Some Thoughts on “Your Working and Your Living”

By Curtis K. Shelburne

A good friend — former mayor of our town, second generation creator of world-class Mexican food, and reader of great books — sent me a great book a while back that I’m seriously into now and seriously enjoying.
Written by Wendell Berry, it’s entitled Jayber Crow and it is “The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself.”

Wendell Berry is a poet. Though this novel is not poetry, its rich prose is almost poetry as Berry’s main character, Jonah “Jayber” Crow, an old man, reflects on his life, his work, his town and life in general.

I like Jayber. As the story goes, he’d thought pretty seriously about becoming a preacher, but he kept bumping up against too many questions of the sort that made folks in his Bible college pretty uncomfortable. Jayber was interested in and mighty busy living life — all of it and not just that part of it that some folks are able to stuff into a box effectively shut off from real life and call their religion. In his situation (and I’m thankful this isn’t always the case), he decided he could better connect with people and with life by cutting hair and at the same time listening to, learning from and enjoying, or not, the stories of the folks who sat in his chair. The reality of their physical lives made hair a renewable resource and his livelihood possible. Their lives in general made Jayber’s life interesting and, for the most part, he liked living life with them.

As I said, I like Jayber. I tend to think that though the world needs a smattering of qualified brain surgeons, a trusted barber is generally to most of us a good deal more useful. I even paid mine in advance a while back. He’s been cutting my hair for 20 years now, and I trust him with my hair — along with my stories and opinions. 

In his memoirs, Jayber reflects on the advantages of being a barber. When he started at Port William, Ky., in 1936, he bought a narrow two-story storefront building downtown. He lived on the top floor and worked on the bottom, and that was an advantage. As one of his friends said, “You got your working and your living right here together.” Customers were always welcome in the shop for haircuts, talking, loafing, but even the dimmest bulb among them respected the fact that upstairs was not where Jayber worked, it was where he lived.

That makes me think. You better be careful about trusting a fellow who likes to look religious but whose faith doesn’t cover all of his working and his living and all of, well, life. And it’s important to work well at your work.

But it seems to me that the folks whose work is worth the most are the ones who have and enjoy, like old Jayber, a “room upstairs,” a gift from God — a shop to cut boards in, a good chair to read books in, a giggling grandbaby to take pride in, and the precious moments required to savor life so that our work is worthwhile.