The following is a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote for my hometown newspaper, The Piatt County Journal-Republican, in Monticello, Illinois. It's actually part two of my "Commoners" series.
I don’t have much hair to cut. I used to wonder why a bald man like my own dad would pay money to have a barber trim what little was left. Seemed like there should have been a “bald-guy” discount. That’s another topic for another time, and all economics aside, it was just a few years ago when I was home visiting my parents in Monticello, building a deck on the front of the house, when I decided to be that bald guy who goes in for that haircut. It was so hot that week in July that it made sense as well to seek a respite from the midday heat and stop in to see Barber Bruce.
My haircut is pretty simple. I have even taken on the duties to cut my hair all by myself, and with the exception of asking one of my daughters to “check the back” of my head for anyplace I missed, have been using that old Wahl razor to trim to near shaved status. I guess I’m grateful that being bald, and shaving most of one’s hair off is sort of on-trend. Many a balding male has now sought to alleviate the torture of the hair-on-the-sides look by simply going with a more bad-ass shaved head look. Most of us have done so all the while allowing facial hair to grow in the form of a beard or goatee; there aren’t many heads completely void of hair somewhere.
That day in July, though, I went to see Barber Bruce Jordan. The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette published in 2014 an article about “Hair Jordan” and memories rushed into my mind, and a life that seemed so far gone for me all of a sudden became vivid again. I knew Bruce had been at it a long time, but fifty years? He still remembered who I was that day in July (and I hadn’t been in his shop for almost twenty years) in part because I look a lot like my dad and my dad knows Bruce pretty well and will occasionally stop in too. It’s as if the only way he doesn’t know your name or who you belong to is if he had never met you. That’s a wordy way of saying the Barber of Monticello has a long memory in the best possible way.
Bruce's work and life are an authentic example of what a true "commoner" is. As I mentioned in my previous commoners post a few weeks ago, it is my intention to help us become more common, not less. In the spirit of James Rebanks' book The Shepherd's Life.
I would go to his shop regularly as a high school student. Our coaches wouldn’t allow us to have long hair, so it was important to keep it clean. Bruce would ask about how things were going in whatever sport I was playing at the time and I could tell him. Our family also attended the same church as the Jordan’s, which gave us some other topics. He seemed genuinely interested in my story and he had a presence that made me want to make him proud of whatever it was that I did in life. I kept my hair short.
But one day I was waiting for my haircut and one man ahead of me got up for his turn in the chair. I don’t think Bruce knew him, but he could tell (as I could, too) that the guy was in the military. Anyone who knows him, knows that Bruce’s stories are 100 to 1 when it comes to his two years in the army compared to anything else (except maybe his wife, Linda). It was at that moment that I learned the phrase “high-and-tight.” Bruce simply said right away, “High and tight?” And the man said, “Yep!” Anyone in the Army knew what that meant. For men, it’s the only option while in active service. Some call it a “crew cut” but I don’t think that quite fits the billing, it’s a tad too civilian. And so in that moment it became clear that Bruce and this gentleman had a connection. It was as if Bruce had just saluted the guy and they were instantly conversant, with Bruce showing a unique empathy and care for what his customer was about to embark upon (active service, not the haircut). I didn’t have words for it then, but in retrospect I was watching the art of connection lived out in the most glorious and unpretentious ways.
Bruce’s shop window is adorned primarily with a manually set dial, reminiscent of Wrigley Field’s manually run scoreboard (a comparison I’m pretty sure Bruce will appreciate as a die-hard fan of the Chicago Cubs), announcing to those who walk or drive by how many customers are waiting for a haircut. There are no appointments which, I’ll admit, could make it difficult if you’re on a tight schedule. But maybe that’s the larger point to my essay. What Jordan’s Barber Shop is is a vital connection to, and functioning reminder of, the most important things: and it has little to do with aesthetics.
Or maybe it does have something to do with aesthetics. Businesses and the commoners who “run” them in this way epitomize the aesthetics of community. Bruce does this through the art of storytelling. That summer visit reminded me again about the reality of Bruce’s craft. There is never a topic or story he cannot converse about. Some people are incapable of doing this in a way that doesn’t become a competition of “one-upmanship.” Thankfully, Bruce is not in that category. His stories are inclusive and playful, even if the topic is difficult. And although “politics” may not be discussed much, if at all according to the News-Gazette article, Bruce will not hold back if there’s an issue he’s convicted about.
