Wendell Berry

Choose Your Words

One of the most striking tiny details in Madeleine L’Engle’s bracing and beautiful memoir, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, is L’Engle’s habit of swimming for half an hour before breakfast while internally reciting an “alphabet” of verses:

The movement of the body through water helps mind and heart to work together . . . It is a good way of timing my swimming and by holding on to the great affirmations of the Psalms, of Coverdale and Cranmer, of John Donne and Henry Vaughan and Thomas Browne, I am sustained by the deep rhythm of their faith (169).

As she swam, L’Engle deliberately chose some of the words that would become part of her and would sustain her during the months her husband was dying of bladder cancer.

Slicing through a watery expanse. Sustained. Mind sharing cardiac rhythms. This is how many advocates of memorizing poetry describe their pursuit. “Between the covers of any decent anthology,” writes Jim Holt, whose mental anthology spans from Chaucer to present, “you have an entire sea to swim in.” Essayist Emily Gould speaks of “allowing the singsong of iambic pentameter to regulate my heartbeats.” More starkly, poet Mary Karr writes, “In memorizing the poems I loved, I ‘ate’ them . . . I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: someone else’s suffering and passion enters your body to transform you.”

In memorizing poetry, the words enter through eye or ear and become so intimate they are almost part of your cells. And the incredible thing is, when memorizing poetry, you get to choose which words become part of you.

How often does that get to happen?

Most of the words pinging around my brain got there by accident. There’s a Snack for That . . . If You’ve Been Seriously Injured . . . Can You Hear Me Now? . . . Everywhere You Look, There’s a Heart, There’s a Heart, There’s a Hand to Hold on To . . . These words have become like static that obscures words and meanings instead of enhancing them. Reading, and getting deliberately-chosen words into my head, is a way of reclaiming parts of my mind. A memorized line snaps me to attention, and then quiets me as I give the line my undivided thoughts. It’s a way of decluttering.

Each line of a poem is a mystery, a puzzle for the mind to solve. Good poems are mysteries so absorbing that only by carrying them around with me does the mystery begin to make sense. They give rest from the petty or profound life problems that often knot my brain, offering exuberant mysteries and calming rhythms. On the other hand, when the static foists itself to the fore, the only puzzle it gives me is “How’m I gonna get enough money to buy that?”

When lines of poems grab my thoughts, they make the world in front of me seem a little more graceful. It’s kind of like the thread of my thought doubles — something else, something good, a companion’s reminder, entwines my simple observation.

Photo: Sean Talbot

But, OK. Before my praises of poetry memorization get too lofty, I should let you know how much I suck at it.

When I was young, I was — like most kids — a walking tape recorder. My parents took care that the words that became part of me would be positive and poetic. I had awful dreams of rats and tarantulas (that, in hindsight, make me think that if those were my worst fears I had a pretty easy childhood). I’d wake up panting and see yellow teeth in the street lights’ variegated shadows and a hairy thorax in the ceiling’s cracks. My mother comforted me by helping me memorize Psalm 121, “He who watches over you will not slumber” and Psalm 139, “The darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines as the day.” Like L’Engle, she organized an alphabet of verses I could say to myself.

My memorization skills skedaddled long ago. Memorizing poetry or Scripture seems to require a silent soul, undivided attention, and love of repetition only possible as a child, when things like swinging back and forth for an hour are legitimate pursuits.

Last year, though, that detail in L’Engle’s memoir inspired me to try memorizing again.

So I tried to force-feed myself poetry, one small bite at a time. It was a crashing failure. Learning one small part at a time left things too disjointed. I couldn’t remember how it all worked together. So I gave up. Memorizing poetry was not for me. Not anymore. Face it: My brain just didn’t work that way these days.

But a funny thing happened this spring. I began to notice I was thinking poetry again. The words that were part of me were words that I welcomed.

I would walk in the woods and pass a beech tree. Its bark was smooth silver, its roots plunged into neon moss. And what came to mind was Wendell Berry’s Its roots passing lordly through the Earth.

Or, I would look out past the pond at my parents’ house, and the leaves of the early spring woods would be so thin that light behind them made them glow gold, and I would think sometimes of Frost’s Nature’s first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold (which of course came to me by way of The Outsiders) and sometimes of Berry’s The woods is shining this morning, delighted that he calls it simply the woods, like my siblings and I always called it, instead of the formidably poetic “Forest.”

