Interview With Rod Dreher On Ruthie Leming, Community, And The Secret Of A Good Life

todayApril 26, 2013 4

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Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – Let’s go to the Dude Maker Hotline and welcome for the first time to this program a writer from The American Conservative Magazine, and a gentleman that I met last June at the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in Baltimore, Maryland.  It’s the one and only Rod Dreher.  Check out today’s transcript for the rest…


Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  Let’s go to the Dude Maker Hotline and welcome for the first time to this program a writer from The American Conservative Magazine, and a gentleman that I met last June at the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in Baltimore, Maryland.  It’s the one and only Rod Dreher.  Rod, it’s great to have you on the program.  Welcome aboard, sir.  How are you?

Rod Dreher:  It’s a beautiful morning in the great State of Louisiana, isn’t it?

Mike:  It is.  That reminds me, we have actually had you on the show once before when you first moved to Louisiana, I think.


Rod:  Did I?  I might not have even remembered it.  You know how it is in Louisiana.  I might have awakened and had my little breakfast cocktail.

Mike:  For those of you that don’t know, Rod is one of the bloggers that you’ll find on the right-hand column of American Conservative Magazine.  He also writes feature pieces for the mag.  He writes for a couple other publications.  Rod has had some what you would call major jobs or more responsibilities in some of the other gigs you had in publishing, worked in major cities at major publications.  He decided a few years ago that he wanted to come back to St. Francisville and settle back into Louisiana and small town life.  This was as a result of his relationship with his dearly departed sister, whose name was Ruthie Leming.  Rod decided that he was going to tell the story of his sister, and he did.  The book is called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good LifeRod, I’m going to ask you to lie even if you don’t remember this.  We did meet at the APL meeting last year.  You gave that talk to that gathering on Friday night’s dinner.  I came up to you afterwards and I said: Man, you made me cry.

Rod:  I remember that.

Mike:  The story of your sister, I said: You have to make this into a book.  You said: Mike, guess what?  I’m actually working on a book.  Thus we have The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  Just tell the folks a little bit about your wonderful sister.

Rod:  Well, Ruthie and I were both raised in the countryside outside of St. Francisville, Louisiana.  She was a country girl through and through.  She loved deer hunting, fishing, athletics, all the things that a country girl and a country boy would love about growing up in the rural South.  I was not that guy.  I always was inside with my head in a book.  As soon as I could, I got out of town and went on to have a really good journalism career in major cities: D.C., New York, Dallas, Philly, Miami.  Then a couple years ago, on Mardi Gras Day in 2010, Ruthie was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  She’d never smoked a day in her life.  She was only 40 years old, had a husband, three kids.  From the very beginning, Mike, she told her girls: We’re not going to be mad at God for this.  We don’t know why this happened, but we’re going to trust him and go on and live our lives and be grateful and joyful.  That’s what she did.  She was supposed to live two and a half months, her oncologist told me.  She lived 19.  Her doctor told me, when I interviewed him for the book, that he’s convinced she lived so long not only because of her strong faith but because of the love and support she got from the community here in West Feliciana Parish.  That really got to me.

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We were living in Philly, my wife and kids and I, at the time.  Just to see the courage with which Ruthie dealt with her cancer was impressive, but even more impressive to me was to see the way the community around here rallied to the family’s side.  When Julie and I came down for the funeral, I remember standing outside the Methodist church thinking: This is just incredible; I need to be part of this.  I had left town, in part because I was bullied in high school.  You know what it’s like in a small town.  If you don’t really fit in, you can be bullied.  I realized the same communal bonds that held me down and held me back when I was a teenager, these are the only things holding my Louisiana family together in the time of their crisis.  The world looks a lot different when you’re 45 as opposed to 15.  Julie and I said we need to be a part of this.  We need to be a part of our family.  We need to be a part of this community.  We went back to Philly, told everybody goodbye, and moved back to Louisiana.

Sidebar_ad_Secede_die_baseball_capMike:  The other part of Rod’s story is, when he tells the story about how he left big media, big market publishing and moved to Louisiana — thank God for the support of Wick Allison and Dan McCarthy and those at American Conservative Magazine who said: Okay, Rod, we want to make you one of our head writer guys, and you can do it from Feliciana Parish, from St. Francisville.  You’ve been doing it ever since.  When you left, and you published a little bit of this when the book came out I guess about three weeks or so ago, some of the reaction you got to your exhortation that small town life is good and can be very enjoyable, there was a lot of, I don’t want to say outrage, but there was scorn tossed your way.  Why?

