was some kind of political statement, some reflection of the women’s lib movement (in fact, because of her short, dark hair and spectacles, she was mistaken for Billie Jean King on the tour). But that’s not who my grandmother was as a person—she was a soft-spoken, modest woman, a woman who valued tradition more than anyone I know.
Her disposition was so sunny that I was startled to read in her introduction to the journal that my grandmother decided to do the ride in a moment of crisis, a time in which she said she was full of depression and despair. That’s understandable—it’s the reason Strayed sets out on her hike, too—but what’s missing in my grandmother’s account (and in Strayed’s for that matter) is any reckoning of how she thought her journey might fix that. In place of that reasoning, there’s faith: faith that the ride would, somehow, make things better.
It did make things better, and I hope to talk about that more in future posts, but my point is that it’s hard to see how.
One of my favorite lines from Wendell Berry is his dictum to “Every day do something that won’t compute.” My grandmother didn’t need that reminder—that’s just who she was. She would hold up the lunch rush at the Varsity in Atlanta to introduce you to her favorite server; she would slow down to 15 mph on a busy Buckhead street to point out a place where her father had once practiced law. Living her last years on a fixed income of her teacher retirement plus social security, she nonetheless wrote dozens of checks to charities each month, each one for $10 or $15. When my mom was frustrated with her mother, she would refer to my grandmother as “the Crazy Lady.” Her 750-mile bike trip, which my mom initially opposed, was Exhibit A.
Berry’s line, of course, comes from his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The Mad Farmer, the Crazy Lady: I don’t know whether my grandmother ever read Berry, but I think she would have loved him.
And I think my grandmother’s example adds something to Berry’s poem, too. Because she wasn’t just being crazy. Whenever she refused to compute, when she made things around her go haywire, it was always because she was veering too far in a specific direction: towards kindness and/or wonder.
And wonder, that opening onto a new world that so fascinates Case, is what I see most of all in her journal. So her journal reflects that connection between impracticality, what some might call irrationality, and grace.
David Brooks recently wrote:
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.
Those are the people we want to be.
My grandmother was that kind of stumbler, and the goodness of her life, like the purpose of her bike trip, is hard to put into words. And maybe, in one sense, it counts for nothing. But it’s real, and it’s certainly something she shared with others, and, to me at least, it radiates right off of the pages she typed.