S3:E29 – Maribeth Barber, The Defiance of Laughter


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Maribeth Barber

“I’m a small-town Southerner captivated by the tales of underdogs, homebodies, and royalty. When I’m not blogging or writing novels, I’m reading, gardening, and collecting figurines of my favorite fictional characters on my family’s hobby farm in Louisiana.”

Online presence:

A Writer’s Tale (blog): maribethbarber.com

“The Movie Score” podcast with Maribeth’s brother, Ben

Current/upcoming projects:

You can find all of Maribeth’s articles for the The Cultivating Project here, and her debut novel, Operation Lionhearted, will be released on October 13, 2021. Follow her on instagram @maribeth.barber

The Defiance of Laughter

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer…”

Thus Wendell Berry—author, poet, farmer, and rebel—begins his famous poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Long before I read any of Berry’s novels, I read this poem—and something about it settled deep into my soul, especially the way he introduces his solution to the dismal chaos of modern American life:

“So, friends, every day do something that wont compute.”

As a homeschool graduate who chose to live at home with my family and pursue my writing career, I’m no stranger to nonconformity. An introverted homebody from childhood, I was the little kid who burst into tears one day and begged my parents not to send me away to a college campus. I knew by that point that what I really wanted to do was write stories…yet the older I grew and the more I knew of the world, I came to the sobering realization that this meant I’d probably never meet certain, traditional expectations.

This was a terrifying revelation, made all the more unnerving by pointed comments, worried questions, and subtle pressures to reconsider from well-meaning friends and family. On the one hand, I was eager to make my own choices and live the simple, creative life I desired. But on the other, I was determined to make my small rebellion worthwhile. I would never be idle at home, I would publish my books and keep a blog…and I would succeed, no matter what.

I wouldn’t discover Wendell Berry’s poignant turn of phrase until well into my late twenties, yet I can say that I deliberately and happily chose to “do something that won’t compute.” Over the years, that decision has given me the freedom to enjoy and serve my family, keep a weekly job, self-publish my first novel, and contribute to various ministries and collaborative writing projects. In many ways, this is the quiet, peaceful life my little hobbit soul always wanted.

And yet, despite the joy and fulfillment I have experienced, doubt and fear have always plagued me. More often than I care to admit, I worry that my lifestyle is insignificant and unsustainable. That’s why I resonate so strongly with Kathleen Kelly in the iconic film, You’ve Got Mail, when she writes:

“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small—and sometimes I wonder: do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?”

I’d love to tell you that I’m always confident, that I no longer care what people think of my choices, and that I’ve never looked back. The truth is that I’ve wrestled my entire life with a frantic need to show the world that I’m just as tough and relentlessly productive as everyone else. I’ve craved the opportunity to wave my accomplishments in all my skeptics’ faces and say, “You see?! I don’t have to look like everyone else! I can do things my way and do just fine, thank you very much!”

But do you hear it? The insidious, arrogant, activity-driven striving? How is this attitude of mine any different from the kind of life I’ve actively tried to avoid? In my high-and-mighty dudgeon, I hear echoes of the frenetic “busy-ness” that Wendell Berry describes at the beginning of his poem. “Not even your future will be a mystery anymore,” he warns—and I know that if I wallow in an embittered struggle against modern expectations, my resentful self-justification will define my future.

But perhaps there is a more excellent way…a more peaceful way that has less to do with looking different and proving myself, and more to do with living well, loving well…and laughing well.

If Wendell Berry had ended his poem with his dreary account of modern society, his Manifesto would be a depressing one, indeed. But thank goodness, the poem isn’t over yet! Berry goes on to describe what it means to “do something that won’t compute” every single day of our lives.

“Love the Lord,” he writes. “Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag…Invest in the millenium…Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…Practice resurrection.”

I think Berry is proposing here that “a life that doesn’t compute” stems not from rebellion for rebellion’s sake, but from love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Living a life that doesn’t compute—one that quietly and joyfully defies our chaotic culture—means that I choose to see my life as a lavish feast given to me by the God Who Sees Me…and not Exhibit A of my self-sufficiency in the court of public opinion.

This choice is transformative. When I truly believe that my small life is seen and cherished by the Lord God Almighty, I don’t need to strive for anyone else’s approval. And when I am free, then I can laugh—not in derision, but in immeasurable merriment. I can invest my time and toil in our garden even as I expect the end of the world. I’m even free to consider hard facts such as this one: writing will probably never make me rich. But I also know the joy that comes when my characters leap off the page and sweep me into their adventures—and I wouldn’t miss that delight for all the money in the world.

So…do we live our small lives because we like it, or because we haven’t been brave? Well, I would propose to Kathleen Kelly—and to anyone else walking this road less-traveled—that your small life is the brave life. But you aren’t brave just because you’re different. You are brave because you love well, work well, think well…and rejoice well.

This is the holy defiance of laughter. This is the beauty of a life that doesn’t compute.

“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”

William Henry Channing

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