Posts Tagged ‘Stories’
A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk.
He barked, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience.
“Teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at the mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain,
“Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you about anything. You’re dumb. You’re dirty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.”
The samurai got furious. He shook, red in the face, speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword, and prepared to slay the monk.
Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the monk said softly,
The samurai froze, realizing the compassion of the monk who had risked his life to show him hell! He put down his sword and fell to his knees, filled with gratitude.
The monk said softly,
“And that’s heaven.”
~ from the book “Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values”
I was wrong.
One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”
It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.
And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.
But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
In early 2012 I was 26 years old and burnt out. I wanted a break from modern life — the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.
I thought the internet might be an unnatural state for us humans, or at least for me. Maybe I was too ADD to handle it, or too impulsive to restrain my usage. I’d used the internet constantly since I was twelve, and as my livelihood since I was fourteen. I’d gone from paperboy, to web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. “Real life,” perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.
My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.
My goal would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years
But for some reason, The Verge wanted to pay me to leave the internet. I could stay in New York and share my findings with the world, beam missives about my internet-free life to the citizens of the internet I’d left behind, sprinkle wisdom on them from my high tower.
My goal, as a technology writer, would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it “at a distance.” I wouldn’t just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.
At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.
A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York’s Citi Field to learn from the world’s most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into “click vegetables.”
My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to “stop and smell the flowers.”
This was going to be amazing.
I dreamed a dream
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed. In one session, my therapist literally patted himself on the back.
I was a little bored, a little lonely, but I found it a wonderful change of pace. I wrote in August, “It’s the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others.” I was pretty sure I had it all figured out, and told everyone as much.
As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.
I learned to appreciate an idea that can’t be summed up in a blog post, but instead needs a novel-length exposition. By pulling away from the echo chamber of internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it.
Without the retreat of a smartphone, I was forced to come out of my shell in difficult social situations. Without constant distraction, I found I was more aware of others in the moment. I couldn’t have all my interactions on Twitter anymore; I had to find them in real life. My sister, who has dealt with the frustration of trying to talk to me while I’m half listening, half computing for her entire life, loves the way I talk to her now. She says I’m less detached emotionally, more concerned with her well-being — less of a jerk, basically.
Additionally, and I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but I cried during Les Miserables.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
Back to reality
When I left the internet I expected my journal entries to be something like, “I used a paper map today and it was hilarious!” or “Paper books? What are these!?” or “Does anyone have an offline copy of Wikipedia I can borrow?” That didn’t happen.
For the most part, the practical aspects of this year passed by with little notice. I have no trouble navigating New York by feel, and I buy paper maps to get around other places. It turns out paper books are really great. I don’t comparison shop to buy plane tickets, I just call Delta and take what they offer.
In fact, most things I was learning could be realized with or without an internet connection — you don’t need to go on a yearlong internet fast to realize your sister has feelings.
But one big change was snail mail. I got a PO Box this year, and I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to see the box stuffed with letters from readers. It’s something tangible, and something hard to simulate with an e-card.
In neatly spaced, precisely adorable lettering, one girl wrote on a physical piece of paper: “Thank you for leaving the internet.” Not as an insult, but as a compliment. That letter meant the world to me.
But then I felt bad, because I never wrote back.
And then, for some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work. I began to dread the letters and almost resent them.
As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did.
By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.
A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.
People who need people
So the moral choices aren’t very different without the internet. The practical things like maps and offline shopping aren’t hard to get used to. People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it’s certainly harder to find people. It’s harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It’s easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone’s house. Not that these obstacles can’t be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn’t last.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.
I would stay at home for days at a time. My phone would die, and nobody could get ahold of me. At some point my parents would get fed up with wondering if I was alive, and send my sister over to my apartment to check on me. On the internet it was easy to assure people I was alive and sane, easy to collaborate with my coworkers, easy to be a relevant part of society.
So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a “Facebook friend,” but I can tell you that a “Facebook friend” is better than nothing.
My best long-distance friend, one I’d talked to weekly on the phone for years, moved to China this year and I haven’t spoken to him since. My best New York friend simply faded into his work, as I failed to keep up my end of our social plans.
