A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry

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A recent post on Writer Unboxed by Kathleen McCleary looked at what kind of book prompts a really good discussion by readers and book clubs. The first quality mentioned was that such books “deal with big themes that are at the heart of human experience.” That certainly describes this gorgeous novel.

I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

The story is centered on Mat Feltner, a farmer like his father and grandfather before him, but includes a wide cast of characters, some of them eccentric but all of them deeply human. As it begins, Mat and three other men are playing cards in a store left empty when the son of one of them went off to war. It’s early March, a quiet time in the life of a farmer. Mat has just learned that his son Virgil, his and Margaret’s only child, is missing in action.

As spring turns to summer and then into fall, Mat must make place in his consciousness, in his plans and expectations, for the possibility that Virgil might not return. Interwoven with Mat’s story are those of others in the town: Virgil’s pregnant wife Hannah, Burley Coulter who has lost one nephew in the war and just seen off the other to boot camp, Old Jack Beecham who cannot work his land anymore and has been moved into town and an unwelcome retirement, Jayber Crow who lives above his barbershop in a room full of books, to name just a few.

Berry writes with the poet’s eye for beauty and ear for music. While this novel is a realistic portrayal of country life, it occasionally drifts naturally into lyricism, perhaps a description that is achingly beautiful, or a moment of insight that raises the story to a greater sphere. Mat, wakeful in the night, hears the first stirrings of morning:

And Mat’s mind would return like a ghost to his body, leaving its uncertain questionings, the conjectures and absences it had wandered among. He felt himself shaped again, weighty, among the intimate clear objects of his days: the spacious dawn-filled plainly furnished old room; the leaves of the fern on the windowsill, in which the greenness appeared suddenly to have woken up, the shadows hanging over the pot rim as if peeled downward by the light; his clothes lying on the chair at the foot of the bed. And he would turn to these things gladly—as if, out of the unknowing magnitude that surrounded and diminished it, he took back his life.

Another big idea that Berry explores is what is the purpose of our lives? What do we hope to accomplish? What does death mean? What is left after we die? And nested within those intersecting ideas is the notion of work. This to me was the most striking part of the book, this description of what it means to work every day. I loved the way he describes the rhythms of work within the day, across the year. Here’s Mat trimming his apple trees:

He likes this work—the look of his hands moving and choosing, correcting, among the tangle, the wild good health of the branches. The orchard is one of the works of his life, one of the most satisfying ones. From its young hesitant beginnings it has taken possession of the plot, become a landmark. There has never been any income from it except for the fruit, with which Matt provisions his own table and which the neighbors are made welcome to pick. He has a greater intimacy with what he grows for his own use than what he grows for the market. The orchard lights and shapes one of the deepest enclosures of his mind, his monument to the ground.

And here is Mat’s brother Earnest, going back to work after a short rest:

The day and the work are established around him again. He goes on, deeper in, with a kind of excitement growing in him, a kind of hunger for what it’s possible to do before night. It becomes easier to go on than to stop. The afternoon settles into its passing, less pleasant than the morning but more forceful, more gathered into itself, the impetus and urging of it building tighter and higher.

While my experience working on a farm was brief, I still recognise these same rhythms in my days working in an office or laboratory, and at home writing. I know Mat’s satisfaction in the competence and skill that comes with experience. And even more than that, I recognise the uses of work, the benefits beyond the completed project. In all my years of reading, I have rarely found this theme explored, much less embodied as well as it is here.

This is one book that I never wanted to end. I consciously slowed down my reading to savor every sentence. My only consolation is that Berry’s other novels are apparently about the people in this town.

What have you gained from the work you do, beyond a paycheck or a finished product?

The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte

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Whyte is an English poet who has brought poetry to the corporate world to nurture the creativity needed in today’s fast-paced markets. I enjoyed his later book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, which I read as I entered retirement. This early (1994) book, subtitled Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, lays out his premise for combining the two worlds.

The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation. The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter.

He speaks of “a veritable San Andreas Fault in the modern American psyche: the personality’s wish to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that might be [italics the author’s].”

Failure is not only an option; it’s a necessary part of an honest life. If we are too busy being invisible, hiding our true selves in fear of ridicule or a false step, then we are not bringing our full capability to our work.

Using stories, myths, and poetry to illustrate the path, Whyte brings new meaning to even well-known lines. He uses imagery of swords and starlings, of fire and—yes—a fish to awaken our imagination and draw us in. Whyte asks us to bring our soul’s journey into our day-to-day work life.

Our lack of soul is our refusal to open to a full experience of the world. Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow parts of us we do bring to its door.

This is no how-to book with a checklist of easy steps. It is an exploration of the complex ecology of our own self and our place in the world. It asks us to hold contradictory ideas and goals, to find our own balance.

Instead of giving answers, Whyte asks questions, including many in the User’s Guide at the end of the book. For me, an inveterate manager, one of the most challenging asks what would it be like to fully experience your life instead of trying to manage it?

I’ve also enjoyed his poetry in collections such as The House of Belonging, with the overlap between his prose and poetry increasing my appreciation for both.

Although I no longer work in the corporate world, I found much here that is still relevant to my work as a writer. I would love to pull together a study group to work through the ideas in this book.

What book have you read that has posed intriguing and compelling questions for you?

Life Work, by Donald Hall

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This slim book is part memoir, part meditation on the role of work in our lives from Donald Hall, who died this week. He and his wife Jane Kenyon moved from Michigan to his grandparents’ farm in 1975, giving up stable teaching jobs for the uncertain income of freelance writers.

Like Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” where he describes his father digging in the garden outside the window where Heaney sits writing, Hall compares his beloved work laboring with words to the more physical work of his grandparents. One thing he finds in common is that they do different tasks all day, unlike those who labor at repetitive jobs.

Hall gives us engrossing accounts of this grandfather’s work in the fields and barn and his grandmother’s work in garden and kitchen. He himself moves from one poem to another, one prose piece to another. He runs errands and handles the myriad tasks associated with the business of being a writer.

Writers are often asked about their routine. When do you write? Where and for how long? Do you write longhand or on the computer? Hall gives us answers to these questions, for both good days and bad days.

More importantly he addresses the bigger questions. What are you going to do? What do you dream of doing? What would be an authentic life for you? As Mary Oliver says in “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What his work and his grandparents’ work have in common is that they induce a particular state of mind. Asked by novelist Gurcharan Dar what contentment is, Hall answers, “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.” It is Dar who comes up with a term for this state: absorbedness.

Leisure or a life dedicated to enjoyment is ultimately not fulfilling. As John Fowles noted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the curse of the Victorian upper class was boredom. With no work to do, both men and women often entertained themselves to death—or near-death—through gambling, drugs, overeating, imagined illnesses, and so on.

Absorbedness is an answer to the question Fowles raises: When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

When asked by Hall about the secret of life, Henry Moore answered, “‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!'”

Hall’s meditations on work are sprinkled among accounts of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, his travels with Jane, the birth of grandchildren, the recurrence of his cancer, and his preparations for his possible death during surgery for that cancer.

I’m reminded of the Canadian film Last Night which follows several people on what will be their last night since everyone knows the world will end at midnight. The choices different characters make are funny and sad. Do you simply sit in despair waiting for midnight? Do you riot, or drink, or fulfill a longheld ambition to have sex with your high school French teacher?

I asked my son what he would choose for his last night. He described what was then a typical Sunday for us: sitting around the fire together reading and taking turns working the crossword puzzle. Similarly, Hall describes his best day as one filled with work and loving moments with Jane.

What would your best day look like?