The beauty of community and the art of storytelling is what is vital to the commoner life.
After I re-read the article recently, I was immediately reminded of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. Jayber, a commoner as well, is a barber in the tiny fictional community known as Port William. I will not belittle Berry’s work or Barber Bruce’s life by making it seem as if Jayber Crow’s story matches Bruce’s in every and exactly the same way, but the fact that Crow is a barber certainly helps. More to the point is that barbers, and others whose work is “small,” are actually the heroes in any community. Today, to say something is “small” is considered “less than” those things that are “big.” While I (and many others I grew up with) moved on to become somehow great, to exceed the small expectations of our communities, many others have stayed. To stay or leave one’s home place is neither good or bad, and depends on the individual’s life circumstances and talents, but Bruce is one who has stayed and been a grounded archivist of the Monticello community. The “bigger is better” mindset is a myth.
Earlier in his life, Jayber Crow had goals of being a pastor which would have set him up as a “big” person in places like Port William. In the end he remained “small” in Port William, observing the town change over decades and thus taking on a “priestly” role in spite of himself. Jayber says:
I don’t mean for you to believe that even barbers ever know the whole story. But it’s a fact that knowledge comes to barbers, just as stray cats come to milking barns. If you are a barber and you stay in one place long enough, eventually you will know the outlines of a lot of stories, and you will see how the bits and pieces of knowledge fit in. Anything you know about, there is a fair chance you will sooner or later know more about. You will never get the outlines filled in completely, but as I say, knowledge will come. You don’t have to ask. In fact, I have been pretty scrupulous about not asking. If a matter is none of my business, I ask nothing and tell nothing. And yet I am amazed at what I have come to know, and how much. (4)
It seems to me that this is an accurate account of the true role Bruce lives in my hometown. He’s a mediator. Better yet, he’s an advocate. He’s someone who listens and speaks in ways that have brought life to the community simply by being present and doing good work.
I don't recall when exactly I painted this one, so I'm saying it must have been around 1999. I was teaching part time at West Shore Community College in Scottville, Michigan. My wife and I had gone to the beach one day and I had done a handful of brief watercolor sketches right there on the spot. It was, as you can hopefully see, a fairly active day for the waves with whitecaps and color and sound. I was intrigued by the incessant movement, and the horizon so far away (almost invisible). It has always been a "window" to the lake for me, and even when I may not have had a view to speak of out our windows, I could look in and through this painting to be reminded of the vast world out there.
I am fascinated that I am still fascinated by the themes and imagery of water. This last year I drew what I call "Red Flag Drawings" which once again have connected me to the endless imagery and symbolism of water.
The painting has been one of my wife's favorites. We've always had it in a prominent place in our home and we would half-jokingly say to those who inquired about the price by saying "fifty-thousand." You, the reader may choke a bit when I write that, but the reality is that it held deep emotional value for us; and that truly is part of the value of any work of art. Obviously we would love to receive that much money for it, but no one has taken us up on it.
I have suggested a few times in the last year or so to Heather that we ought to sell it for what is (sadly) a more reasonable price. However, it wasn't until just last week that she looked at it and said that perhaps it was time for us to sell "Endlessness." So here it is: a painting that is far more valuable than the $1,600 we are asking! You can go to the Store section of this website to easily and quickly purchase through PayPal or email me email@example.com to make arrangements.
I know little to nothing about sheep or the work of a shepherd. In fact, I've heard more jokes about the lifestyle than I know the truth. However, it is one type of agriculture, and my interest in all-things-agricultural compelled me to pick up this incredible book by James Rebanks titled The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks book is both a detailed peek into the sheep and shepherd culture of what is called the "Lake District" of England as well as the author's memoir of growing up in the ancient lineage of shepherds. What intrigued me about the book before reading it, was the dust jacket describing Rebanks' story of what it means to be from a particular place and choosing to remain in the place. It is a story of his ongoing journey to stay.