I fell out of sync with the flow of life.
there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality
This March I went to, ironically, a conference in New York called “Theorizing the Web.” It was full of post-grad types presenting complicated papers about the definition of reality and what feminism looks like in a post-digital age, and things like that. At first I was a little smug, because I felt like they were dealing with mere theories, theories that assumed the internet was in everything, while I myself was experiencing a life apart.
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist who helped organize the conference. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: “Will I tweet about this when I get back?”
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.
A couple weeks ago I was in Colorado to see my brother before he deployed to Qatar with the Air Force. He has a new baby, a five-month-old chubster named Kacia, who I’d only seen in photos mercifully snail mailed by my sister-in-law.
I got to spend one day with my brother, and the next morning I went with him to the airport. I watched dumbfounded as he kissed his wife and kids goodbye. It didn’t seem fair that he should have to go. He’s a hero to these kids, and I hated for them to lose him for six months.
My coworkers Jordan and Stephen met me in Colorado to embark on a road trip back to New York. The idea was to wrap up my year with a little documentary, and spend the hours in the car coming to terms with what had just happened and what might come next.
I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline
Before we left, I spent a little more time with the kids, doing my best to be a help to my sister-in-law, doing my best to be a super uncle. And then we had to go.
On the road, Jordan and Stephen asked me questions about myself. “Do you think you’re too hard on yourself?” Yes. “Was this year successful?” No. “What do you want to do when you get back on the internet?” I want to do things for other people.
We stopped in Huntington, West Virginia to meet a hero of mine, Polygon‘s Justin McElroy. I met with Nathan Jurgenson in Washington DC. I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline. I asked for tips.
What I do know is that I can’t blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I’ll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won’t, to be honest. But at least I’ll know that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who’s responsible, and who can fix it.
Late Tuesday night, the last night of the trip, we stopped across the river from NY to get “the shot” from New Jersey of the Manhattan skyline. It was a cold, clear night, and I leaned against the rickety riverside railing and tried to strike a casual pose for the camera. I was so close to New York, so close to being done. I longed for the comfortable solitude of my apartment, and yet dreaded the return to isolation.
In two weeks I’d be back on the internet. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was giving up once again. But I knew the internet was where I belonged.
12:00AM, May 1st, 2013
I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other
My last afternoon in Colorado I sat down with my 5-year-old niece, Keziah, and tried to explain to her what the internet is. She’d never heard of “the internet,” but she’s huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she’d wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.
“I thought it was because you didn’t want to,” she said.
With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.
“I spent a year without using any internet,” I told her. “But now I’m coming back and I can Skype with you again.”
When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.
But at least I’ll be connected.
~ Paul Miller
The following is an excerpt from Laura Bates’s Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard. Bates taught Shakespeare to solitary confinement prison inmates. She befriends a convicted murderer named Larry. The following is the story of their budding friendship:
“Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!”
What professor wouldn’t like to hear a student enthuse so much over a Shakespeare play—a Shakespeare history play, no less!—and then to be able to flip the two-thousand page Complete Works book open and find the quote immediately:
“’When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound!’”
He smacks the book as he finishes reading. Meanwhile, I’m still scrambling to find the quote somewhere in
“Act uh . . . ?”
“Act five, scene four,” my student informs me, again smacking the page with his enthusiastic fist. “Oh, man, that is crazy!”
Yes, this is crazy: I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement. We met in 2003 when I created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit and spent three years working together in that unit. Now we have received unprecedented permission to work together, alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Larry Newton is gesticulating so animatedly that it draws the attention of an officer walking by our little classroom. He pops his head inside.
“Everything okay in here?” he asks.
“Just reading Shakespeare,” I reply.
He shakes his head and walks on.
“That is crazy!” Newton repeats, his head still in the book.
A record ten and a half consecutive years in solitary confinement, and he’s not crazy, he’s not dangerous—he’s reading Shakespeare.
