The novel Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry was published in 2004.
I have been teaching it to my freshmen since the Fall of 2012.
I am presently reading it again, in preparation for discussing it with my 2016 freshmen.
I am blessed to be reading it again. Each time, this book says something deeper to me about my own life.
I know I can't put old heads on young shoulders, but I will try to tell my 18 year olds some things I certainly was not ready to hear when I was 18 years old - things that Hannah, the title character and the narrator, says at age 78.
She observes: "Time doesn't stop. Your life doesn't stop and wait until you get ready to start living it.
She talks about her love for her first husband, Virgil, who went missing in World War II:
"I went into love with Virgil, and of course wer were not the only ones there. To be in love with Virgil was to e there in, in love, with his parents, his family, his place, his baby. When he became to to our living love in this world, by knowing what it meant to me I couldn't help knowing what it meant to the others. That was our kindness. It saved us, but it was hard to bear."
In these recent years I have thought more and more about my aunts and uncles and cousins, the siblings of my mother and father. I bitterly regret not asking more questions of my parents about them, stories about their growing up years. My parents were taciturn people, but I really wasn't interested in their families, and so I didn't push them to tell me stories. God, I wish I had.
This beautiful novel makes me wish I had.
I want to tell my students: talk to your grandparents and aunts and uncles! Get them to tell you the stories of their times together!
It also occurred to me that my parents and their siblings and their parents were all people who did not talk much about their feelings. This was much like the people in Hannah Coulter's story, from the 1940's in the country in the United States. It was equally true in many or most of the people in Europe of this same time.
When did that change? When did people start to "spill their guts" on TV shows like Oprah?
When did people ask each other: "how did you feel about.....?"
This disclosure of feelings and emotions marks a huge cultural shift, I think.