Rod:  Some people don’t think that you can have this in a small town.  They think you’re going back to a provincial area where you don’t have a lot of the good things you have in the big city.  There are tradeoffs, no doubt about it, but boy, it’s been worth it for us.  Secondly, some people are saying: I can’t move to a small town.  What do you expect me to do?  I have to live here in the city, or my family is in the city, or I don’t have a small town to go to.  What I would say is this: the lesson of the The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is not everybody pick up and move to a small town.  The lesson is, no matter where you live, involved yourself in the community.  Look at the people around you.  Don’t think it’s just about you.  There are people in your church who need you.  There are people in your school, your community organizations and your little leagues.  Get involved in the community.

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I’ll tell you, Mike, and you know this as a conservative, if you get sick, if you get terminal cancer or some terminal illness, you might have insurance that will pay your bills, but your insurance company is not going to come sit with you on the edge of your bed and visit you and pray with you when you can’t get out of bed.  The insurance company is not going to take your kids to school and pick them up.  The insurance company is not going to fill your refrigerator full of food.  Your neighbors are going to do that.  Your community is going to do that.

Mike:  Rod Dreher is from American Conservative Magazine.  Folks, the book is called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.  Get it at Amazon.  Tell us a little bit about — I only know this from reading the book and the chat you gave at the APL meeting this last year.  Tell us a little bit about your brother-in-law, who you didn’t know all that well, and then when you had to move back and you saw brother-in-law snap into action, and he’s a military guy.  Tell us a little bit about that story.

road-to-independence-BH-RTIDE2-detailRod:  Mike Leming is my brother-in-law.  He was a kid who lived here most of his life, Ruthie’s high school sweetheart.  They married when she was in college.  He became a firefighter and also was active in the Louisiana National Guard.  He went to Iraq for a year and won the Bronze Star for his service over there.  When Ruthie got sick, this is the love of his life, it was amazing to see how they worked together.  Ruthie’s oncologist said he’s never seen someone support his cancer-stricken spouse like Mike did.  That was a tremendous resource for her.  Mike was also really stricken by what happened to his wife.  Here’s a guy who’s a professional firefighter.  He runs into buildings to try to save people for a living.  He went to a warzone and won a medal.  He was just paralyzed over his wife.  He depended on his community, the firefighter community and the men and women of Starhill to hold him up.

I remember what he told me.  Right after Ruthie died, we went down to see Ruthie’s oncologist and tell him thank you.  Mike got a phone call from somebody.  They must have asked: How you doing?  He said, “We’re leaning but we’re leaning on each other.”  I thought that’s what community is right there.  It was true.  I could see it happening.  You know, Mike, we talk about these things a lot, about these community values and being a good neighbor and things like that.  They sound kind of like pieties.  They say: Oh, that’s nice.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had that in our country again?  They had it here in St. Francisville in Starhill, Louisiana.  I saw it happen.  When you see it happen with your own eyes, it’s not just theory; it’s real.  You can have that, too, if you want it bad enough and you make it happen.

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Mike:  It’s what I like to call, at least the political part of it, republicanism.  Republicanism only works when you have community.  Like you said, the key to all this is, no matter where you live, make where you live not just where your address is but where your home is.  It’s where your neighbors are.  It’s where your family is.  It’s where you go to school.  It’s where you go to church.  It’s where you shop.  It’s where you go to get your hair cut.  You probably have a barber shop in that little town now and you probably know that barber by name and everybody that goes in there, don’t you?

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Rod:  That’s right.  This is the thing Ruthie never understood about me.  She never understood why you would leave this town, and she kind of held it against me, thought I’d betrayed the family for moving off to the East Coast to follow my journalism vocation.  I still think she was wrong about that.  I didn’t come home as a prodigal son sorry I ever left.  What I didn’t realize about my sister’s life and the lives of everybody around here is even though they might look small from the highfaluting perspective of Washington or New York, they’re tremendous.  There’s nothing small about life in a small town.