* * *
I started doing volunteer work in Chicago’s Cook County Jail because of an argument with my husband’s friend, a theatre practitioner working in maximum-security prisons. “Those guys are beyond rehabilitation,” I insisted. “You should focus on first-time offenders.” And, to test out my own hypothesis, that’s what I did. At the time I could not have imagined that eventually I would be working in supermax—that is, the long-term solitary confinement unit, the prison within the prison.In the twenty years I had spent working as a volunteer and as an instructor in prisons in Chicago and Indiana, I had never met an inmate who scared me. Until Larry Newton. The day we met, I was going cell to cell in the solitary confinement unit looking for prisoners interested in reading Shakespeare. Eventually, I would have as many as fifty prisoners on my waiting list, nearly one out of every four housed in the unit. At the beginning, I would have been happy to find at least one. But when I looked at Newton through the pegboard steel door of his cell, I crossed his name off of my list, thinking, “I can’t work with this one.”
So what was I doing one week later, fighting for special permission to get one of the most allegedly dangerous prisoners in the state’s supermax unit into my Shakespeare program? It wasn’t something in me; it was something in Newton. And it was obvious from the start. Not the first time he looked at me, or the first time he spoke to me, but the first time he wrote for me. It was in response to the initial Shakespeare assignment that I distributed to segregated prisoners as a way of screening prospective participants: a soliloquy from the last act of Shakespeare’s history play,
Spoken by the overthrown king who is now imprisoned, the speech begins: “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world. And, for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” Along with the speech, I attached a blank sheet of paper with one question:
While most prisoners scribbled a brief response, Newton submitted a full page, both sides, with incongruous smiley faces punctuating every other sentence:
That comment alone earned him a place in the program. Awareness of multiplicity of interpretation is the key to reading Shakespeare. Not bad for a fifth-grade drop-out.
And his conclusion captured the deeper philosophical lesson about the meaning of life in Richard’s speech:
Wow. That was the most thoughtful response I had ever gotten to an initial Shakespeare assignment—in prison, or on campus. And Newton didn’t even know who Shakespeare was.
* * *
Whenever a participant left the program, I distributed a little survey in which I asked, “What has Shakespeare done for you?”“It helped me to expand my mind,” Green had written.
“It introduced me to a whole new world,” Jones had written.
“It got me out of my cell,” Guido had written.
After I watched Newton disappear down the hallway, I took the folded paper out of my pocket. It was the survey. What has Shakespeare done for you? He had written, “Shakespeare saved my life.”
My research confirmed that the program did have an effect: lessening the likelihood of violent incidents in a population with extensive histories of violence. I studied the conduct records of twenty of the most long-standing and active participants in the program and found that their combined conduct history accounted for more than 600 violent or Class A offenses, including weapons charges and assaults, in their “B.S.” (Before Shakespeare) years. During their time in the program, there were only two charges total: none of them were violent or Class A. In fact, of the hundreds of prisoners who have been in the program—some for months, some for years—not one violent offense was committed.
When Larry was out of segregation, and we were able to have normal conversations sitting side by side, without a steel door between us, I wanted to ask him to elaborate on what he had written in that survey he had handed me when he left the SHU.
“What did you mean,” I asked him, “when you said that Shakespeare saved your life?”
“I meant it both ways: literally and figuratively,” he told me. “Literally, Shakespeare saved my life. For so many years I had been really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day. I’m confident that I would’ve done something drastic and ended up on Death Row. Or I would’ve one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.”
It sounded like he was talking about suicide, but I couldn’t believe it—didn’t want to believe it.
“And I meant it figuratively,” he continued. “Shakespeare offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays. I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn’t want to do just by attacking his ego: ‘What, are you soft? Ain’t you man enough to do it?’ As a consequence of that, I had to ask myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realization that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own.
“And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery. I’m of the opinion that we are the source of our misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.”
Newton was the only prisoner I’ve ever met who was convicted as a juvenile and is serving life without parole. Through his work in the Shakespeare program, in college, in other prison programs and job assignments, as well as in his acceptance of responsibility in his crime, Larry consistently demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation for nearly ten years. But every request for the right to appeal his sentence was denied.
No matter what he does, he will never leave prison.
