Wendell Berry and the Jedi Mind Trick

Up until a few years ago I was blissfully ignorant, fat and happy. Now, I’m just fat and not all that happy about it. Back then – back when I used to pull into a drive-thru with my wife and kids, order a super-sized sack of “Lord knows what” – I didn’t think so much about family farms or industrialization, community, rain, bugs or the chemicals used to annihilate them. My yard was something to mulch, mow, or rake not something I could use to put food on my table. Then some well-meaning soul introduced me to Wendell Berry: the Kentucky farmer, poet, and author. That person should have warned me.

I had just started reading some of Berry’s fiction when I heard he was coming to Charlottesville to give a lecture. I should qualify this statement – I’m not sure Berry’s books are fiction. Fiction shouldn’t have the sort of effect that Berry’s stuff has. Besides poetry and essays, he writes about the people, farms, in a fictional community in rural Kentucky called Port William.

While reading his books, Jaber Crow and Andy Catlett, I found myself longing for the sort of community that only my grandparents fully knew. It wasn’t like I wanted to go back to the “good ole days”. No. The sense of community that Berry gives is bigger than that. It is the reality that our lives are connected to each other and the things that we do or do not do have an impact – on not just us. In fact, he is quoted as saying we should not have a “split between what we think and what we do.” If we say we care about folks then there ought to be something to show for it. Therein is a sense of community (shalom perhaps).

I had just started to realize that Mr. Berry was writing more than “just” stories when he came to Charlottesville to give a lecture. I’ve sat through a lot of lectures in my day and, quite frankly, I’m not very good at it. But for some reason, I wanted to attend this one.

That night he talked about farms (large and the family farm), politics, money and the way they connect to how food is brought to the table. Many of the ways food comes to our tables actually brings harm to communities. At one point he said, “Simple solutions will always lead to complex problems, surprising simple minds.”

He was humble, gentle and kind. It was not unlike having a wise friend over for coffee; except at the end of the conversation you suddenly find that he had completely rearranged your house. I went into that lecture one guy and came out another – fat but not happy and ignorant. I’m not sure how it happened; however, I’m pretty sure that Berry used some sort of Jedi mind trick.

All I remember is that Berry said that people ought to know and care where their food comes. He also said they ought to participate in getting it to the table. At some point that evening I found myself mumbling, “I should know where my food comes from.” I left that evening with a copy Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food and an overwhelming urge to plunge a shovel into dirt and plant stuff. When I got home I announced to my family that we were going to change our lives and grow our own food.

Everything was going to change. It would require us to change the way we buy food. No longer would we eat fast food – except for Chick-Fil-A (because their food is goodish for you and they do good in the world – the others are the evil empire). We would also need to change the way we shop for food – trying to go local but being aware of how our food gets here. It also meant we would use some of our yard for a garden. My family looked at me like I had lost my mind. Sherry just smiled – she’s been living with crazy for almost twenty years.

But I was serious. I worked on a farm to help pay my way through college. I wasn’t naïve about the hard work. But I had forgotten was that I am twenty-plus years older and I live in the suburbs. We couldn’t have chickens or a cow and we really didn’t have too much room for a garden. Nevertheless, I was committed. After all, Mr. Berry said we should know where our food comes from and we ought to help get it.

Two days later I found myself behind a tiller. I had prepared a place that would get just the right amount of sun. I had a heap of organic soil that would soon be home to our food: tomatoes, peas, green beans, cucumbers, okra, peppers, watermelon, basil and thyme, bell peppers and broccoli. Sherry looked at me with the sort of  “Clearly you do not know what you are doing but I love this crazy side of you.”

That tiller nearly beat me to death. It pulverized me more than the soil. At some point I was reminded of the agreement I made with the bulging discs in my neck and lower back about manual labor. I was not to do it. Nevertheless, I kept on mixing, tilling and preparing the soil.

Once I got the soil ready I started laying out the neat rows. My youngest son and I dug little holes, dropped in a few seeds here and there, carefully placing them. We did this for a while and then I tried to stand up. I had to have my four-year-old son help me and I groaned the loudest old man grunt ever. He looked at me and said, “You okay Daddy?” Of course I am. I’m participating in getting food on our table.

The worst part was the day was pretty hot; there was a huge sun in the sky. It wasn’t that the heat bothered me in fact I didn’t really notice. That was unfortunate because I forgot to wear a hat. Now for most folks that’s no big deal. For bald-guys that’s a huge deal. I scorched the top of my head. Let me add, it hurt when I blinked.

