Rod Dreher

Goodbye To A Decade

So, we arrive at the final day of the decade 2010-2020. I think about where I was on December 31, 2009. My wife and three kids and I were either in our house in Dallas packing up for our January move to Philadelphia, or we were spending the last days in Starhill, Louisiana, with my family there, telling them goodbye before heading back up north, more than a day’s drive from them — meaning that we would see them far less than we had all gotten used to when we moved to Dallas from New York in 2003. When we told them goodbye back in 2009, everybody was a little concerned by my sister Ruthie’s persistent cough, but not that worried.

Six weeks into the new year, 2010, I stood in the bathroom of my apartment in Chestnut Hill, and heard my sobbing mother scream over the phone from the hospital, “Sister’s got cancer!” She lived with Stage Four lung cancer for nineteen months. I can’t say it often enough: she never smoked. But lung cancer got her anyway. She was 42.

 

After her death in September 2011, my wife and I decided to move with our kids to my hometown, to be with the family. We were able to make this move because The American Conservative, which hired me in the summer of 2011, generously agreed to allow me to work from south Louisiana. This magazine has been my home for nine years now, and what a great home it has been! Thanks to its editors, and to you readers, this blog has been getting over one million page views each month, and has been the genesis of three books, and one on the way.

Back in Louisiana, thanks to a December 29, 2011 David Brooks column — I owe that good man more than I can ever repay — I was offered a contract to write The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. (I should also say that my literary agent Gary Morris, with whom I have been since the early 2000s, and with whom I will always be, has been the best advocate that any writer could hope for.) The advance for the book allowed my wife and me, along with several other Orthodox converts in town, to start an Orthodox mission in West Feliciana Parish. It only lasted for three years — we did not attract enough converts to sustain it — but what a beautiful three years it was. Father Matthew Harrington and his family made an unforgettable impression on us all. Here is Father Matthew with my father, Ray Dreher, in the garden outside the church at a crawfish boil.

 

The money from that book also allowed me to realize a dream: taking my family to Paris, my favorite city in all the world. It was there that I discovered the happiest place on earth, a little oyster bar called Huitrerie Régis, to which I have returned several times over the years. If I could choose a last meal on this earth, it would be two dozen raw oysters from this place, and a bottle of cold Muscadet — not the finest wine in the world, but it goes perfectly with raw oysters:

We rented an apartment and spent one month in the city in the autumn of 2012. It was not cheap, but that was money very well spent, for all the memories we made as a family. I have lots of lovely photos from that time, but it is my habit not to post pictures of my children. However, my son Matthew, who is now 20 years old, looks sufficiently different from how he looked then for me to break my rule to post this great shot. It was taken next to the Place St-Sulpice. He looks like a 12-year-old existentialist, staring into the abyss without consolation. In fact, he was tired of all the walking we had done that afternoon, and was miserably contemplating the rest of the trek back to our apartment. This is the Frenchiest thing ever, I think:

The book was published in the spring of 2013, to general acclaim. If you read it, you will know from the final two chapters that my return to Louisiana occasioned the surfacing of deep fault lines in the family — fault lines that, in the end, could neither be healed nor breached. That was an extremely hard lesson for me to learn. The stress of it all gave me chronic mononucleosis, which hit me hard for three years. Here’s a photo of my eyes — sunken and blackened — during that illness, to give you an idea of how sick I was. Never was I so grateful to have a job that allowed me to keep writing from my sick bed:

What began my healing was stumbling into the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. It was divine intervention. I’m confident of that. I was in a Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge one day, in the depths of my illness, when I pulled the Commedia off a shelf and began to read those immortal first lines:

In the middle of the journey of our life

I came to myself in a dark wood

For I had lost the straight path.

That’s me, I thought. I had believed that in returning to my home, I was completing a circle, creating harmony. In fact, I had entered a dark wood, and I did not know the way out. I took up Dante and read him, not with literary curiosity, but with the desperation of a lost soul who has found a map that just might get him out of the dark wood.