~ Laura Bates
Wendell Berry may not quite be a household name. But I, for one, mention his name on a regular basis in my house, while traveling around the country, and when talking with neighborhood friends about produce, local happenings, or politics.
Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer, and preservationist from Kentucky. He splits his time between three quiet activities: 1) writing fiction, poetry, and essays, putting pen to paper (quite literally) in a tiny hut on the Kentucky river; 2) working his farm; and 3) engaging in non-violent civil disobedience supporting various humanitarian or agrarian causes. He has spoken out in his 76 years against wars, corporate corruption, nuclear power plants, the death penalty and abortion, coal mining practices, mountain top removal, and other issues of land and life. Although he doesn’t fit squarely into any one political category, just last month, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities medal. Berry is a truth-teller of the storytelling variety, an everyday man with the character of a great king, and he has profoundly stirred up my own spirit to be brave, careful, and rebellious in ways that seem rather contrary to the norm. He reminds me of the Lorax, somewhere in the middle of Dr. Suess’s children’s story, just before all the Truffula trees are gone, balancing there on a stump pleading for the Barbaloots and the Hummingfish.
Over the years, I have started several unfinished thank you letters to him in my head, or scribbled them on the pages of a journal or in the margins of his books. I’ve had a growing sense that I somehow needed to communicate to him how much his work has shaped and enlightened me. So last fall I took out some construction paper and a pen and finally made it happen. It went something like this:
Dear Mr. Berry,
I have begun this letter so many times over the years. Why is it that the most significant things we do are often the things left undone? I should have written it years ago, but here it is now . . . Your writing enables me to crave and long for the country while I live in the city. It urges me to slow down when the pace around me is whirring. And it hushes my spirit when my world is full of noise. I wanted you to know that I am one of many who has been profoundly affected by your mentoring. God speaks through your narratives. His beauty is in your poetry, your disruptive encouragement, and your written voice. May God cause your work and art to take deep root, springing up new beauties in my heart, in the hearts of my children, and in the hearts of many others.
I also told him that his writing made me wish I’d been born in a small town circa 1950, learning the ways of survival from the land and from dependence on neighbors. Though the particulars are not the same, even now while I decidedly raise my family in the city of East Nashville, Berry’s principles of interdependence and sustainability are my daily teachers. My husband and I, both singers and songwriters by trade, think of our careers and our family life as though they were a small farm. We don’t produce heirloom tomatoes, but we aim to produce melodies that go out into culture like agents of nourishment. We teach our children about the craft and economy of self-employment as we write, record, and tour. And we have much yet to learn.
The exercise of writing my letter to Wendell Berry was, after my procrastination, a very gratifying experience. Just knowing that my official “thank you” was sealed, stamped, and on its way to Port William — I mean, Port Royal — gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction and joy. This would have been enough, but then a few months later, he wrote me a reply. I read his words of appreciation on a simple note, typed on simple stationery. I was thrilled.
Around that same time, just one mile north of my house, my friend Alice had also been writing letters to Berry. She had also had a steady diet of his poetry and writings for the past few years, and she, with another mutual friend Flo, was now plotting a visit on our behalf to celebrate the birth of our friend Katy’s first baby. She thoughtfully planned the meeting as the perfect occasion for the baby’s first road trip and our shared joy as four friends. Although we have been friends for years, we rarely get this kind of uninterrupted time together. Having confirmed our visit by letter, Alice, Katy, Flo, and I loaded up in one car together on a chilly March morning for a trip to Kentucky — books, hopes, a basket of homemade things, and one celebrated baby girl in tow.
On the drive, we read excerpts of our favorite Wendell Berry books out loud to each other and chatted about what we most wanted to ask him. Of course, our journey wouldn’t have been complete without a healthy dose of girl-talk — inevitable on a road trip without husbands. Before long, we rolled into a sleepy Port Royal that Sunday afternoon. Although it was on the map, we couldn’t believe it was actually a real place. Port Royal is a patchwork strip of storefronts, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of spot made up of a local bank, a post office, a general store with a built-in diner (with little printed signs about their town’s famous author, Wendell Berry), and an old Baptist church. I am sad to report that, like most small towns in our country, Port Royal looks as though it is dying.