I sat there at Ruthie’s wake at the Methodist church.  This is a town of 1,700.  There were over 1,000 people at that wake.  People came by the casket where we were standing and said to me — I haven’t lived here in almost 30 years — “Sir, you don’t know me, but she taught me.  This is what she did for me.”  Over and over and over I heard that from people.  I began to see that she had lived this very quiet, anonymous, ordinary life in a small town, but she had made all the difference in the world for the lives of the kids she taught and her friends.  I saw that you can do this.  This is what The Little Way of Ruthie Leming means.  St. Therese of Lisieux said that it’s not given to all of us to live big lives, doing big deeds on a big stage, but as long as we do the little things that God gives us to do with a heart full of faith and love, then we can be great.  That’s what Ruthie Leming was.

Mike:  Rod Dreher from American Conservative Magazine and the author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is on the Dude Maker Hotline with us.  That’s one of the other things that struck me about the story of Ruthie, and especially as you told the story — as I said, I witnessed this before the book came out — of what happened at the funeral and the wake and then after your wife and you were there for a little while.  You learned an awful lot about your sister that you didn’t know.  One of the things I think you learned is that as a school teacher, which she was — we often just think of school teachers as numbers in some kind of political fight, whether they’re pro-union or not union, whether they’re pro-testing or not testing.  There are some teachers out there that really just love to teach and don’t really much care for the politics of it, don’t really much care for the fight over wages.  They got into it because they actually wanted to teach.  Your sister just happened to be one of them.  Do you still run into people that Ruthie taught in St. Francisville?  Do you get classroom stories recounted to you?  What’s that like?

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Rod:  I do.  In fact, I ran into people on the book tour.  I ran into people in New York City who had been taught by Ruthie.  They remember her as one of their favorite teachers because she loved them.  This one young man she had helped out in one of her early classes told me the secret of why she was such a good teacher: she saw us, meaning we weren’t just the faces in the crowd or just numbers in her classroom.  She saw us as real people and took an interest in us.  That was the thing that was so great about Ruthie and, I think, about small towns.  Most people around here are conservative.  There are a lot of Democrats, too.  Politics don’t matter.  People see you as a real person first.  I love that.  It’s almost like being detoxed from having lived in New York and Washington.  You come here and nobody asks what your political affiliation is before they help you.  They see you as a neighbor, as their neighbor.  Ruthie did this all the time.  She was extraordinary about this, too.

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During her last year, she had the worst class ever of all her 20 years.  Some of her friends said: How do you put up with them?  She said, just simply: Because I love them and they might change.  There was this little girl in her class, Lyric Haynes, a little girl whose mom was in prison and she was dirt poor.  She was having a tough time.  Ruthie kept loving on her, trying to help her out.  Ruthie was the only adult in her life that showed her love.  When Ruthie died, little Lyric comes up to the line at the wake at the Methodist church and says to my mom, “Ms. Leming is dead.  Who’s going to love me now?”  That just shows you how much of an affect a teacher, just a middle school math teacher, can have on the lives of the needy if they just see the people and love them.

Mike:  There’s another little sidebar here.  I don’t know if you know Anthony Bourdain.  Bourdain just started this show on CNN.  The only reason I bring Bourdain up is because the only reason people that I know know Bourdain is because he went to a town near St. Francisville for one of his old shows at the old network and went to a boucherie.  They did the whole hog deal.  They let Bourdain shoot the pig in the head and then they threw it in the scalding water to get the hair off the skin. Bourdain just kept raving about it.  He’s like: I think this is the most fun I have ever had, and certainly these are the most fun people I have ever had a day to share with that didn’t involve a lot of heavy drinking.  I think that’s part of, if I could use the word, part of maybe the charm that CNN saw in Bourdain that people you would not think – Bourdain is a New Yorker and a big lib.  For that moment when he was in St. Francisville — or maybe it was St. Martinsville, somewhere around there — when he was at that boucherie, he wasn’t a lib.  He was just Anthony Bourdain killing a pig and then watching it cooked up Louisiana Cajun style.

