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Posts Tagged ‘Wendell Berry

Best Case: Stable Health + Quick Decline + Death

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Reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal”


Another happy illustration from Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.”

Mr. Gawande is a surgeon and medical professor and writer for The New Yorker. His recent Being Mortal is a long conversation about how humans face death. Or, more to the point, how medicine and our own optimism interact to keep us from planning for this known, finite end.

This is not something you think about at 18 or 28. But it is a wedge topic that soon starts to butt into life. At some point you notice aging people appearing all around you. And then you do the math and start to think you may be aging as well—though we’re all hard pressed to say where the time has gone. Like a favorite, recently-passed in-law said not so long ago, “In my mind, I’m still 18.” No one agrees to aging and few self-select as “old.”

Still, there is this inevitable endpoint.

Mr. Gawande’s book does the reader a favor by naming the moving parts of this process. That is, the slower and slower moving parts. From the shrinkage of the brain to why it is that older people seem to choke more to the insult of not driving to the big fear of dementia. One of my favorite characters in the book is the groundbreaking geriatric physician/researcher who was active until he, well, became old. And then, in a clear-eyed fashion, detailed his decline, his motivations with caring for his wife of 70 years who became blind then deaf, and then broke her ankles. It’s a happy/sad love story of a couple who were active into their 90s.

VerySad-2-06302015As a believer in the God who resurrects, I do not think of death as final. But as aging continues (which I don’t feel but suppose is acting on me even now), my reading of the gospels and prophets and psalms finds me looking for clues that point beyond what medicine says and beyond what my own senses say. I find a good bit of hope in what I read.

Wendell Berry explored this topic with extraordinary care. His The Memory of Old Jack is a solid antidote to our collective denial.


Image credit: Atul Gawande, Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

June 30, 2015 at 9:09 am

For Some, The Past is Still Present

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One Wall in North America’s Only Walled City



This art wall reminds me of Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 23, 2015 at 9:22 am

Wendell Berry Wrote Death Right

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The Memory of Old Jack: Is it passion or habit that overtakes us at the end?

Now he feels ahead of him a quietness that he hastens toward. It seems to him that if he does not hasten, his weight will bear him down before he gets there. He reaches the door of his room and opens it….


He goes slowly across the room to his chair, an old high-backed wooden rocker that sits squarely facing the window. This is his outpost, his lookout. Here he has sat in the dark of the early mornings, waiting for light, and again in the long evenings of midsummer, waiting for darkness. He backs up to the chair, leans, takes hold of the arms, and lets himself slowly down onto the seat. “Ah!” He leans back, letting his shoulders and then his head come to rest.

For some time he sits there, getting his breath, grateful to be still after his effort. And then he rises up in his mind as he was when he was strong. He is walking down from the top of his ridge toward a gate in the rock fence. It is the twilight of a day in the height of summer. The day has been hot and long and hard, and he is tired; his shirt and the band of his hat are still wet with sweat….

He does not know why he is there, or where he is going, but he does not question; it is right. Under the slowly darkening sky the countryside has begun to expand into that sense of surrounding distance that it has only at night….

Slowly the glow fades from the valley, the sky darkens, the stars appear, and at last the world is so dark that he can no longer see his legs stretched out in front of him on the ground or his hands lying in his lap; he has come to be vision alone, and the sky over him is filled and glittering with stars. Now he is aware of his fields, the richness of growth in them, their careful patterns and boundaries. In the dark they drowse around him, intimate and expectant.

And now, even among them, he feels his mind coming to rest. A cool breath of air drifts down up on him out of the woods, and he hears a stirring of leaves. He no longer sees the stars. His fields drowse and stir like sleepers, borne toward morning.

Now they break free of his demanding and his praise. He feels them loosen from him and go on.

(Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack, excerpted from Chapter 9)

This is the only way Jack’s story could end. Though, of course, this is not where Jack’s story ends. Pick any story by Wendell Berry and you’ll find the dead very much alive in the memory of the living—just like in real life.