We then passed through the town and down a short way toward the river. We found our way to Wendell and Tanya’s address by narrative instinct. Not knowing the house number, we found their home based on his writings, our observations, and reports from friends who had made this same pilgrimage. The solar panels out in the field, the sheep, the tiny writing hut on the river, and the sloped property like the one where his famous character, Jayber Crow, lived. Even the border collie who ran out to greet us reminded me of the one in his novel Hannah Coulter. As our wheels turned over the gravel driveway, we looked up at a modest, white farmhouse set right on the hill, and we knew it was Lanes Landing Farm. I expected Disney music to burst out with glorious, warbled violins over our heads.
Tanya Berry opened the door and, without any fanfare, welcomed us into the house. We, four girls and one baby, crowded into the entryway. Wendell and Tanya both wore their church clothes. Wendell stood slightly behind the door, wearing a three-piece tweed suit. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the light. He was taller than I expected, and he shook my hand as I came in; I, in turn, introduced myself. The overhead lights and lamps were off. The room was lit only by natural light from the windows, which seemed just enough at first, and more than plenty once you got used to it. I was surprised at how nervous I suddenly felt, wondering what to say upon first meeting someone you feel like you know but have never actually met.
Their home was beautiful in an ordinary way, with well-used furniture and tasteful modern-folk artwork adorning the mantle and walls. At one point later in our conversation, we learned that they have the same electric stove and washer they purchased in 1965. There were wood-burning stoves in each main room, producing steady warmth. The main wall in the living room was covered entirely with neat rows of books. After our introductions, we circled up to find seats around the stove and stumbled rather clumsily into conversation. Wendell didn’t seem to enjoy being the attention of our admiration but was gracious as we began to establish some common ground of conversation.
Wendell is witty and well-spoken. I have rarely experienced such rich, wide-ranging discourse within such a short time of meeting someone. He and Tanya seemed to dig in more as we shared our experience of living life together (literally within a mile or two of each other) in the city. Katy talked about her front yard garden and how the neighborhood kids thought she was magic because she could pull up carrots from dirt. We also discussed our hopes for our children’s futures and the challenges of public education where we live. Wendell and Tanya have both spent time educating their now-grown children and grandchildren, and Wendell said, “You can’t think up a future for your grandchildren. You can’t even think up a future for yourself. You’re gonna be surprised.” Somehow this comment both sobered and heartened me in the same breath.
There were many more moments like this as we talked; I couldn’t begin to convey them in one sitting. But Wendell is very quotable — he just seemed to toss out pearls of wisdom left and right. The overriding theme we discussed was neighborliness. You might not always like your neighbor, but being able to depend on one another instead of a government or corporation gives you genuine independence. Tanya chimed in with vigor, “Trade instead of buy whenever you can.” As we talked, you could see that they were of one mind in having true, good, change-making conversations about depending on community rather than corporations. “Serve your place, and allow your place to serve you.”
We talked further about the dangers of religion, the business of war, and how words like “public education,” “environment,” and “free market” have been hollowed out. We talked about the death of small towns in America, the importance of local banks, and the value of decent pleasure and joy in the midst of some potentially depressing times.
During every minute of our conversation, the Berrys were committed to saying exactly what they meant, leaving nothing to chance or nebulous romanticism. Wendell is both an idealist and pragmatist in his writing, and he is very much this way in person. At one moment he would surprise us with a gentle reprimand of our casual use of the word “love,” commenting “Love is not a feeling, it’s a recipe. None of it gets interesting until it gets down to practicality.” But the next moment he would persuade us with the warmth of a benevolent teacher, reminding us of the importance of tangibility. In this increasingly connected and virtual world, he reminded us, “If it’s baby versus internet, you’re never gonna smile that way over the internet.”
One of my favorite moments was when Wendell said that he is a member of two organizations: 1) The Slow Communication Movement and 2) The Preservation of Tangibility. He noted that anyone can join these and added with a grin, “Actually, I think I founded them.”
