Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

HIllbilly Elegy covef

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s first book, but it is not his first publication. He has had articles in National Review going back at least to 2013, and he was an editor at The Yale Law Journal (a publication run by Yale Law students) while a Yale Law student.

Vance’s personal story would be important to a book review even if this book were not a memoir. A child one generation out of Appalachian Kentucky, with family ties to the Hatfields (of the Hatfield-McCoy blood feud), Vance was raised in an environment of poverty, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. With the help of his “Mamaw” (his maternal grandmother) in particular, he was able to find a measure of stability in his life, enter the Marines out of high school, then go on to blaze through a degree at Ohio State University and excel at Yale Law School.

This is not only a brilliant and accomplished man, but he tells a good story. On the first page of chapter one, Vance describes Jackson, Kentucky, where his family roots remain even though he grew up 200 miles away in Middletown, Ohio:

Jacksonians say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow, and—without exception—stop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives by. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people. Why, I’d ask my grandma—whom we all called Mamaw—did everyone stop for the passing hearse? “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we respect our dead.”

For my own part, I was interested in how similar his experience might be to my own. Not only do I have plenty of Scotch-Irish roots, but I’ve never been very insulated from white working class poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, and substance abuse. Vance may write that only in Appalachia do children have grandparents named “Mamaw” and “Papaw,” but I grew up with Mamaw, Papaw, Mamaw Mac (short for Maxedon, my great-grandmother), and Papaw Mac in central Illinois. My mom is “Mamaw” to my two sons and all my siblings’ children. Like Vance, multi-generational family networks of support—and like him, especially female family members–alongside formal education have made a tremendous difference in family outcomes.

On top of this, I am a United Methodist pastor who tomorrow could be reappointed to any of 800+ United Methodist Churches in the southern 3/4 of Illinois. Most of those areas are rural, and plenty are decades into the same loss of factories and community institutions that both Rust Belt Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky have experienced. In fact, both communities in which I currently serve exist because of coal mining, with all of their mines long dormant, and all their local properties requiring mine subsidence insurance for what may or may not be beneath them. (This reason enough for me to recommend it universally to pastors.)

Vance could not have picked a better time for his book to be published. When Hillbilly Elegy was released in June 2016, Donald Trump was headed for a victory at the July Republican National Convention. His strategy of massive rallies was well established, and he was clearly aiming at white voters who had felt economically and politically disenfranchised for decades.

Writing this review two days after President Trump’s inauguration, I think most of the analysis for how and why Trump was elected is premature. For instance, early claims that it was poor Americans voting for him simply turned out not to match the data. And this particular book, probably the most-mentioned this year for explaining that phenomenon, has been overhyped in that early, easy analysis as well.

For its own part, Hillbilly Elegy does not hesitate to refer widely to economists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. Vance’s engagement is not only with popular regurgitations of various studies but with the studies and researchers themselves. But taken as a whole, the political diagnostic work forms the weakest portion of the book.

To be specific, Vance believes that his experience is unique, when it is actually quite widespread. Two generations of genealogical data in most families can uncover violence, substance abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, and lack of access to education. When Vance contemplates going to college, he feels he’s not ready and joins the military. This too is a common American story (albeit one with far more clear-sighted self-knowledge by the 18-year-old in question). Finally, Vance describes not knowing what to do with all the silverware on the table and not knowing how to order off of an extended wine list while being pursued by  employers as a Yale Law student. This experience would be alien in the exact same ways to most Americans in their mid-to-late twenties.

It is only in passing that Vance ever notes the problems of class inequality and its causes, which reads as an ideological blind spot given his regular publications in National Review. When he speaks of political and social solutions, it is both lovely to see how he holds up the need for strong communal institutions alongside strong families to create opportunities for people, but it is dismaying to not see him dig deeper into how institutions and government work together.

Even with these caveats, I won’t hesitate to recommend this book widely. I love memoirs, and this is easily among 2016’s best. Perhaps best of all, and not mentioned thus far, this is a book-length thank you to Vance’s Mamaw. The gratitude that flows for this woman—a foul-mouthed, quick-to-violence, idiosyncratically religious, and ultimately loving human being—is a grandson’s gift to her memory.

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God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done, Part II

Harold Lloyd Clockface

My previous post is the theoretical side of productivity in the pastor’s life. This one is practical; it’s the practices I am actually doing right now. I share not because everyone should do the same, but because it is working for me, and because to get particular is helpful.