The Memory of Old Jack is another immersive reading experience from Wendell Berry. I’ve never been to Port William (no one has, as far as I understand fiction), but I feel like I grew up not far from there. Mr. Berry presents a way of life that lies just on memory’s periphery for many of us—toward the far end of what we once knew. For others, there will be no memory of such a way of life. It will seem like pure fiction.

One wonders whether memory does not come flooding back in just this way, more real than our many screens today, until in the end it simply overtakes us. I think something like that was behind Dallas Willard’s comment on death.

I hope someone told him.


Image credit: Mark Peter Drolet

Written by kirkistan

October 16, 2013 at 8:11 am

Work Matters. And Show Beats Tell.

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Tom Nelson Vs. Wendell Berry Vs. Your Work Horizon

tumblr_mgv3pyVpx21qzyxjro1_1280-03222013Not so long ago I heard Tom Nelson speak about his book Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work at a Bethel University event. Reading his book confirmed what I noted after hearing him: that preachers often talk about work from an abstracted viewpoint that collects themes from the Bible for a positivistic spin on what many consider the nasty business of business. I’ve tried to understand this phenomenon and I’ve come to suspect it has to do with the horizon anyone brings to their work: if you work but are really on your way to seminary or some transcendent mission, your horizon is 3-5 years, give or take. But if you work and your work is your life work, you have a different set of questions that are not exactly urgent, but are incredibly important.

Those questions are not easily addressed by a set of principles or a preacherly communication event. It’s not that Nelson’s book is wrong. It presents solid thoughts that are good to remember during one’s workday, though the preachy voice is there, the one that happens when oral delivery lands on a page. This voice puts a light, happy, totally-enjoined and engaged touch on every human encounter—which is not how real-life relationships work. Perhaps that voice more than anything provides makes the topic feel trite. Maybe I tuned out because of that voice.

If you were asking questions about why work matters, you can do no better than to pick up nearly any story or other piece of writing from Wendell Berry. Berry doesn’t just tell why work and faith and life fit together. Berry’s fiction shows people enmeshed in lives of work. Yes: he shows older agrarian communities. But he doesn’t show them in the abstract. He shows people who have a basic dignity—an understood dignity, not given by a preacher or unearthed from long silence. Berry’s characters are often in their work for the long haul, and their work becomes part of their identity. That’s a very long horizon indeed. Through their work they understand that they are doing a thing that brings order to the earth.

In my mind bringing order to chaos is a thing our work can do that is closely related to the stuff God does. Bringing order to chaos is a good way to spend a day.


Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Old Chum

Written by kirkistan

March 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Why Work Matters—And Why Few Pastors Can Understand This

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Here’s a Dancing Boston Traffic Cop Who Digs His Job

Yesterday at a Bethel University “Work Matters Gathering” I heard Tom Nelson speak on why work matters, which also happens to be the title of his new book (Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work). Nelson’s book would seem to invite working people back into the conversation about how faith fits with everyday life. Several things I appreciated about the talk (I’ve not yet read the book, but it is on order) include the theological and historical underpinnings he identified. In particular: the central role of work in the Genesis creation story, the recognition that work is bigger than just getting paid—it has to do with how we contribute to the world, and that at several points in faith history we’ve had a far richer understanding (and praxis) of work than we do here and now in the US of A.

I was also pleased he cited Wendell Berry a good half-dozen times.

There’s much more to say about all that.

But one thing I wonder about: Mr. Nelson discovered that all of the people in his congregation actually spent most of their time at work, not at church. People who work—which is most of us—have known this for forever. People who work and have faith have largely been on their own to sort out how to build meaning into their lives of work and faith.

Pastors are just starting to realize it. I doubt many will realize it in any meaningful way. Here’s why: to equip people for works of service out in the world is to simultaneously detract from building the organization we commonly picture as a successful not-for-profit church. I honestly don’t mean this in a mean-spirited way: it’s just that the religious staff is incented to pull people in, not send them out as thoughtful ambassadors (that is, not just parroting religious words and proselytizing with pat answers but deeply engaged in transformational work).

Personally, I think there is a connection between people who love what they do and the creating/redeeming stuff God wants to accomplish in the world. And I’m starting to think people who love what they do can be far more potent than a year’s worth of sermons delivered to roomfuls of devotees. Not they these are mutually exclusive, though my experience is they typically are.

