Last night I went to an author event at the Arlington Public Library for their “Arlington Reads” program. My good friend, the author Carol Howard Merritt, got there early enough to actually get us seats, which was no small thing. Yep, writers listening to a writer: good times!
Wendell Berry is a poet, essayist, fiction writer, and farmer. I love his poem “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” A few lines in case you haven’t discovered this one:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
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. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Last night’s event was an interview. The first question asked him about his “progress as a writer” to which he responded:
I am an oddity, I chose to be an oddity, my vocation is to be an oddity. . . . I grew up in one place, a place I can’t remember not knowing. . . . The educational system is a feedlot to prepare you for export. . . . Part of my progress as a writer is accepting that I am odd. . . I will always have the subject I was born to . . . an act which required defiance.
Each of those phrases spoke to me and I jotted them down. I want to hang onto the word oddity because it is a helpful thing to embrace own’s particularities, and never an easy thing.
I also understand Wendell Berry’s sense of place, perhaps because I spent six years living in a rural area where the people I pastored had a powerful sense of connection to their land. I have never had that myself. I have lived in many places. In fact, I am the kind of person he is contrasting himself against, someone without roots in place. But yes, a writer must have a powerful sense of place or their work will blow away.
I also want to hang onto the sense that a writer is born to a subject, and must stamp that as their own. However, hanging onto that subject requires defiance, absolutely. If I were to exegete Berry’s words, I would comment on the tone behind them, a tone I would label?tenacity. Defiance or tenacity because they imply the wind that whips against them. And certainly there are forces within oneself (the inner struggle, Is my voice important?), and outside oneself (the cultural norm, How will I make a living?) that make it difficult to hang onto the subject which is our birthright.
I feel like I am discerning the subject I was born to, and I am past fifty. Oh well, we can’t all be early learners.
What subject were you born to?