Time and Place

I recently read Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.  Jayber is a small town bachelor barber who attaches himself to the very small town of Port William. Here is one of the wonderful passages where Jayber philosophizes about time and place. He’s so eloquent and so country at the same time.  

” I have got to the age now where I can see how short a time we have to be here.  And when I think about it, it can seem strange beyond telling that this particular bunch of us should be here on this little patch of ground in this little patch of time, and I can think of the other times and places I might have lived, the other kinds of man I might have been.  But there is something else. There are moments when the heart is generous and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

The shortness of time resonates with me.  The closer we get to the end the more obvious it becomes that time was always short, it just becomes clearer. It is important to be reminded of that. We might as well number our days because they are truly numbered. 

It seems like such a random thing to have been born in Texas and to have lived in Texas almost all my life. Who knows if I’ll die in Texas or not? And almost all the people in my wonderful and wide community are here now in Texas.  That is so obvious and yet so strange.  It’s not so different from family, we don’t get to choose our community so much as our time and place choose them for us. Even if I reach out and connect with others across the world to be part of my virtual community, I can’t go back and hang out with Rembrandt. We’re bound to time and place. Wendell Berry’s writing is so much about the working out of time and place. Rereading that sounds so academic. But when actually reading his novels it’s something much different.  It’s layered and lush. The characters and the land are complex, exciting, joyful and of course occasionally tragic.  Mr. Berry makes the idea of staying put in one place seem like the only obvious and best choice.

We’ve been in our current home on this acre and a half for 25 years.  I feel a kindredship with Jayber Crow and all the Port William community because of my connectedness to this home and this small plot of land. Terri’s chickens and our fig trees make a tiny mini-farm, but it also adds to it’s meaning. Part of the key to our great community here with family, neighborhood, church and friends is because we have stayed. We have not left. It’s true that we did not have to leave but also we have chosen not to leave. Our community here has grown and I cherish it. Staying put paid off. 

Thelonious and Nellie – from But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer

I’ve enjoyed the piano work of Thelonious Monk, but didn’t know a lot about his life and relationships. Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful is a book about some of my favorite jazz players, and there’s a great chapter on Thelonious and his wife Nellie. The insight into his work and their relationship from this chapter alone are worth the read.

After Thelonious was arrested for heroin possession, (he takes the rap for his friend Bud Powell) he was barred from working in New York City. But this was his city and he didn’t want to leave.

The un-years was what Nellie called them. They came to an end when he was offered a residency at the 5-Spot for as long as he wanted, as long as people wanted to see him.  Nellie came most nights.  When she wasn’t there he got restless, tense, pausing for an extra-long time between numbers.  Sometimes, in the middle of a song, he called home to see how she was, grunting, making noises into the phone that she understood as a tender melody of affection.  He’d leave the phone off the hook and go back to the piano so she could hear what he was playing for her, getting up again at the end of the song, putting another coin in.
– Still there Nellie?
– It’s beautiful, Thelonious.
– Yeuh, yeuh. Staring at the phone like he was holding something very ordinary in his hand.

This connection between Thelonious and Nellie, the artist and the one who enables the art, is powerful. Thelonious had to share his most intimate creative thoughts, first and foremost, with Nellie. Much of the chapter is about Thelonious absorbed in his music and playing it primarily for the pure action of playing it. To play was what he needed to do. But, clearly, he also needed to share with Nellie. So beautiful. This next passage is more about Nellie’s view of Thelonious.

There were times when Nellie looked at him and wanted to cry, not because she pitied him, but because she knew one day he would die and there was no one else like him in the world.

Wow! What a powerful vision: to know that the person you spend time with is such an amazing and unique creation. I suspect that each of us has the same opportunity to be amazed at someone close to us and see their extraordinary uniqueness. We know we are blessed because God has given us time with this person. They are like none other and the world will be a lesser place when they are gone.