A Wendell Berry Kind of Day

27 Oct

Eiteljorg antelope in ironic frolic against the big blue sky of … the Marriott.

I sally forth into a cool and drizzly Indianapolis, determined as usual to get past the antiseptic convention rooms and campus auditoriums of the academic conference – to connect in some superficial way with the city itself. But even that effort to delve deeper into Indianapolis points me to something bigger than Indianapolis. I wind up at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, filled with the art and crafts of the American West. Hours later, I return to my 11th floor hotel room with my head full of the vastness of the American West, the experiences I had earlier this year on the rolling wide open country of a South Dakota Indian reservation, the way Willa Cather described her protagonist in O Pioneers as taking comfort in the small place of humans amid the “vast operations of the universe.”

Striving to make the room’s writing desk my own, I try describing the view: “Lucas Oil Stadium to my left, the hotel dead ahead, the glassy curved blue 1000-something-room JW Marriott on my right, and in the middle the mysterious factory billowing steam and who knows what else into the atmosphere, has a chute as if it might’ve been a coal plant, who knows …” For obvious reasons, this effort ran out of steam; instead my eyes glided back toward the flat-screen TV, which I had set on something called the RELAX Channel – ironically, it screams its name in all caps, as if to say, “RELAX NOW, DAMN IT!” It’s a rotating series of images of Yosemite National Park in California: Granite domes and water falls and ponds reflecting peaks and sky and tree lines, courtesy of director Sterling Johnson.

How odd it is, all this mediation of the “here and now” with the “there and been”, and how each enriches the other. My May among the impoverished Sioux in South Dakota flows into my July visit to a Santa Barbara Chumash exhibit into my October visit to the Eiteljorg into this hotel cable service and its renderings of Yosemite. Sitting between the televised pictures of Yosemite and the real-time city panorama of Indianapolis, I write that this whole meditation is “even more ironic than I’m aware of. And now a long-haired, perhaps Native American, perhaps not, plays some kind of flute with the mountains in background, reminding me of the Wendell Berry comment about how the tiny figures in Chinese landscape paintings are a more accurate depiction of our place in creation” than scenes devoid of humans. It seemed impossible, I noted, to be in one place at a time; everything connects to something else, every one to someone else. As I rose from my laptop to put on my conference shirt and tie, I couldn’t decide whether this was a good or bad thing.

As it turned out, I was right about one thing – there was more irony, and more connections, awaiting me on this day. But even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for how powerfully my private pre-conference morning would unfold into my professional appearance at the University of Indianapolis, host of a Lilly Fellowship Conference called “Incorporating Service: The Body At Work.”

It was going to be a Wendell Berry kind of day.

Within my first two hours, I sat next to a fellow Southerner about a decade older than me, a remarkably open gentleman with whom I slipped easily into probing conversation about the painful paradox of Christianity and racism back during the Civil Rights Movement. He volunteered that he didn’t confront his own racism head-on until seminary, and that even now he has to root out vestiges of that upbringing. This somehow brought up Wendell Berry’s book The Hidden Wound, about much the same topic; when he confessed to now knowing Berry, the guy on the opposite side of him and I joined in singing the praises of the eloquent essayist and poet. Berry, after all, not only writes with powerful clarity and wide range, but argues out of deep convictions. He defends small farms and sustainable living, a prophet speaking against a vast capitalist culture that has molded us into its image in more ways than we can count.

Then, an hour later, I saw Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry (Ed Reinke/Associated Press)

Well, I saw a photo of him on Power-Point representation – although not the one above. It was part of Jeff Bouman’s overview of the history of service at America’s religiously affiliated colleges. St. Wendell, as a friend of mine used to call him, seemed older but robust. His picture was accompanied by the phrase “It All Turns on Affection,” The phrase was the title of the talk he gave at the invitation of the National Endowment of the Humanities, which honors one scholar a year with the opportunity to give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities lecture in Washington D.C.

Later I will read Berry’s entire lecture on-line and discover the basis of the title, a seemingly odd one for a lecture so preoccupied with agricultural economy.

Berry puts it this way:

“The term ‘imagination’ in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb ‘to imagine’ contains the full richness of the verb ‘to see.’ To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with ‘the mind’s eye.’ It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with ‘dreaming up.’ It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

“I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”

Brilliantly reasoned, with its intelligence as emotional as it is intellectual. I reminded me of the poster I bought when I moved to Massachusetts to start my new life as a teacher at Assumption College – one proclaiming, “If we fail now, it will be a failure of the imagination.” Which, of course, informs both the manner in which we serve others – do we imagine what the situation looks like from their perspective before we impose our answers onto them – but whether we bother to serve at all. As usual, Berry says it better: “The word ‘affection’ and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.” (This strikes me as particularly instructive when it comes time to vote.)

Berry observes that this sympathetic imagination is sometimes hard to achieve, and for understandable functional reasons. “It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question:  Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know?” But, as he concludes, “We don’t have to live as if we’re alone.”

Even though presenter Jeff Bouman didn’t quote all of the above in his talk, I can see its truth in the story I lived out in Indianapolis. The irony-filled spiritual interplay of imagination and affection unfolded through the rest of my day in Indianapolis: Jeff Bouman’s talk, a dinner theater one-act play, and an extraordinary number of spiritual and intellectual conversations.

Some of those encounters hit me where I lived – or, at least, where I should be living. I started to get to the latter place that evening, when the conference introduced me to Taize-styled vespers – a service that emphasized silent meditation punctuated by occasional readings and repeated sung phrases, climaxed by us passing of the flame from one candle to another, until we were all meditating over our individual fire. Each person left as they saw fit, so the service did not so much end as fade – and I surprised myself by being one of the last to leave. Instead, I sat and soaked in the cumulative effect of the day, reveling in St. Wendell and the American West and the power of imaginative affection in the face of the vastness.

Antelope outside Eiteljorg Museum.

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