That evening with everything tucked into their nice tight little rows I stood with my family looking with hope on our little garden. One of my neighbors joined us. My youngest son began to tell him all that he had planted. At one point my neighbor said, “What are you going to do about all the squirrels and deer?” I, uh, hadn’t thought of that.

The next day I was out there again with wildlife netting, doing all I could to protect the food I was determined to bring on our table. At one point I was stooped, laboring over a stubborn old root when I thought, “Why in the hell am I doing this? Who is Wendell Berry and why can’t I stand up straight?”

Then, from my stooped position, I saw my family working alongside one another carefully putting netting around the fencing. They were talking and laughing and enjoying themselves. My youngest son was going over each area that he had planted the day before, patting the soil as a way to encourage things to grow (and he doesn’t like veggies). As we worked, side-by-side, helping each other, to get food to our table, we started planning a menu and who we could share the bounty.

Something happened to my family that never happened in a grocery store or even farmers market. We were participating in bringing food to our table but we were also focused on the fact that we wanted to share what we were growing. That subject came up naturally and organically. There was a sense of community that had come up even before the first green bean shoot.

Something else happened. That evening, with the wildlife netting in place, we stood and looked at our frail but hopeful garden. We realized how vulnerable and dependent each one of these plants was. They were susceptible to everything and it was going to be up to my family and I to protect and raise them. After all, one day these seeds and tomato plants would bear fruit and grace our table and bless the lives of people that we love. That’s when concern grew larger.

I had only thought as far as the planting and the harvest. I had not realized how much care would need to go into bringing this food to the table. Nor was I ready for how much I would care. Standing at the produce section of my local store I had not given much thought to how they were grown. I made a lot of assumptions.

But standing above my own plants I realized that the fruit of our labors was going to actually be food for my wife, my sons, our neighbors and friends. Bugs and vermin are real possibilities but would I put just anything on the plants to protect them? What damage could it do to my family? The soil? There was no way I was going to put anything on these plants that could cause them harm.

The things that Berry had said began to sink in even further. The sense of community extended beyond just giving folks good things to eat. It extended into the how we are getting things to the table. How are food gets to the table matters. It matters a lot.

Day that our first tomato was ready to be picked was a memorable occasion. We were grateful in ways we had never been grateful before – and amazed. The labor of our family, the care that we had put into the garden was rewarded and our care was rewarded with the “the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that” did not in any way “depend on ignorance,” as Berry wrote in Bringing it to the Table.

The Bounty

Perhaps you’ve never been introduced to Berry; if that is the case, do not delay – go and get acquainted with him as quickly as possible. It is safe to say that Wendell Berry has had a tremendous impact on me. This year, for reasons beyond my control, I haven’t been able to put in a garden. I miss it. I miss the hard work as well as knowing where my food comes from. I miss participating in getting food to our table. I miss the way our family worked together to care and cultivate. I’ll also miss the fruit of our labors as much as sharing it. And yet – thanks to Berry – I am no longer “fat and happy” and blissfully ignorant and I do not miss that.

Check these places out:

Check out a great article by Berry at  Wendell E. Berry Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities.

 http://www.wendellberrybooks.com/index.html

http://brtom.typepad.com/wberry/

http://www.southernexposure.com/

Here is a poem from Berry I came across the other day – can’t remember where:

The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.
~ Wendell Berry ~
(Given)
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“Taylor Swift as Countercultural Icon” & Shaping the Moral Life

Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls: by Amity Shlaes

I don’t have daughters – not planning on having any either. My three sons, however, have asked at different times for a sister. Having three sisters, I don’t blame them for asking; sisters are awesome – at least mine are.

But while I wouldn’t mind adding a daughter to our mix – that’s probably not in the cards for us anyway – I am very much aware of the challenges of raising daughters today. I’m not saying that any one generation has had an easier time parenting than another. However, I do believe how the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women are formed this age has its own unique challenges. Part of the uniqueness comes from the prolific and powerful force of celebrity, media, and popular culture in general. We do not like to admit it but these things carry weight – they do bear an influence on children, families, and communities.

Celebrity, media, and popular culture impact the way that Sherry and I parent our sons and we, like most parents, are very intentional about what we allow our sons to be exposed to. The simple fact that we have to be vigilant when it comes to music, sports, magazines, books, billboards, not to mention the web, TV, Netflix, radio, iPods, video games and movies, speaks to the reality that parents face. Most parents that I know are concerned, wanting to make sure that their kids don’t hear or see things that they shouldn’t. But it is not easy. Foul language, overt sexuality and nudity, and adult themes are so prevalent it is better to prepare kids than try to hide them from it.