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Rod:  There’s a politics in that, too.  When I was at LSU in the ‘80s and working in Baton Rouge in the early ‘90s, I was so fed up with this state with the corruption and the politics.  The economy wasn’t doing anything.  I wanted to get out of here.  I remember this guy, a journalist in New Orleans.  He resigned his job and made a speech in the newsroom saying: I love this city, but I can’t raise my kids in a city that loves libraries more than parades.  I said: Amen to that.  I’m getting out of here and going somewhere where they have better government and better prospects.  I realized, when what happened to Ruthie happened, and everybody came around to help her, I realized the value of parades, Mike.  Ruthie spent her whole life, when she wasn’t in the classroom, down at the creek having a creek party or at a crawfish boil or even at a Mardi Gras parade.  This was what the essence of life was to her.  She wasn’t just having fun.  She was building up social capital to use up, sort of an antiseptic term, but she was building her community.  When she got her ox in a ditch with terminal cancer, all that came back to her.  It’s like the community was a levy against the flood and it held.  That’s the value of parades.  You can’t put a monetary value on that sort of thing.  When you’re as sick as she was and you can’t do a thing and all the money in the world can’t save your life, you need the people around you.  Then you see the value of parades.

Minute_man_Liberal_friends_Warned_you_about_DETAILMike:  Final question for Rod Dreher from American Conservative Magazine and author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.  What is the secret of a good life?

Rod:  The secret of a good life, according to Ruthie Leming, is, first of all, be grateful for what you have.  Life is good.  You don’t have to always spur yourself with being dissatisfied to go on and never happy with having enough.  Ruthie was so grateful for everything she had.  Even when she had cancer, she was grateful for the life God had given her.  So the secret of a good life involves gratitude, and it involves seeing the people around you, loving your neighbors and serving them, and your family, with all your heart.  I would say the secret of a good life involves serving the Lord and having God in your heart, and she certainly did.

Mike:  That’s a great answer.  My second question is, you are by and away my favorite writer at American Conservative Magazine.  That’s not just me talking that because I have you on the line.  I love reading McCarthy, Larison, Bloom, Utley, all of them.  I read them all.  The way you approach your work, and I don’t know if this has been influenced by your experiences in the last five years with your sister and your move back, but the way you approach your work is now not antiseptic any longer.  It is not boilerplate journalism or conservative blogging or whatever.  It is the pursuit of the meaning of things.  It’s not just that this statistic says this.  You get into religion on your blog.  You get into the presence of God in things.  You get into the parts of the discussion that no one else wants to touch, which is: what are the opinions and what are the emotions that cause people to think like this and say these sorts of things?  You’re usually very gracious even with those that you disagree with.  Has your writing changed as a result of this move?

Rod:  Well, my writing began to change, I think, in the past ten years when I learned that a lot of things that I thought were true weren’t true or weren’t true like I thought they were.  It humbled me intellectually.  I began to see how ideology of all sorts, whether liberal or conservative ideology, religious ideology, secular ideology blinds you to the reality that’s right in front of your face.  In Ruthie’s case, Ruthie was not political at all.  I learned something wise from her: to try your best to see the people right in front of you.  Life is not a problem to be solved; it’s a mystery to be lived.  For me, as a writer on the right who is interested in ideas and the right way to live, I try to explore that.  I ask myself: What am I not seeing here?  What’s the reality behind the people who want to throw opinions at me, that they don’t want me to know?  It gets in the way of their clear-cut ideology.

I’ll tell you, Mike, I was out on the road for the past two weeks pushing the book and talking to different people.  When you have people come up to you, perfect strangers standing in front of you crying saying: I haven’t talked to my mom in ten years.  Please sign the book to her.  Maybe this’ll break the ice.  Or: My brother died of cancer and my other brother, he hasn’t been right since.  Please sign this book to him.  He needs to hear a word that will give him faith again.  That lets you know how petty politics are in the lives of ordinary people.  That’s what I’m looking at as a conservative and just as a writer.  I want to see what people’s real problems are and find out the wisdom, conservative wisdom or just flat out wisdom, has to say about that, not just what’s going to win elections.

Mike:  Wow, well spoken, my friend.  Congratulations on the book.  As I told you, you had me at the APL talk.  I’ve been talking about your story as you have brought it up on your blog and relaying it to listeners.  I’m glad the book has come out.  Best of luck to you, my friend, and let’s stay in touch.

End Mike Church Show Transcript


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