First, I’ve solidified my morning routine. My “office hours” are 7am-4pm, Monday-Thursday. I set those hours myself, because I’m a morning person, and because when I started the job, it worked well for when my son (then eight months old, now not) was conscious, so I could see and help care for him.

Sunday-Thursday:
Home
4:45am
Wake up
4:50-5:20am Walk two miles
5:20am Coffee
5:25am  Bible (currently three chapters OT, one chapter NT), devotional reading (currently Julian of Norwich), journal, pray
6:15am Breakfast, shower, get ready for work
6:52am Leave for work

I’m in the midst of keeping a time audit, because I kept losing lots of time before. It’s a temporary tool, which returns from time to time as needed. What I’ve tried to do at the office is create places of momentum, where I don’t waste energy making decisions  in the moment that don’t need to be changed from day to day, and where I can get into heavier tasks more easily because the first repeated tasks get the flywheel moving.

For me, “heavier tasks” are the ones that tend to take more emotional, intellectual, or creative energy. That could include planning a sermon series, reading headier stuff, or writing, as well as phone calls. (I assume some extroverts procrastinate from the tasks I like by making phone calls.) The momentum building routine is that first hour at the office in the morning, and then I push back Noon Prayer to after lunch, because I need another repeated habit in the afternoon, if I don’t want to lose half of it to random Internet crap.

Office
7am Morning Prayer
7:30am Planning Pomodoro
12pm Lunch
1pm Noon Prayer
1:10pm Silence
1:30pm Back at it
4pm Head home

….

7pm Caloric cut-off
8:30pm Screens off
9pm Bed

Benefits:
Better energy, more must-do tasks completed in less time, better sleep, more creativity, more in touch with myself emotionally, less divided in heart and mind when I’m home, prayer for my churches is actually happening


Final notes:

  • Yes, it’s ideal, but it is also working really well for me. The main thing is to experiment, and to let experiments have a chance to progress for a while. Being able to look at a schedule with a “non-judging” eye is the best way I’ve found.
  • For planning a morning routine, check out this from Michael Hyatt. I also found his post on journaling a very helpful framing for the practice.
  • If you want to do Pomodoro, or have even dabbled with it in the past, I urge you to read this .pdf. It is far more helpful than any of the derivative summary posts that are out there.
  • If this stuff interests you, you really should check out a much more in-depth conversation at The Productive Pastor (podcast).

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done

I go to counseling about once a month, sometimes a bit more, and one of the things that we repeatedly talk about is my productivity or the lack thereof. That’s because it tends to determine my moods to a great extent. I hear the question,“How are you?” and my answer is not reflective of the last month, sometimes not even of the last week, but of the workweek. Am I behind? Am I ahead? Am I on target? How much will I have to work on Saturday?

There’s a ton of guilt wrapped up in there too. Levels of guilt: I should do better; I’m letting the church down; I’m letting God down (yikes!). And most practically, every minute I waste in a week feels like a minute robbed from my family and my time with them. All those levels of guilt are not the helpful kind, the kind that motivates you to change a behavior and work to repair damage. They’re the kind of guilt that ties you up and paralyzes you from making changes.

Previously I would have named this as a lack of administrative gifts/interest, a matter of personality type. Lots of pastors place administrative tasks at the bottom of the priority list. For many of us it would be more accurate to say that administrative tasks fall to the bottom because they weren’t actually placed anywhere. Sometimes we conceive of them not as a type of ministry but as a distraction from the real ministry.

I’ve always known this outlook wasn’t an option for faithful ministry. Answering emails and following through on projects are often the form that ministry work takes, and the administrative tasks related more to record-keeping are not the business-ification of the church but a valuable piece of reflection on the past and present in order to make changes in future action. The United Methodist Church collects tons of info every week, but it varies greatly if or how any of the data is used. But a pastor can use it as much as she wants.

The main non-guilt consideration for me, however, is that when I am not on top of the use of my time and my administrative tasks (and time management is itself an administrative task), I only seem to have time and energy for leading the church from week to week. Every leadership book and blog talks about the need for me to have a vision or future or discerned sense of calling for the future ministry of the congregation, but that’s never going to happen if I am already at capacity with one week’s tasks, if a single funeral (a not uncommon occurrence) can capsize my week.

Without good time management, there is no possibility of vision, let alone also establishing a margin around that. And a margin is essential too. Margin is extra time, not to be confused with unnecessary time. It’s necessary for healthy and sustainable ministry, necessary for a healthy and sustainable career in ministry.