It worked. I wrote a book about it, How Dante Can Save Your Life, which is a practical testimony to how God’s healing grace can come to us through art and literature. Eventually I made a pilgrimage to Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, where I prostrated myself and thanked God for sending this 14th-century Tuscan poet into my life. And, when nobody there was around, I read Dante aloud:

 

The next year, in the spring of 2015, my Dante book appeared. As you can read in the paperback version, with its extra chapter, my father, who had entered home hospice care, and I were able to reconcile at a deep level. It was through God’s grace, and what He had taught me through Dante. I lived in the bedroom with my dying father during the last week of his life, nursing him, reading to him, and being with him as he drifted towards eternity. Here is my mother and me, comforting him in his last days. She is showing him a photo of his daughter Ruthie, telling him to be brave, that he will see Ruthie soon.

In 2013, some friends and I, under the guidance of Nancy Vinci, started a literary festival: Walker Percy Weekend. We thought it would be a one-off, but people really love it, and it’s still going strong. This past year, our speakers included David Brooks, J.D. Vance, and Walter Isaacson. Here’s Walker and Bunt’s daughter Mary Pratt, with me and James Fox-Smith, a co-founder:

And look who came to Walker Percy Weekend a couple of years ago: Jason Kenney, who went on to become the premier of Alberta, and who will probably be the Prime Minister of Canada one day. Come to drink whisky with us in St. Francisville, and good things will come to you!

That year, 2013, ended with sadness. My childhood friend Miriam Jeurissen died in Amsterdam from cancer, on Christmas Day. She was dear to me; I eulogized her here. Earlier in the year, when it became clear that she was not going to survive, I traveled to Amsterdam to spend some time with her, to tell her how much I loved her, and to say goodbye. Please, friends, if you find yourself in a similar position, get on the plane and go say goodbye. You will not regret it. Other than my sister, this was the first time someone my age, and that close to me, died. That kind of thing really is a turning point in one’s life. One feels one’s own mortality acutely. Look how beautiful and vital she was, even though she was only months from death:

 

In 2014, I had the gift of being able to work with the actor Wendell Pierce on his memoir of growing up in south Louisiana, The Wind In The Reeds. Wendell is an African-American liberal from New Orleans. I am a conservative white guy from the Feliciana hills. But we found common ground in our love for our native Louisiana. Working with Wendell, and getting to know his family story, was one of the great privileges of my life. I can’t urge you strongly enough to read this book (I see it’s only $4.99 on Kindle now). It is a fantastic story of how one of the great actors of our time was formed by a place and a people. And truly, Wendell is one of the kindest, most genuine men you can ever hope to meet. If you love his acting — he was Bunk in The Wire, and currently plays in Jack Ryan, and is winding down a highly praised performance as Willy Loman in the London revival of Death Of A Salesman — you’ll want to read this book. But even if you’ve never seen his work, but simply love New Orleans, read it. You’ll not regret it. As my own father lay dying, I read aloud to him the chapter, from the draft manuscript, about Wendell’s dad, and how he was denied the medals he had earned in World War II, because of racism. That chapter ends with that patriot, old and feeble but unbowed, finally receiving his due in a ceremony at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. I was crying so hard as I read it that I could barely speak. My father was also crying. The tragedy and the triumph of Amos Pierce — what a gift to us.

Also, when he received news that my father was not long for this world, Wendell stopped in an airport as he was headed overseas and recorded a message of encouragement for Daddy, which concluded with him (Wendell) saying the Our Father for my dad’s sake. It meant the world to a dying man. That’s the kind of man Wendell Pierce is.

Over this decade, Julie and I watched our three kids become teenagers, and, in Matt’s case, leave his teenage life for adulthood. I’m so proud of these kids I just don’t know what to say. Matt is applying his love for science and museums (he asked me to take him in 2017 to Munich to the Deutsches Museum, Europe’s greatest science museum, and I did) to university study, hoping to work one day in museum curation. Lucas, now 15 — his special trip when Dad turned 50 was to Siena, to the Palio) has learned to play guitar, and the bass guitar, and rocks hard in a band at Baton Rouge Music School. Nora, at 13, has become a devoted baker, and an aspiring journalist (her Dad’s 50th Birthday trip was to Washington DC, to visit NPR headquarters). Hard to believe that this new decade will be the one in which they all move out of the house, and into their own adult lives.

