Endurance Amidst Impermanence: On Hannah Coulter, Commitment, and Homemaking

By Thursday, November 17, 2022 , ,

My ideas of home and homemaking used to be small. In years past, I associated such words with a comfortable house in suburban America, complete with a husband and a few children. My current self, living in a house shared with three other women in the middle of a big city, would have likely looked like an alien being to my 18-year-old self. While I’ve certainly grieved that some aspects of that youthful dream of home have not yet come to pass, at the same time, I understand more clearly now that making a home is more. I’ve seen that a home is made by loving well and pouring out. Homemaking is the opening of hands and committing to what the Lord gives in each season. It’s cultivating joyful, loving community wherever you are by bringing others in.

Unsurprisingly, stories have deepened my vision of home and taught me much about what it looks like. I hope to take a few posts to reflect on a few such stories. First up is Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, which, for all its quiet prose and gentle introspection, truly axed me (as a friend and I once said of Wendell Berry).

I read Hannah Coulter in the spring of 2021, just over a year into COVID-19, which forced many questions of embodied community, loss, and home into sharper focus. I live in Washington, D.C., a city known for transience, politicians on the move, and basement apartments. I’ve said many tearful goodbyes in my years here and wondered if this city truly allows one to build a lasting home. In short, Hannah Coulter convinced me that it’s possible, even here.

That may sound odd, since D.C. is fairly opposite of everything Wendell Berry vocally advocates for – rootedness, enduring community, and commitment to a particular bit of earth. But Hannah Coulter moved me deeply because its characters’ fight for those things amidst shadows of grief and impermanence. The setting of Port William, Kentucky, a fictional stand-in for Berry’s own hometown, certainly sees less turnover than D.C., but even this little agrarian town, emblematic of longevity, can’t resist the march of time or the sting of loss.

Hannah of the title narrates the book as an elderly woman reflecting back on her life, now almost a complete tapestry of interconnected joyful and sorrowful threads. Her marriage to Nathan Coulter and the home she has built with him are things of beauty and endurance, but they have grown out of loss. Decades before, World War II took Hannah’s first husband, Nathan’s brother, and years of Nathan’s own youth. “He saw a lot of places, and he came home,” Hannah muses of Nathan, “I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else.” So, they look right in front of them for their “place” and resurrect an abandoned homestead, making their own. Out of another’s loss, they make and commit to a home to love and cultivate and share.

Feelings of unmooring and uncertainty loomed large when I first read Hannah Coulter, and they still sometimes do – D.C. culture does not naturally encourage commitment to anything, and more people than usual left the city between 2020 and 2021. But in that season when uncertainty felt so much sharper, reading about Hannah and Nathan’s intentionality in loving each other, their land, their people, and their house grounded and challenged me. They still remind me that rootedness is often found in pouring oneself out for the place and people right in front of you. I don’t have a plot of land to work and keep, but I do have a house and backyard that I can make beautiful, both by caring for it and by welcoming in others with their joys, memories, and pains. D.C. may be a far cry from Port William’s tight-knit farming community, but I do have a church in the middle of the city that not only encourages, but expects and requires commitment. Deep love amongst members has manifestly followed. I expect to keep saying goodbyes for as long as I stay in D.C., but I can still intentionally love the people around me for as long as we’re all here, even though the leavings hurt.

Hannah Coulter showed me that homemaking is pouring out those very gifts of place and presence. It showed me a tangible example of how loving a place and its people go hand in hand. And that pouring out is perhaps especially important in a place like D.C., where things like deep community and commitment are so much scarcer. Hannah reflects, “There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.” Her story has certainly strengthened me to “love and keep” the place and home I’ve got, city or otherwise.

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  1. I committed to my particular bit of earth several years ago. When I was wrestling with the matter, I didn't actually know that there were people, authors, etc. who advocated for rootedness, for a way of living that prioritizes closeness to family and community over career, convenience, or simple desire. As I've grown older, it has been a delight for me to learn that, in fact, there ARE people who understand and share this perspective. Jen Fulwiler's work has encouraged me and helped me articulate the rationale and "defence" for this countercultural way of living. I'm happy to hear that I can also, in due time, turn to Wendell Berry's work to find similar encouragement. I think there can be great value in remembering, as you say, that decisions underscored by loss and/or sacrifice can bear good fruits.