Below is what many of my weeks have looked like: the rectangle is my regular work hours; the green is the stuff that should be able to fit in those hours, but doesn’t always; and the scribbles are the extra claims on my time, which often add to those hours:

Diagram A with Green

 

Below is a better work week. The outer box is still the whole intended work week; there’s now an inner box to indicate less time given to the same essential, scheduled tasks; the green is still the stuff that has to get done (and, yes, it’s still sometimes escaping the planned hours); and the scribbles are those unplanned claims on my time. But we also notice that the box in the middle now has a margin, and all that gold on the end (the color of the Kingdom) is time for vision. The scribbles still push past the intended boundaries, but far less often.

Diagram B with Green and Gold

The challenge is now to actually find the tools to get from Diagram A to Diagram B. That’s this post.

Arrested Development, back when Tambor was Kingsley not Bluth (or Pfefferman)

I knew the day was coming, and now it’s here: our two-year-old knows what’s going on around him. Things like sex and violence on the TV. Things like words and lyrics.

It’s particularly sad, because I just got back into regularly listening to vinyl, and I would love to pick up some hip hop, but most of it has a ton of language. My interest in vinyl is about communal musical enjoyment, often including Milo (then known as “special Daddy music”), and so I’m not particularly interested in investing in stuff I can’t listen to when he’s around. I was at a loss until I remembered…Arrested Development exists. And I picked up their Zingalamaduni on vinyl years ago.

Yes, very white dad with blonde-haired, pale white two-year-old listening to (and/or dancing to) early 90s Afrocentric rap. In our defense, if you feel we need one, Arrested Development is fantastic.


Any other parents out there who are concerned about what their kids hear, even in the background: what do you do?

Owen’s Child

I knew nothing of Thomas Merton’s relationship with his father Owen beyond what Thomas himself wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain until I recently read “Thomas Merton and the Search for Owen Merton” by Robert E. Daggy. Daggy, the longtime director of the Thomas Merton Center, had at least considered writing a full-length biography of Owen Merton before Daggy himself died in 1997.

Daggy writes:

After 1925, Owen withdrew into self-imposed solitude. He wanted, again, to devote himself to his painting. He wrote to Evelyn [Scott], “I think I had better stay quietly by myself for a long time.” It is at this point that we can see parallels between Owen’s life and Tom’s life as he related it in his writings. Father and son had both engaged in “illicit” (did they believe “sordid”?) sexual escapades. Both came to see such involvement as detrimental to themselves, their spirits, and their vocations. Both came to see sexual abstinence as necessary to their lives. Both withdrew to the fringes of society–Owen to the French countryside, Tom to the knobs of Kentucky. Owen called the house which he started to build at St. Antonin his “hermitage.” Tom was to call at least two places at Gethsemani his “hermitage.”

…Anthony T. Padowan put it this way: “Merton’s entire adult life is a search for artistic and spiritual excellence, one sustaining the other, both converging into a striking unity, each initiated by his father.”

By Daggy’s read, Thomas carried a longing to understand and be loved by his father (a man who seemed to be far more devoted to his art than to Thomas or any other person or personal commitment in his life) to his grave, going so far as to try to track down and collect Owen’s paintings and letters in the 1960s.

I believe at least two myths about the saints that I rarely recognize as false: 1) The saints are those whom God has pulled out and apart and separate from life, and 2) The saints are those who have arrived.

Thomas Merton is teaching me yet again. Against the first myth stands the reality of his own pain in wanting to know and be known by his father. His conversion and transformation did not remove his father’s impact–good and ill–on him. Against the second myth stands the fact that this pain was not something he needed to “beat” or have erased from him in order to become the saint he was. In fact, that kind of lifelong longing was most likely his teacher in learning to long for God.

Merton reads and smiles

Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga vol 1

Volume 1 of Saga contains the first six issues of the acclaimed series, beginning with the birth of a daughter to two soldiers on opposing sides of an endless war who have fallen in love. They are searching for some place where they might be able to live in peace, but the war stretches toward the edges of the galaxy, and every possible force in it is against the fledgling family: magical creatures, advanced technologies, royal Robots complete with static-y CRT monitors for heads, sentient cats, mercenaries (including one with eight legs and even more guns who is named The Stalk), and the ghosts of a planet’s murdered children.

At the center of all that weird is the series’ best feature: human emotions, needs, drives, and relationships. What I most wanted when I reached this volume’s end was more. I do, however, give it this moderate critique: I have a hard time thinking about plunking down cash for each brief volume as it is released (two out now, the third later this Spring). This is a qualm which would admittedly never occur to me if I were actually a comic book reader, rather than someone whose main experience with serial comics was The Sandman after it was a completed series.

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