At one point in our conversation, I had the opportunity to tell Wendell how much his phrase “the joy of sales resistance” has meant to me over the years. How this phrase has shaped my habits of buying and selling and made me more aware of what it feels like to be “bought and sold” by the pressures of consumerism. Berry said, “I try not to obey … to buy what I don’t need.” Singer-songwriter Joe Pug says it this way in his song “Hymn #101”:
The more I buy, the more I’m bought. And the more I’m bought, the less I cost.
I realized at one point while thanking Berry for his insight that I was nearly quoting the lyrics to one of my own songs, quite by accident (how embarrassing). But then again, in my song, I was only paraphrasing him. It was a funny moment in my head of how art makes circles around us and within us, taking us to new places of discovery and then bringing us back where we started.
I took copious notes while we sat on that well-loved sofa in their living room. As I am not well-versed in journalism, and it felt silly at the time, I will treasure that little field notebook for years to come. After our visit, the Berrys were heading to a family birthday celebration and Wendell had to go out to bring in the sheep for the evening. He pulled a “Fred Rogers,” swapping his dress shoes for Wellingtons and pulling his coveralls over his dress clothes, charmingly teasing us about having waited to take a picture until he was dressed for chores.
As we drove home that evening across the Kentucky and Tennessee countrysides, we discussed the implications of Wendell’s ideas on our daily lives. The connection between four friends living just a mile or two away from each other is actually the most significant thing he could give us in his life work. He had already given us the seed of “neighborliness” by way of his writings. Indeed, good things have taken root in our front and backyard city vegetable gardens, our children’s educations, our concern about the health of the Cumberland River, and our concern over the flourishing of Tennessee farms.
Somewhere on Highway 65, it occurred to me that ideas are only seeds until they find places to take root. It is in community that ideas become reality — fruit-bearing trees and shelter-giving plants. Our two hours with Wendell Berry himself would not have mattered were his words and writings not woven into each of us as we live life together. By reading his writings on our drive and sharing how his words have intersected with our own narratives, something full-circle happened.
This is my great hope and belief about art: it is culture-making. Do with it what you will. Poetry can change people. Story can change the world. Global good starts as tiny as a Truffula seed. And if the sun and the bees and the rain and the birds give us their graces, we could have ourselves a harvest of renewal by summer’s end.
~ Sandra McCracken
“All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you come home” — Aretha Franklin
I was raised by “the help.” I don’t mean that “the help” served me in my parents’ mansion. No, my parents were “the help” in white households — my mother a domestic servant and my father a handyman. While their employment was not necessarily the most desirable, domestic workers of their generation practiced in their lives what they had learned from those who professed a more genteel upbringing.
My parents were in their prime during the years of the Great Depression. They both worked in “some of the finest white homes” of their community. They earned a paltry $4.50 per week. Still, they were blessed to have any job as millions went unemployed in ways that even today’s economic climate can’t begin to mirror. During it all, those two people thought it important to teach their children basic manners and respect.
Our home was small in comparison to today’s dwellings but it was paid for and proudly ours. Mom and Dad had paid Mrs. Watters, the previous owner, on a weekly basis so that we kids would have a roof over our heads. Dad contributed his weekly 50 cents by walking to work rather than taking the trolley — even during the heavy snows of winter. Times were hard, the country was in disarray, but the Grays had a roof over their heads, food on the table and hope for a better future.
Much of that hope was invested in their children and in the future our folks prayed would result from their own sacrifices and continued efforts. Part of that hoped-for future could be seen in the ritual which unfolded when visitors were expected. We kids would be scrubbed clean, dressed neatly, and expected to wait behind the swinging kitchen door as the guests settled in the living room which adjoined the dining area. At some point after the guests had arrived, either they or our parents would bring up the topic of “the children.” Then my mother would call out, “Children!” and we would enter the room, with a bow from the boy (me) and a curtsy from the girl (my sister). We quietly took our seats with our backs straight, feet firmly on the floor, and with hands properly positioned on our laps. We spoke only when spoken to and responded with the expected “Sir” or “Ma’am.”
Ours was a world of respect — respect for our parents, neighbors, anyone older, but — more than anything — respect for ourselves. These weren’t the affectations of “the help” trying to copy the masters; it went much deeper than that. It went to a true appreciation of human life, regardless of wealth or station.
