The Little Way of Ruthie Leming
“You’re insane! No one ever leaves. Why would they? You’ve lived in Los Angeles your whole life—just go to college at UCLA or USC like a normal person!” shouted a friend when I told her I would be going to college in Oregon. She could not understand why I was heading north (and eventually east).
She was right in a sense. I had lived in Los Angeles my whole life. Or, more precisely, I had lived in Fullerton—a community of over 100,000 residents that most people have never heard of since it sits awash in an ever-expanding sea of suburbs. But I knew that Southern California and its beach culture were not for me. My Scandinavian ancestors bequeathed me pasty, white skin which left me more likely to contract skin cancer than catch a wave at the beach. I thus figured that college in a place where it rained all the time was a positive move.
But what disturbed me most about life in Los Angeles was its transient nature. While no one could imagine leaving, everyone was from somewhere else. History was the 1960s, and newer was always better. Even then, something inside me knew there must be another way to live—a way to live in a community nurtured by a sense of the past. The search for this way of life led me to Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, back to Texas, and then eventually to Greentown, Indiana.
Rod Dreher had a similar experience to mine, although somewhat in reverse. The author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret to a Good Life (Grand Central, 2013), Dreher yearned as a child to leave his native Starhill, Louisiana in search of the sophistication of the big city. His travels would first lead him to Natchitoches and Baton Rouge but then east to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.
While 889 miles physically separate Greentown and Starhill, the cultural distance separating the two may be just as significant. Greentown is squarely in the Midwest, and Starhill is deep in the South. People in Indiana love their basketball and a tenderloin fry. People in Louisiana love their football and a pot of gumbo. Greentown is surrounded by corn and soybean fields. Starhill is defined by piney woods and tributaries flowing into the nearby Mississippi.
Yet despite their differences, Greentown and Starhill arguably have more in common with one another than they do with larger cities in their respective states. Both are small. Greentown has about 3,000 residents, one high school, one junior high, and one elementary school. Starhill is an unincorporated area in West Feliciana Parish. St. Francisville, a parish seat of fewer than 2,000 residents, is the only community of any size. Two elementary schools, one junior high, and one high school encompass much of life in Starhill and the parish as a whole.
While Rod Dreher initially fled Starhill, his younger sister Ruthie stayed there and over time became a fixture in the community. She was her high school’s homecoming queen like her mother and grandmother before her. She married her high school sweetheart and developed a reputation as a teacher who loved even the most unlovable of students. In essence, Ruthie Leming and Starhill were inextricably woven into one another. In 2010, Ruthie, now in her early forties, was diagnosed with cancer. Rod returned to Starhill to help his sister, and when she died in 2012, he and his family moved back to Starhill for good. In part, they came home to help Ruthie’s husband, Mike, raise his three daughters; however, they also moved back to weave themselves into a place he once called home.
Dreher writes this book because of what he learned from Ruthie and the battle she waged with, and lost to, cancer. His sister’s battle was not one, he discovered, that she waged alone. In Dreher’s words, “It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because [they cannot] assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone. Only your family and your community can do that” (267). This kind of trust is born from deep relationships with a particular family and community, relationships that develop over time and only with stability. Dreher turns to the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia as a model of the kind of rule that can bring such stability to our lives. “The implication for me was clear: if I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves” (225).
Much of what Dreher has learned since returning to Starhill reminds me of lessons I have learned in Greentown. One thing that is true of all small towns is that the people who live in them have no means to escape from one another. As a kid growing up in Fullerton, if I wanted to avoid anyone I just drifted into the anonymous crowd. Fullerton was relatively indistinguishable from the communities surrounding it. In Starhill, Dreher experienced something very different. “The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be” (19). For better and for worse, everyone knows everyone. In Starhill, Dreher observes people crossing almost every line we humans conjure up and use to separate ourselves from one another. Rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated, churched and un-churched—in a small town they can’t avoid each other. In fact, one can argue that small towns are just as capable of fostering an appreciation for certain forms of diversity as large cities. They may not always have the same cosmopolitan orientation as their larger counterparts; however, when you are forced to get to know one another whether you like it or not, something significant can happen. Los Angeles may have had a wider span of ethnic diversity than Greentown. New York City may have the same advantage over Starhill. However, in larger communities people can settle into their own sub-communities where they are unlikely to be challenged by outsiders. In smaller communities, such forms of retreat are simply not possible. Schools, churches, grocery stores, and even gas stations are gathering places for the whole community. The usual means of withdrawal are just not available. The struggles of one family are thus often borne by others. Likewise, the celebrations of one family are shared by others. Of course, whatever virtues facilitate such exchanges are laced with vices manifested in gossip. As Dreher writes, however, “When suffering and death come for you—and it will—you want to be in a place where you know, and are known” (209).
Second, in smaller communities certain kinds of problems cannot be avoided. When Dreher returned home he found himself comforted by the embrace of many but also found himself disturbed by demons from his past. For example, Dreher recounts as a child being bullied and thus humiliated by a group of boys, in part at the prompting of a girl. This same girl, now a woman, jogged past Dreher’s home one day and paused to talk. Dreher thus surmised that “This is what it meant to move home. Communitarian romanticism is fine, but what do you do when the past isn’t even past, but is in fact jogging down your street, and stepping onto your front porch to say hello?” (230).
Shortly after I moved to Greentown, I faced a comparable challenge. I had just agreed to coach youth soccer for my daughter’s kindergarten-aged team. As our first Saturday-afternoon game progressed, a preexisting conflict between the father of a boy on my team and the coach for the other team spilled over. I soon found myself standing between the two of them with a group of kindergarteners watching. Fortunately, the issue subsided and the game continued. Upon being prompted by a pastor the next day to turn and greet my neighbor in Sunday worship, I realized the man seated behind me was the coach from the other team.
Finally, communities such as Starhill and Greentown share a sense of interpersonal stability that persists through hard times. When Ruthie died, Dreher recalls that he and his family were the beneficiaries of “steadfast acts of ordinary faith, hope, and charity” (267). Those acts, according to Dreher, were generated by people who stayed behind and held in trust for him and his family.
Many of the residents of Greentown work at the Chrysler and Delphi plants in nearby Kokomo, so when the recession struck in 2008, we were disproportionately vulnerable. As people considered their options, I heard even highly-skilled engineers say they would rather go back to school and train for another line of work than move. Being new to town, I found that commitment confusing; however, I soon learned that the identity of many of my new friends was more tightly attached to the people populating a particular place than to a particular profession. They were keenly aware of how many people held the well-being of their family in trust. They, likewise, felt responsible for the well-being of others. They could not just move, even if staying forced them to change careers.
Small towns are not perfect. Part of the promise they hold unfortunately emerges from the fact that their imperfections are well known by all. The little ways offered by communities such as Starhill and Greentown, however, empower their residents to know and more fully to appreciate what makes them human in their beauty, their depravity, and everything in between. The question is whether we can slow down long enough to appreciate what otherwise might escape us.
Todd C. Ream is Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University and a Research Fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.