My interest in the effects, and particularly the benefits, of livestock grazing on our land(s) drives me in many ways to learn from every source at my disposal. I was looking through the "biography" section at our local independent bookstore, The Bookman, when I found it. I hadn't heard of Rebanks or his book. I was looking to purchase one of Michael Perry's books. If you've not read Perry, you're missing out. The man's stories make me laugh out loud, a much needed remedy in the face of my seemingly incessant melancholy (if you shuffled through the music on my iPhone you would understand what I mean). Yet, Perry's humor brings with it a dose of grace in truth-telling as the following excerpt demonstrates:
However, the irony of my search for a book by Perry, who lives and works in rural Wisconsin, leading me to A Shepherd's Life is, in retrospect, more than coincidental. You see, both men now live where they grew up. Both journeyed for a season into other places, but both somehow knew they would end up "home" and finally have.
To say these authors' stories are alike is helpful, but it would be a disservice to imply that they are identical. The big picture view, however is that they both address the presence and absolute necessity of the "commoner." Perry delightfully reminds of the significance of place in talking about small-town watertowers:
I'm thrilled by Rebanks' quote at the beginning of this essay, defining what a true "commoner" is. I think most, especially here in the US, think of the commoner as some kind of lower-life-form of society. There is the "ruling class" and then there's the "commoner." What Rebanks is attempting to do is reclaim the term for what it truly is from within the particular context of his own story. Its akin to Wendell Berry's words in numerous places affirming the interconnectedness (better still, the interdependence) of all of life. In fact, it is this interdependence that pushes our language further than the commoner being simply utilitarian, and instead breathes life into the reality of mutuality among members of any community.
My friend Makoto Fujimura approaches these themes from the perspective of "culture care." (5) Instead of waging culture "wars," we are called to be a generative presence in our communities. Regardless of whether or not we live where we came from is besides the point. We are all commoners, and therefore we are part of the ecosystem of the culture in which we live. Most of us, though, haven't taken the time to listen well to the place we live. Gone are most, if not all, "native" traditions and practices. Yet we still remain dependent upon each other for everything, even if we have never met the source of our sustenance. Rebanks, also now a consultant with UNESCO, writes:
Rebanks, then, affirms the necessity of connection. Unfortunately our culture has sought to grow and "heal" by becoming more autonomous instead of more connected. Wendell Berry writes:
We cannot live as commoners if we seek to live autonomously. We can pull our selves up by our bootstraps only so far, we still need someone to craft the boots. Writing from my own mid-west American context I can say that autonomy is the virtue of virtues. Craftspeople or carpenters, like me, have to continually defend our work and seek to justify our prices in order to make a viable living. Sometimes it feels as if it is forgotten that those who have "good" jobs working for larger companies still have to make a profit and that is dependent on others who do the work and those who purchase the goods or services with little concern over the markup for profit. Generally speaking, the larger the company the further the distance becomes between the consumer and the producer.
And for some reason we question less the large company because that's just the way it is and they're too big. The problem, then, is that as soon as we start to say, "Well that's just the way things are," then we've given in to a sense of powerlessness that will hinder real growth and health within our society. Our imaginations become limited, and we lay down for the empires around us. True freedom from empires of unending consumption, ironically, is accomplished through the healthy and porous "boundaries" of the commoner's existence. For Rebanks, his life on the fells of the Lake District, exemplifies just such a freedom:
And so Mr. Rebanks, along with Michael Perry and others, has propelled me to write about what it means for us to become more "common," not less. So some of my upcoming posts will deal directly with the ways I see the commoner working itself out today.
I hope you'll check back in and join me.
Much like the painting "Substance of Redemption" I wrote about on February 22, my painting "Driftwood: Time" was painted around the same time (exactly the year, again, I'm not sure). I had found a piece of driftwood near Lake Michigan and kept it around the house for quite a while. Like many artists, I had been working on numerous works at the same time. In my case, this particular work didn't start out as a painting of a piece of driftwood at all. Far from it. I was painting landscapes, trees, and the like. But I was looking to step out of my norm a bit and do something different involving multiple human figures in motion on this 8'x2' sheet of OSB or particle board (scrap material from a construction job site). It was planned to be a dramatic figurative study seeking to reflect both spontaneity (like the energy found in a sketch) and realistic figures.