So: after my father’s passing, and the closing of our Orthodox mission, we moved thirty miles down the road to Baton Rouge. My wife took a job teaching in the wonderful classical Christian school where our kids attended, Sequitur Classical Academy. Besides, we wanted to be close to our new Orthodox parish, which was in Baton Rouge. I turned to working on my next book The Benedict Option, which turned out to be a professional breakthrough for me. The New Yorker did a profile of me, which included this arresting photo by Maud Schuyler Clay, taken in the Starhill Cemetery. It wasn’t the most flattering photo of me ever, but it was incredibly revealing: I have seen that same look on my late father’s place many times, always when he feels overwhelmed, and is trying to think was way through a threat:

The Benedict Option turned out to be popular, and has been translated into 11 languages. I have done lots and lots of traveling with that book — and that turned out to be the occasion of the greatest blessing of this past decade: the many new friends I have made in the US and in Europe. France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Austria, Germany, Russia — so many beautiful places, so many wonderful, faithful people. If I tried to post photos of them all, I would be here till midnight. I will let this image of Marco Sermarini, the Doge of the Benedict Option — here’s the first blog post I did about him and the Tipi Loschi — stand for all of them:

Here, by the way, is Bria Sandford, the editor of The Benedict Option, and me at the New York launch of the book. I’m holding the recipe for a cocktail T.K. Bloom invented for the occasion. Sorry the filter was apparently on when this was taken.:

Earlier this year, I signed a contract to write my next book, about the experiences of men and women who survived Communism, and who have warnings and wisdom to impart to us about soft totalitarianism threatening us now. I recently settled on a name for the book, but Bria, who is editing this one too, has to check with her team to see if it’s a go. I’ll let you know when I have the all clear. It will be published in September 2020. Reporting this book has taken me to several countries, and into the homes and stories of some incredibly brave people. I’m going to dedicated the book to a Catholic priest, Father Tomislav Kolakovic, who escaped the Gestapo in his native Croatia, hid in Slovakia, warned Slovak Catholics that Communism was coming, and prepared them, spiritually and otherwise, for resistance. Here I am in Bratislava, in front of a memorial to Father Kolakovic (d. circa 1985), with my Slovak friends Timo Krizka (left) and Juraj Sust (right), both of whom played key roles in helping me report this new book:

For me, perhaps the greatest gift I’ve received from my travels connected to my books is the assurance that we are not alone. Regular readers know that I toggle between gloom and joy, but that I spend perhaps more time in the world of melancholy than in the sunshine. It is always great to get out from behind the laptop, and meet men and women and their families, fellow Christians who see the world with clear eyes, and rejoice anyway. My reporting for this new book has taught me how critically important two things are for enduring hard times: faith and friendship. This past decade has been for me one of loss and disillusionment in big and lasting ways, and some sorrows from which I will likely never recover, but it has also been one of gift and revelation. You never know what’s just around the corner. Just today, I was shopping in the grocery store for a big dish I’m making tonight for guests, and I fell into conversation with the man who turns out to be the honorary consul of France for the Cajun part of Louisiana. He’s from Lyon, and he talked about sauces with such charm and passion that I was reminded of how much I love the French, and how many gifts I have received from that beautiful country.

So, let’s carry on into this next decade, with merry hearts and big appetites! Happy New Year! I invite you all to use the comments section to recall how the decade went for you.

Finally, I want to make mention of my little friend Roscoe, a foundling mutt who is reaching the end of his long happy life, and whose presence brings tenderness to my family’s days. No matter how sad or frustrated any of us might be, Roscoe somehow knows when one of us needs him to jump into our lap. I had no idea that a scrappy little hound could bring so many gifts into one’s life. I wish he would live forever:

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