It is difficult not to stand back with a certain degree of trepidation as I think what it must be like for moms and dads to lovingly try to shape a young women’s moral life, imagination and character for the good. That seems all the more daunting when she is being bombarded by so many other messages of what is good and normal for a young woman. It becomes an even greater challenge if parents are the least concerned about her spiritually.

As a pastor to families I think about the challenge of parenting a great deal. It becomes all the more challenging given the constant messages that bombard young women (men too) about what is beautiful – but even more than that – what is the norm when it comes to intimacy. Recently I’ve been surprised at what is considered “normal” or simply “common practice,” or “what’s expected.”

Last night I was watching TV with Sherry and a commercial came on. I’m not sure what was being advertised. It showed a couple out rock climbing together in some remote place – giving the full impression they were off on a romantic excursion. The voice over said something like, “My boyfriend and I were going on vacation and…” I’m not sure what she said after that because I was stuck on that one line. It just struck me how that lined just flowed. It wasn’t all that long ago (I’m not that old) when that was not the norm. Guys and their girlfriends may have snuck off on vacation together but they did just that, snuck off. I know this has been the norm on sit-coms for a long time but this was the first commercial I’ve ever seen that acknowledges boyfriend/girlfriends going on vacation together. Suddenly – this is the norm. This is what is expected. This is an option now. But then there is more.

Research from The National Marriage Project at UVA points out “that over half of all first marriages in the U.S. are preceded by the couple living together.” The research also points out that 75-80% of high school seniors said having a good marriage and family life is ‘extremely important’ to them. However, close to half of the same group did not think they would stay married to the same person for life.” At some point this became the “norm” for relationships. In other words, parents raising girls should not just be talking about the fairy tale wedding, the grand proposal but now their girls can dream about the day she gets to ask her boyfriend to move in with her.

I’m not sure when this became the norm but it is. Our culture doesn’t seem to have a moral center – perhaps it never really did (although I think it did); it is seemingly lost in some weirdness that is difficult to name. That weirdness finds its way into the hearts and minds of students impacting the way they think of things as the “norm.” That  impacts everything from what they eat, wear, go to school, when and how much they drink, what sort of drugs they will do, and with whom they will have sex. In other words, it is less of a question and more of an expectation that they will take part in these things. It is part of their social life. This makes parenting – shaping the moral lives, imaginations, and characters of our kids that much more of a challenge.

Tonight, I was listening to NPR on my way home from work. The interview was about getting tested for HIV. A startling stat they mentioned was that “one of every four new cases of HIV involves a teenager.” The blame for this, according to those being interviewed was, that “sex education programs” because they put “an emphasis on chastity rather than condoms.” In fact one man said to, “expect young people to wait until they’re 25 or 30 is really unrealistic, and nobody is waiting.  I mean you maybe have 5-10% who are waiting, but the vast majority are not.” He went on to claim that he is, “running into kids 11 and 12 that are admitting they’re having sex. In my surveys, that’s about 10-15%  of the teen population, so it’s low, but the fact that it’s amazing they’re starting this young, and over a period of the teen years, let’s say from 12, 13-19,  they are falling in and out of love with different boyfriends and girlfriends in high school, so they might have as many as four different partners by the time they reach 18 or 19.  When they go to college and then in college and are hooking up, you know, one night stands, and alcohol and drugs fuel a lot of these bad decisions, and what you’re finding is that a lot of these young people are now having multiple partners.”

Notice the norm – the expectation. Kids are going to do drugs and drink and have sex. We should expect it. That is just part of our social fabric. So lets give them condoms so at least they will not get HIV.

I have to say I was a little shocked by what I heard – not the stats, not that kids are having sex. I was surprised by the resignation of all moral values. Rather than asking larger questions like how to shape the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women the answer, which seems to be nation-wide is, “well, this is normal. It’s what kids do. Give ’em a condom and teach them how to have the conversation about putting it on with their partner.” And in the same sentence we discover we are talking about middle school kids.

This is a tricky time for parents. Lots of people say things without thinking about the norms of our culture – and those things are impacting the lives of kids and their families. It is difficult for kids and parents to push back against what is considered “normal.” But an article came through my email today that I found refreshing and hopeful.