I began planning to use only a blue hue to create a monochromatic piece. For whatever reason it didn't work. So before the oil paint dried I took a cloth and dampened it with linseed oil and some thinner and wiped down the surface. The effect turned out to be a glorious sky-blue "wash" that can be difficult to achieve with oils. I let it sit and dry. My hope was to preserve that wash and then use it as the underpainting for another image. However, what that image was to be I had no clue.
While working on other paintings, I noticed that piece of driftwood in my workspace. In real life it was only about a foot long and 4 inches wide in it's cylindrical form. It had this incredible hole to look through. I kept looking at it, did a couple charcoal drawings and decided that was the subject meant to be painted on that blue wash.
The result is what you can see in the accompanying image. Ironically, the imagery "feels" like those figures I had originally envisioned. I sought to keep a spontaneous feel full of contrast. What one might notice is the minimal "use" of that blue wash. I'm still struck by the fact that when I look at this painting I first think of that underpainting. Some might ask, "Why, then, if you loved that blue so much did you cover most of it up?"
The vibrant orange is certainly a compliment to the blue and so I began there; covering the entire background it seems to dominate. In fact, the orange does seem to take over. However, looking a bit longer you begin to focus on the hole in the driftwood and then the eye is drawn in two directions flowing along with the grain in the wood. In those grains are the slight dashes of blue, and if it isn't clear yet, that's my favorite part. The title, "Driftwood: Time," tells of my fascination with the amount of time it must take to shape a piece of wood into this gloriously smooth relic. The elements of wind, water, and sun patiently (albeit sometimes violently) sculpting something so intricate is a great mystery.
So through the seemingly infinite decisions made while producing work of art, I decided that that blue would be more powerful if it were understated. It's kind of like a scene of a movie or a section of a song that is so profound that you wish it would go on and on. At first I wish it would be longer, but then it occurs to me that the profundity would be dampened if the scene had lingered too long. The coming and going to that feeling is enhanced by it's understatement.
The painting was stored in Michigan with my friends Mike and Brooke Anderson for over a decade. They love art so much they put up with a heavy and awkwardly long piece of wood (driftwood?) while my family and I lived in Washington and for few years after we moved back to Michigan. They never complained, but Mike would remind me from time to time that it was there. Last fall I finally retrieved it and brought it home. It still hasn't found a good home or a place to be displayed.
The more I write about it, I'm struck by the fact that this painting tells my own story. I've learned enough to realize that we're always "waiting" for something, that life is constantly at play in the times of drifting. I feel most times like I'm drifting. However, true to the ever-popular Gandalfian wisdom, "Not all who wander are lost." It can feel like being lost at times, but there's motion and play and laughter and tears that are ever present. Perhaps it's true what I heard Andrew Wyeth say once in a documentary that we ultimately always paint ourselves. I suppose in one sense that is true: if we're true to out calling we will paint "ourselves," our unique vision for the world; much like a self-portrait. On the other side of that idea is the prospect of self-absorption. This is why we must share our work so that it doesn't just become a relic of "me." We share because we are nothing without others. The sharing is risky, of course, because some won't "get" it, or in the case of more abstract art some will get lost in trying to "figure it out." It's a risk worth taking, though, as we wander together in the various directions and delight in the things we discover.
My life and this painting have been cared for by numerous folks intent on enabling me to thrive in and through the drifting. The particle board has been minimally scuffed and bumped, it shows some wear but the life is still in it. I'm actually contemplating carefully cutting the painting into several smaller pieces. I'm not sure of the symbolism of this act, I think it would be intriguing to allow diverse people and homes to be able to encounter a piece of this old painting.
For a piece of driftwood, time is both a medium and a tool for clarity and beauty.
"This thing of soil conservation involves more than laying out a few terraces and diversion ditches and sowing to grass and legumes, it also involves the heart of the man managing the land. If he loves his soil he will save it."
- Henry Besuden; quoted by Wendell Berry in his essay "A Talent for Necessity"