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

Or, I’d be cutting up a bony chicken, and what would come to mind but Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”?  Their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, which I heard Thomas read aloud on the audio anthology Poetry on Record.

Or, when I’d wake up feeling tumultuous during a year of indecision, lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s desolate sonnets would rise: Call off thoughts awhile . . . leave comfort root-room . . .

Or, I’d hear mourning doves murmur bleakly and mockingbirds recite and think of lines of Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount that compassionate birds’ temporal nesting. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself . . .

The thing is, I’d given up trying to memorize poetry, but I still read it. I taught a poetry unit last year and had students read Donne, Hopkins, Levertov, Milosz, Walcott, Berry, and two Herberts (George and Zbigniew) aloud. I had to read these poems over and over to offer any intelligent comment on them. And in just reading them over and over and again, their phrasing and patterns and rhythms did work the transformation that Holt, Gould, L’Engle, and Karr spoke of.

I won’t force-feed myself spoonfuls of poetry anymore. But I will keep reading poems and Scripture, over and over again ’til the mystery’s in my marrow.

Where It Will Start Again

Three days after our wedding, my husband Adam and I packed everything we owned into a U-Haul and drove south out of New York State. We had no plan, only a destination: the Gulf coast of Alabama. We left behind everything that was familiar and started a new life together in a new place. We planned to stay for two years. Now, nearly six years later—with no plan, only a destination—we’re moving back.

A few evenings ago I stood in the bathroom, brushing my teeth. Everyone already in bed tucked in for the night, I didn’t even bother to flip on the light. I just kept reciting to myself the beginning of Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet”: Make a place to sit down./Sit down. Be quiet.

Quiet is an abundant and scary place. It has become scarier now that we’ve settled on a moving date, now that the “someday” of our move is very quickly becoming now. When it’s quiet, I start thinking about all the things left to do. Panic sets in. I start worrying about what Adam will do for employment, what city we’ll end up in, how we’ll stock up on blankets and winter coats. I go to the quiet in short bursts, until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I back away.

Because we knew our time in Alabama was temporary, Adam and I always treated it that way. We knew someday we would leave and it would be easier if we didn’t plant roots that would soon need digging up. On paper this makes sense, but it has left a gaping hole in our southern life. Now as we prepare to leave, I realize that we are actually leaving very little behind. Our relationships are proving to be flimsy and our entanglements easy to untie. Already people have let us go, and we haven’t left yet. But this is our doing, the harvest of a temporary life.

What surprises me most is how sad I’ve felt about moving. It occurred to me after a recent trip to New Orleans Zoo that I may never visit New Orleans again. I might never drive through Mississippi and see the “Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful” sign again. Adam and I made a bucket list of things to do before we move, and I’ve lamented over the things we didn’t do enough.

When we moved away from New York, we knew we’d be back to visit family and friends. But I’m not so sure about Alabama. I’m getting ready to leave and never come back.

In a few days, we will celebrate Lily’s second birthday. We have no plans for a party; the move is just too close. Instead we’ll celebrate like we did on the day of her birth—just the three of us. No visitors, no guests. Just us. When we get to New York, we’ll celebrate again, this time with family and friends who we’ve been far from for far too long.

In the meantime, we’ll keep crossing things off our to do list and enjoy these last days in our first home. This was our first big adventure together, and Alabama will always be special to us. But it’s time to start compiling a list of things to do when we get to New York: see a favorite band with a friend, go to a poetry reading, swim in Lake Ontario, take Adam to New York City for the first time. This time we’ll pack everything we own in a U-Haul, along with the dog, cat, and two year-old who have joined our family, and make the long drive north, back to where this all started and to where it will start again.

The Illegitimate Son of God

Every religion needs its leader, and in Owen Egerton’s The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, it takes Harold Peeks, the “Most Improved Sales Analyst” for Promit Computers declaring his Messiah-hood at the company’s annual awards banquet to start Haroldism. But it takes a complete economic collapse and the destruction of the American Dream to seal Haroldism’s place as one of the great world religions.

The account of Haroldism’s early days is narrated by an older, end-of-the-road Blake Waterson. He begins with words that most have uttered under our breath at some point: “…I am not a godly man. In truth, God and I have never been on good terms. I’ve always suspected that perhaps God was hunting me. Not in a good way, not the shepherd searching for a lost sheep. More like a pissed off loan shark looking for payment.”