Some years ago I journeyed to Oklahoma to attend the funeral of a young cousin. He had lived in Pennsylvania while his mother lived in Southern California, but he had chosen to endure his watch for resurrection morning among other family members in the little cemetery in Wybark, Oklahoma. That community wasn’t much more than a dozen homes stretched over the length of a couple of football fields, just five mile from Muskogee, Oklahoma — the closest “big” city.
It was during the drive from the mortuary in Muskogee to the Wybark cemetery that I was reminded of those kinder days, those periods of human respect that appear to have left us now. As the funeral procession moved along the way, motorists on our side of the divided four-lane highway stopped, exited their vehicles and stood in respect for the departed. But the crowning deference came when cars going in the opposite direction of that divided highway also stopped to give honor to the deceased. No one was aware of whose remains were carried in that hearse, be they white or black, rich or poor, male or female. It was simply understood that a child whom God respected by giving them breath had flown home.
I miss those gentler times.
May we all be blessed.
~ Darius A. Gray
I CAME to Africa with one purpose: I wanted to see the world outside the perspective of European egocentricity. I could have chosen Asia or South America. I ended up in Africa because the plane ticket there was cheapest.
I came and I stayed. For nearly 25 years I’ve lived off and on in Mozambique. Time has passed, and I’m no longer young; in fact, I’m approaching old age. But my motive for living this straddled existence, with one foot in African sand and the other in European snow, in the melancholy region of Norrland in Sweden where I grew up, has to do with wanting to see clearly, to understand.
The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.
In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. From my own experience, I’ve noticed how much faster I have to answer a question during a TV interview than I did 10, maybe even 5, years ago. It’s as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at a loss for an answer.
I’m old enough to remember when South American literature emerged in popular consciousness and changed forever our view of the human condition and what it means to be human. Now, I think it’s Africa’s turn.
Everywhere, people on the African continent write and tell stories. Soon, African literature seems likely to burst onto the world scene — much as South American literature did some years ago when Gabriel García Márquez and others led a tumultuous and highly emotional revolt against ingrained truth. Soon an African literary outpouring will offer a new perspective on the human condition. The Mozambican author Mia Couto has, for example, created an African magic realism that mixes written language with the great oral traditions of Africa.
If we are capable of listening, we’re going to discover that many African narratives have completely different structures than we’re used to. I over-simplify, of course. Yet everybody knows that there is truth in what I’m saying: Western literature is normally linear; it proceeds from beginning to end without major digressions in space or time.
That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example.
The nomads who still inhabit the Kalahari Desert are said to tell one another stories on their daylong wanderings, during which they search for edible roots and animals to hunt. Often they have more than one story going at the same time. Sometimes they have three or four stories running in parallel. But before they return to the spot where they will spend the night, they manage either to intertwine the stories or split them apart for good, giving each its own ending.
A number of years ago I sat down on a stone bench outside the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique, where I work as an artistic consultant. It was a hot day, and we were taking a break from rehearsals so we fled outside, hoping that a cool breeze would drift past. The theater’s air-conditioning system had long since stopped functioning. It must have been over 100 degrees inside while we were working.
Two old African men were sitting on that bench, but there was room for me, too. In Africa people share more than just water in a brotherly or sisterly fashion. Even when it comes to shade, people are generous.
I heard the two men talking about a third old man who had recently died. One of them said, “I was visiting him at his home. He started to tell me an amazing story about something that had happened to him when he was young. But it was a long story. Night came, and we decided that I should come back the next day to hear the rest. But when I arrived, he was dead.”
The man fell silent. I decided not to leave that bench until I heard how the other man would respond to what he’d heard. I had an instinctive feeling that it would prove to be important.
Finally he, too, spoke.
“That’s not a good way to die — before you’ve told the end of your story.”
It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.
Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.
So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue.
Many words will be written on the wind and the sand, or end up in some obscure digital vault. But the storytelling will go on until the last human being stops listening. Then we can send the great chronicle of humanity out into the endless universe.
Who knows? Maybe someone is out there, willing to listen …
~ Henning Mankell