Up until today I didn’t know a lot about Taylor Swift; I’ve heard some of her music and I think she has a great voice but I wouldn’t have said I was a fan. But now – I’m a huge fan.

First because she seems to get it – what she says matters – and that includes lyrics. She is impacting a generation of young girls. She seems to know that. She seems to understand the seriousness of the role she is playing. Her voice and words are being carried into the hearts and minds of young girls perhaps in ways that the voice of parents are not being heard.

The good thing, according to the article (Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls by Amity Shlaes), Taylor is not dissing on mom and dad and she is not anti-family. That is deliberate on her part. That is going to shape the moral life, imagination, and character of these young women – and potentially for the good.

Second, I’m a fan because she seems to be saying the right things about moms and dads – about family. That doesn’t happen very often and she is saying it to girls directly – but we all know where the girls go – the guys go (if they are smart). It is truly countercultural because another part of the norm is that teenagers – perhaps especially girls – are not supposed to have a good relationship with their parents.

Years ago, back in the dark ages of the early 90’s, I began working with high school students – first as a coach and then as a minister. One thing became clear right away – parents were not involved directly. They cared for their student. They loved them and wanted them to be involved but they parents knew their place – and knew to keep a distance.

Somehow it was the standard stance, parents had been formed by some unwritten law that they were not be all that involved with their teenager. It seemed like parents were helpless and fearful – not knowing how to approach their own child. It was like watching an odd sort of dance or ballet where parents tried to learn the steps from the hormone rattled, adolescent kids.

What is more, kids felt the same way. It was part of some rite of passage that a student was to tell their parents off and to get a little wild, or resentful toward overly strict parents. That was the cultural script – the norm. Kids needed their space. I thought it was sort of odd. My own teenage years were really messed up after my dads death (I was a freshman) so I was having trouble relating. At the same time I thought it was strange that parents suddenly disappeared from their kids lives to some extent. It wasn’t that parents were not around – they were everywhere but sort of nowhere at the same time. They had been told to stay away – sometimes by their kids and sometimes by a cultural cue.

I remember asking about this one day. I was sort of wondering out loud to an “expert.” I suggested that parents should not be less involved but involved in different ways – especially in places like church and school. Teen years are not easy – so why would we pull the most mature people back from them at that time. His answer was kids need to “individuate from their parents, to become independent and form the important peer-to-peer relationships.”

But I don’t think we actually ever individuate as human beings. I mean our personalities form – but even still there is some part of our parents and family tied into the way we live and see the world. And – most parents want their children to have a sense of independence in that they are able to act as human beings, be productive, use their gifts and abilities. But even then I don’t think independence is the right word. Because, no one is really independent of another and I’m confident it is a bad idea for parents and kids to become independent of one another relationally. That never turns out well.

And yet, part of the culture script is that parents are not supposed to be engaged and involved in the lives of their teenage son or daughter. But that can’t be the way things are supposed to be – in fact I’m sure of it. We are supposed to be in one another lives. That should be the cultural norm – and we ought to want the good of others.

In Genesis 1-3 we read that God created all things – including Adam and Eve. He first made Adam but it did not take God long to make Eve. The Bible says it was “because it was not good for man to live alone.” From that I take it that God intended for human beings to live in community – in a right relationship with each other, with ourselves, with creation and, most importantly, with God.

That’s why things get weird when we try to pull apart – dissecting instead of integrating. Peter Block wrote, The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities. The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation, imitating the lament from early in the last century, when life was referred to as the age of anxiety…Our isolation occurs because western culture, our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions, and the messages from our media fragment us. We are broken into pieces.

What I observed over the last twenty plus years is that kids don’t seem to actually individuate nor become independent. It may not be for lack of trying – and having met some of their parents I don’t blame them. But they usually end up looking for community – a place or group to belong. And they listen to what others are endorsing as what is normal for them to think, feel, wear, eat, drink, etc. So – just as the cultural norm is saying that parents ought to take a back seat and kids should want them to – there are other voices that are piping in through their ear buds and iPods – doing the job that their parents are actually supposed to be doing.

The good thing is that one of those voices, at least right now, is Taylor Swift. She is certainly pointed young women in the right direction – toward their parents and family – and that is good. The hope is that parents are plugged up to something that is giving them the same message and they are moving toward their kids. It is indeed a two way street and it is important that rather than individuating and becoming independent kids and parents learn more about building family – for a lifetime. It is equally important for parents to help give shape to the moral lives, imaginations and characters of their children – they can’t do that if the cultural norm is saying to disengage.

More to come…