Harold is Egerton’s third work of fiction, and it is comedic irreverence, a true satirical commentary on American Christianity, if not religious idealism in general.  Unlike so many works mocking the banality and ignorance of the religious, he tells a story that makes good fun of ritual while alluding to the greater truths so often missed by the devout. It has all the makings of a response to the question: What would it look like if Jesus came to America today instead of Israel 2,000 years ago– and was named Harold?

The narrative is from Blake Waterson’s perspective, a memoir of the devout, or a “Gospel” of sorts. He describes the “Son of God” as one who “carried a roll of pudge just above his belt. His hair was juvenile, slightly longer than a crew cut. Wally Cleaver all grown up.” In other words, Harold looks a lot like every other American you might see at an Applebee’s on a Sunday night– our version of “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.” (Isaiah 53:2). And yet, people start to follow Harold the way they followed Jesus, leaving everything to join him on a journey from the suburbs of Houston, to the Capital of Texas, Austin. They are a motley crew from all walks of life and ages, and Blake Waterson is among them as a Matthew, Luke, John, or Judas.

The name of Egerton’s Messiah is a play on the word “herald” – an official messenger bringing news, a sign that something new is about to happen. Harold Peeks’s “news” is the kind that gets you kicked out of cocktails parties and churches, while attracting the less preoccupied, the lost or longing of the rest of society.

Like any good Messiah Harold performs the miraculous, but they aren’t the kind of miracles we would expect. Then again, miracles never are. Waterson’s dead dog -– obviously and inconveniently stiff as a board in the living room during an evening with neighbors — comes back to life for a minute after Harold has managed to make the room unbearably tense by naming off statistics about the suffering in the world. It is as everybody is leaving, the night ruined, tears flowing, that the rigid, dead Pickles suddenly yelps with a bark when Waterson bumps the dog, then goes back to being dead. Was the miracle the dog’s small moment of resurrection or was it that Harold managed to show just what a shallow, absurd, and mundane existence the Watersons and their neighbors live? Through Blake Waterson’s own transformation the reader sees that one can laugh or cry or both, but there is indeed something lacking in those niceties with which we are far too numb. Harold has shaken them all from their own stiff deadness, but some will simply fall back to dead like Pickles.

Egerton used the “Harold,” a type of improvisation used in comedic theater– another realm in which Egerton has quite a successful history– in his first novel Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. There are elements within the structure of The Book of Harold that hint at this comedic form even if Egerton was not consciously writing it as such. He has placed momentary pauses titled “An Introduction to Haroldism,” where in the reader is given a snippet of the liturgy behind the religion.  These are much like pages from a Book of Common Prayer or an order of worship, but they are comedic pauses, a reminder to the reader that often the things that are taken seriously are most deserving of laughter.

As a whole The Book of Harold is a brilliant response to Wendell Berry’s words: “By taking oneself too seriously one is prevented from being serious enough.” For anyone who spends time among the religiously serious – those that often take themselves too seriously – it is clear that Egerton knows where to make fun of their kin while hinting at the stuff that deserves being serious enough. It is rare to find rich, balanced satire – the kind that makes you laugh while making you think – but Harold is one of these gems.

In the dedication, Egerton says of a friend that he was “scarred by faith and a golf cart.” There is hardly a soul on this planet who won’t be scarred by faith sooner or later. And in the more mishap-laden, laughable side of life, most have had their version of being scarred by something so comical as a golf cart. In essence, Egerton’s dedication is to every man and woman making a go of it in this world.

The Boutique City Conundrum

Everyone in America wants their town to hit the list of the top five places to live in the U.S. – with clean streets, amazing mixed-use housing, and an easy walk to the corner grocery – but what many developers are not asking in the process is, “At what cost?”

A few days ago, I watched a special on Portland’s city planning process from the past several decades. Portland’s government has used something called an “urban growth boundary” to foster development within the city’s existing limits, rather than encouraging ever greater sprawl and suburbanization. Outside the boundary, local farms can flourish off the nutrient-rich land and sell their products to eager city residents. The boundary guarantees that these farmers are staying put, as it protects both the land and well-being of these rural entities. Portland’s model is focused upon a belief that both the urban dweller and the farmer are essential for the flourishing of local culture, and that undercutting the value of healthy land and healthy farms will undercut the city itself. The model is increasingly trendy, but still quite rare.

In a typical metropolitan growth pattern, as cities expand past their original boundaries, farmers are often the first pushed out. Developers see farmland as ready ground for new housing, strip malls, or major roads and are willing to offer high stakes to obtain it. Cities and their surrounding suburbs can span for hours of driving time.