By the way: is the dancing traffic cop a kind of pastor in his own circular pulpit?


Image credit: thebostonglobe

Written by kirkistan

March 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

Our Dream of Liberation from Every Restraint

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Increasingly over the last maybe forty years, the thought has come to me that the old world in which our people lived by the work of their hands, close to weather and earth, plants and animals, was the true world; and that the new world of cheap energy and ever cheaper money honored greed, and dreams of liberation from every restraint, is mostly theater. This new world seems a jumble of scenery and props never quite believable, an economy of fantasies and moods, in which it is hard to remember either the timely world of nature or the eternal world of the prophets and poets. And I fear, I believe I know, that the doom of the older world I knew as a boy will finally afflict the new one that replaced it.

The world I knew as a boy was flawed, surely, but it was substantial and authentic. The households of my grandparents seemed to breathe forth a sense of the real costs and worth of things. Whatever came, came by somebody’s work.

 From Andy Catlett, by Wendell Berry, Part III, (p. 93)

Written by kirkistan

January 27, 2013 at 4:32 pm

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Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow: Christ Came to Found an Unorganized Religion

leave a comment »,r:3,s:0,i:134&tx=97&ty=51I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.

Well, you can read and see what you think.

(Jayber Crow, Chapter 29)


Written by kirkistan

January 13, 2013 at 5:00 am

Peace for the Promiscuous Reader

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Coming to grips with one’s naughty habits

PilesOfBooks-12202012By my favorite, well-lit chair are stacks of books. Actually five stacks. Why stacks of books? It’s a quirk of borrowing—one library allows me three weeks (six when I renew, which I usually do). Another library allows me three months or so (an amazing primary joy of teaching at a college, for which I am daily thankful).

In the past I’ve felt guilty for all these books lying around partially read. But yesterday I realized, “No, this might be what my reading life looks like. Maybe reform is not possible.” (Maybe reform is not needed?)

I currently adhere to the discipline of reading one book (at a time) straight through, from cover to cover. Right now I’m reading “The Dignity of Difference” by Jonathan Sacks which is an amazing, readable argument for why anyone should care about the outsider. I am completely intrigued by how Sacks pits Moses against Plato in a knock-down, drag out fight on purity vs. practicality. OK, yes, I’m also reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow on the fiction side of the equation.

“Adhere to the discipline” because it is easy to fool myself into thinking I’m reading them all from cover to cover. I’m not. Many are there for research on this notion of the Other (Levinas) and various philosophical/theological tangents arising from an easily distracted mind. Some are there because of something I want to learn about or to try to backfill one of the many holes in my education. But with the cover-to-cover book, I also try to finish at least a chapter at each sitting.

So I read one fiction/non-fiction book from cover to cover as I sample from many. And then I pick the next cover-to-cover book from those I am sampling.

And I’m OK with that.

I’m OK with that because of a tweet from John Wilson (@jwilson1812) about his reading habits. As editor of Books & Culture, I imagine his office and home (Garage? Car? Boat? Scooter?) awash in tidal waves of book stacks. And that makes me feel not so bad.

But, well, judge me if you must.


Written by kirkistan

December 20, 2012 at 9:58 am

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow Predicted Storytelling in the Twitterverse

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Good story always depends on silent remembered chunks

Athey was a storyteller too, as it took me some while to find out, for he never told all of any story at the same time. He told them in odd little bits and pieces, usually in unacknowledged reference to a larger story that he did not tell because (apparently) he assumed you already knew it, and he told the fragment just to remind you of the rest. Sometimes you couldn’t even assume that he assumed you were listening: he might have been telling it to himself. With Athey you were always somewhere in the middle of the story. He would just start talking wherever he started remembering.

           (Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. Beginning of Chapter 21)9781582431604_p0_v1_s260x420-12192012

That’s why Hemingway wrote and then returned to remove as much text as possible to make the story as spare as possible:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

(Hemingway’s self-proclaimed best work)

Our minds need to leap and grasp their way through a narrative to fully engage.


Written by kirkistan

December 19, 2012 at 8:53 am

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