A story: when I was 14 my family moved from the Los Angeles suburbs—that seemingly never-ending plane of city after city with no space between them—to a Virginia neighborhood 10 minutes from “town”. That town was a small city. Small enough to learn where everything is in the space of a couple years. But still big enough to be a city where you could remain anonymous wherever you went. Outside of my college years, that small city and the other large communities that make up the transitory northern Virginia region was my home. But then in 2012 my wife and I moved our family a few miles west to a picturesque small town (population ~10,000) just outside the periphery of the metropolitan Washington DC area in order to live closer to our church (and my new job as pastor). And overnight, things changed for us. We love our new community. Yet it took some getting used to when we’d go to a store and run into someone we know. A bit of culture shock. No more anonymity. What at first felt like living in a fishbowl turned out to be an unforeseen benefit. Nearly every single time we make our way around town, whether it’s to the store, or on a walk, or picking the kids up from school, we run into someone we know—often a neighbor, friend, or church family member. No more anonymity, but the change was totally worth it. Knowing and being know is so much better. We find our lives richer, more connected, blessed, and entrusted with the needs of our neighbors. Small towns may not be for everyone, but we all need community, and probably more of it than most of us have right now.
These are just a few of the lessons journalist and blogger Rod Dreher meditates on in his beautiful memoir memorializing his late sister Ruthie. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (LWRL) is more than a good story. It’s a call to return to the traditional but increasingly rare values of place, family, community, and rootedness.
Likened to the parable of the prodigal son, Dreher (albeit the older sibling) plays the younger son character who leaves his small hometown of St. Francisville, LA (population 1,700)—but more specifically Starhill in the West Feliciana Parish—to spread his wings and makes his way in the wide world. Ruthie (his younger sister) plays the dutiful older son character who stays to tend the family and serve her community. When Ruthie, a truly beloved pillar of her community, discovers she has a deadly form of lung cancer, the narrative turns for the worse and the better at the same time. In the months following, the contemplative narrative spins a tale of joy, heartache, family conflict and reconciliation, confronting the ghosts of the past, and the complications of a good life in a fallen world. In his return visits to his hometown to visit his dying sister, Dreher feels the pull—even the calling—to make his way home to serve and be served as a lost son of the town he left behind decades before. Continue reading