For example, take Washington, D.C., with its surrounding suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland, or Los Angeles and its expansive outskirts. To support these models, intricate highway systems, high speed transit, and massive infrastructure are necessary. Commuters may spend hours driving to work and returning home each day, and often those who work within the actual city’s boundaries have little concern for the city’s well-being, and certainly no say in its government.

Meanwhile, with an urban growth boundary, urban and rural do not mix. Beyond the boundary, one will find farms, along with forested and other “protected” lands. Inside the boundary, one will find urban development-buildings, homes, sewer and water systems, power lines, and industrial complexes. Cities with urban growth boundaries exist as single units rather than suburban centers, and often have much more dense populations than other metropolitan models. Rather than encouraging outward growth, urban growth boundaries encourage cities to grow deeper and more concentrated. With this model in play, things like freestanding single family housing and mall-style shopping become rare and unsustainable. So the restaurants get better, the apartments more beautiful, and the wares more exciting. Meanwhile, prices per square foot of space and even the cost of commodities can grow substantially with increased demand and competition.

Portland’s urban growth model is an interesting one, and certainly the city has transformed from disorganized and disconnected to upscale and appealing. Over the past few decades, Portland has transformed into a bustling boutique city of sorts, enabling its citizens easy access to high-end amenities and great local wares. Today Portland is often considered one of the best places to live in the country, and boasts an amazing waterfront park. However, this model can come at a steep price.

While the urban economy is booming and business couldn’t be better, many low and mid-income residents claim that for them, the growth is unsustainable. The hour-long television special on Portland also featured a woman who had moved several times in the last decade due to rising housing prices, and was now considering yet another move as her current landlord was demanding an additional hundred dollars per month.

While to some a little bit more money might not be a big deal, to others it means tapping fictitious bank accounts. Gentrification, while often of little concern to those with padded bank accounts or posh jobs, is a real concern for many city residents. As families are forced out of their homes, they must choose new neighborhoods further from transportation routes, good schools, and the very vibrant local culture that claims ability to uplift and empower them and their children. Planning expert Joel Kotkin’s writing captures these concerns quite well in his 2006 article “Urban Legend” (PDF download):

Boutique cities, like a high-end specialty merchandiser, have little use for the general run of the working and middle class, whose needs are assigned to the domain of Target, Wal-Mart and other suburban merchandisers. Indeed, if the makers of the boutique city worry about anything besides themselves, it is usually not the disappearance of this hardworking middle class, but how to deal with the potential threat represented by the alienated underclass, with its potential for lethal mayhem. Many denizens of these environments do not see the city as a place that holds their commitments, but only one locale that, for a period of time or a particular season, seizes their fancy.

Kotkin’s article comes with a bite – especially for anti-suburbia advocates like me. His work suggests that easy answers, “let’s uplift the poor by making cities vibrant places to live” urban renewal is often easier said than done. We need to make fewer global generalizations and focus more upon sustainable local outcomes. Kotkin’s piece suggests that truly refining and renewing America’s cities, or any country’s cities for that matter, in a way that is sustainable involves a long hard look at cities’ populations, and their specific needs and attributes. While one model might work for New York, that same model is not necessarily going to (and probably will not) work for Chicago. Similarly, a push for a trendier, greener, smarter city – the barking chant of today’s planning elites – might not appeal to the urban dweller who is barely feeding his/her children, balancing major credit debt, and managing multiple jobs.

A sustainable approach to urban development will view cities less as economic engines and more as communities, taking into account the interests of all, rather than a select few. It will consider how people, environment, business, and infrastructure all work together to build a comprehensive whole.

Author Wendell Berry captures these tensions and concerns of community in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community“:

A healthy community is like an ecosystem, and it includes – or it makes itself harmoniously a part of – its local ecosystem. It is also like a household; it is the household of its place, and it includes the households of many families, human and nonhuman. And to extend Saint Paul’s famous metaphor by only a little, a healthy community is like a body, for its members mutually support and serve one another.

As Berry suggests, communities only work when people start living for something much greater than themselves.

On my favorite Kentucky poet

From Smithsonian Magazine: 35 Who Made a Difference: Wendell Berry.

