Monday, June 6, 2016

Wendell Berry Messed Me Up

I am a devoted urbanite. I love my house in the city, I love that until our babes started school we were a one car family, I love that I can bike to work, I love the corner market where I can walk away with Canadian bacon and trash bags, I love sitting on our front steps in the summer and waving at neighborhood kids riding 3 to a bike, I love the pubs and restaurants that are within blocks, I even love that I can listen to my next door neighbor's music when both of our doors and windows are closed.

When we bought our house, I appreciated the backyard that was fenced and larger then most you see in the city limits but I didn't describe myself as someone who needs land. I can handle not gazing at the stars at night, it makes them more magical when we occasionally go camping.

From May to November our end of the city has one of the best farmer's markets I have ever been to. Two blocks from my house. I walk the babes up in the double stroller and fill the lower basket with corn and lettuce and tomatoes and cheese and sourdough baguettes and squash and watermelon (I only did that once and next time will bring the car...2 kids and a watermelon in a stroller don't jive with city sidewalks).

I am self aware enough to recognize that roots have never been important to me. I started moving when I was 15 and am not convinced I am finished. I love change and sparkly things and, as Schmidt poetically said "have the focus of a large Italian on a hot day". I am not Italian and I don't know exactly what that means...does heat make Italians distracted? I don't know, and I hope it's not poor form to use that quote. I just love Schmidt. My favorite has to be "I am a phoenix. I need ashes to rise from. Otherwise I'm just a bird getting up".

The point is, I love the city. Living in it, playing in it, raising children in it, going on dates with Grant in it, serving it, supporting it's educational system, and frequenting it's local parks. The city is alive in a way that makes me feel okay anthropomorphizing it. It is another member of our family.

Then I started reading Wendell Berry. It all started with Jayber Crow. The story of a barber who settles in Port William. For those of you not familiar with Wendell Berry, he is the godfather of PLACE. The story of where you came from, knowing yourself best when you are known by those around you, commitment and loyalty to a place not because you chose it but because that it where your story is. Berry's characters are connected and intertwined both to each other and to the land on which they build their lives. The soil and waters of Port William. He writes about leaving and returning, always with the beauty lingering on the returning. His most interesting and developed characters are the homemakers and the farmers. The richness and fulfillment found in simply doing your life. He makes plowing a field sound like poetry. Falling in love and getting married like the cornerstone of all human history. Baking bread with wheat from your own fields like the apex of all human achievement.

And I find myself longing to be Hannah Coulter. A widow of WWII who gives birth to the child of her dead husband and raises her in the community of his family. Who falls in love with the son of a neighbor but wrestles deeply with the reality that she became a daughter to her deceased husband's parents and cannot tell them that she has a desire to marry again. She describes the decision not to meet the gaze of Nathan because she knows what it will tell him if she looks directly into his eyes. What Berry doesn't need to explicitly describe about restraint in longing is more erotic then many romance novels I read in my teens while I was trying to figure out what it would feel like to fall in love. I want Pursy and Knox to read Wendell Berry first before they get some notion about romance.

And how he describes the life of those whose story cannot be told apart from the land they work and the people they share life with. The roots, the history, the beauty of purposefully limiting oneself to what is in front of you and what has already been chosen. The simplicity of PLACE and PERSON.

Wendell Berry has made me ponder deeply what I want for my children. And myself. And Grant and I after Knox and Pursy leave the house. If they choose to...Berry's characters mourn when their children leave home and settle elsewhere. Our culture prefers to give our children wings, but what if we encouraged them to come back home and be our neighbors? To be part of their lives and our grandchildren's lives. To become their friends and their social circle, along with cousins and nieces and uncles. To be unashamed to expect and hope for care when we age. To die with dignity and at peace in the family home.

Where I used to want the freedom to work and learn and live wherever our wheels stopped, that space in my brain is now flirting with homesteading and communal living.

Wendell Berry, you messed me up, sir. I expect I'm not the first.


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