As a farmer, he has shunned the use of tractors and plowed his land with a team of horses. As a poet, he has stood apart from the categories and controversies of the literary world, writing in language neither modern nor postmodern, making poems that have the straightforward elegance of the Amish furniture in his farmhouse. And in recent decades, he has produced a body of political thought, in a series of essays and speeches, that is so Jeffersonian it seems almost un-American in today’s world.

Berry argues that small farms and farm communities are as vital to our liberties now as they were in Jefferson’s day. The agribusiness corporations and developers that have all but replaced them, he warns, are eroding our freedom along with our soil. In a recent essay, “Compromise, Hell!” he writes: “We are destroying our country-I mean our country itself, our land….Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.”

The Simple Complex Life

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

I take a lot of walks with my husband and our dog. She’s a rat terrier. Think of a Jack Russell with longer legs and smoother hair and you’ve got it – she’s hyper and she’s a handful. Because I’m almost nine months pregnant, the purpose of our walks are twofold: I get some exercise (which is supposed to “help things along”), and she gets a lot of energy out. She zigs and zags around, sniffing everything and dragging us behind her. She’s only 17 pounds, but I won’t walk her alone anymore for fear she’ll tip me off balance.

Occasionally, we’ll drive her to a nearby park – one that’s adjacent to the art museum and filled with sculptures, ponds, and lots of Canadian geese. She has plenty of room to explore and, of course, chase the birds. Last week, my husband led her down to the edge of the pond and she ran in at full tilt. She splashed around and barked at the geese until she realized she was up to her neck and swimming and the birds had all flown away. As we continued walking along the pond, she kept climbing down to get back into the water. My husband and I found all of this hilarious. After a swimming fiasco a few summers ago, we figured she wasn’t much of a water lover. I guess we were wrong.

As we continued our walk, I found myself thanking God for this life he’s given me. With so much beauty around me, a dog totally in love with life, a husband who I adore, and a baby on the way, I couldn’t help myself but give thanks. I know this sounds idyllic, but it was an idyllic moment, one where I was struck with how satisfying a simple life can be. I covet these moments. I savor them.

It seems that most people my age are so busy. They’re “out there” living life, spending money, and building experience. And I’ve been doing it, too. I spent the first trimester of this pregnancy working a full-time job and teaching part-time, and it nearly killed me. I look back and ask myself why I felt compelled to do so much, and a large part of my answer is that everyone else was doing it.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

But somewhere in the past few months, I’ve been wanting a simpler life. Part knee-jerk reaction to the recession, part desire to slow down and enjoy life, I’ve been embracing simplicity and living intentionally. My father told me when I was in college that one of the secrets of life is to do less. It’s only been recently that his words have made any sense. Doing less goes hand in hand with living intentionally, making choices about my time that are healthy rather than convenient. I’m learning how to cook from scratch, grow and care for a garden, knit and sew, and generally enjoy being at home. I bake and hang clothes on the clothesline in our yard and eat foods that are in season and, preferably, locally grown. I spent the majority of my teenage years trying to get out of the house in order to establish my identity, only now to have spent the better portion of my twenties in my own home trying to establish my identity.

In an interview in Orion, Wendell Berry said, “Simplicity means that you have brought things to a kind of unity in yourself; you have made certain connections. That is, you have to make a just response to the real complexity of life in this world. People have tried to simplify themselves by severing the connections. That doesn’t work. Severing connections makes complication. These bogus attempts at simplification ignore or despise the real complexity of the world. And ignoring complexity makes complication – in other words, a mess.”

According to Berry, we should be striving for a complex life: that is, real living. It’s simple to eat out or call a plumber when the sink backs up, or throw laundry in the dryer. It’s simple to clutter time with an abundance of activities outside of the home, or worse, with television. What we think of as a simple life is actually quite complex. It involves hard work, planning, and patience. In my attempts to do less, I’ve found that I don’t actually do less, just different activities. I try to pursue what I consider simple pleasures: taking photographs, baking bread, and connecting with friends and neighbors.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

It’s become a philosophy of living, one that is certainly not easy. But it affords me time for reflection and the conscious enjoyment of the sweet and simple moments in life, moments I look forward to as my life goes on. Berry recommends having a plan: “A plan really is useful for signifying to yourself and other people that you like living, that you’re looking forward to living some more, that you have a certain appetite to continue the enterprise. But one’s real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that’s appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don’t do those things, then you build up a debt against the future.”

Whether simple or complex, we need time to face who we really are, time to reflect on what and how we are doing. To me, that is ultimately what a simple life is: one uncluttered enough to give me a clear view of myself.