Fear, or Flying?

Once upon a time, there came a gloomy weekend forecast — warm, but cloudy and drizzly — so a friend suggested we go into Houston for a concert. After Saturday fooled the forecasters by dawning sunny and bright, we began to reconsider our plans. We could spend the morning tending to chores, drive into Houston in ghastly traffic, spend a couple of hours listening to music, and then drive home in the company of more or less sober fellow citizens.  Or, we could stay home and find something to do in the afternoon sunshine.

Just after lunch we set out, with no destination in mind and no real idea of what we wanted to do. Halfway to Galveston, I said, “Have you been to the Texas City Dike?” My friend hadn’t. Neither had I, despite regularly passing it while sailing to and from Galveston. I’d heard plenty of fishermen extol its virtues, but apart from summertime drownings it rarely made the news, so I’d never found a reason to go.

Clearly, that needed to change. We turned toward the water, stopping first at Boyd’s: a distinctly down-home place reputed to have the liveliest bait, the freshest table shrimp, and the tastiest Cajun Po’boys in six counties. After a little refreshment, we headed out to the dike.

Originally constructed in 1915 to keep the Texas City Harbor from silting in, the dike increasingly functioned as a pleasure pier, until its structures were destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The rebuilt five-mile-long dike is a wonder, and not simply for the engineering and labor that brought it back in only two years. Thanks to the storm, there aren’t any piers, bait stands or restaurants on the dike. For that matter, there aren’t any gift shops, carnival rides or vendors working out of the trunks of their cars.

Today, you’re limited to the dike itself: a road, a few picnic shelters, some porta-potties, and boat ramps. It’s very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place, and the fact that you’re expected to amuse yourself gives the dike a distinctly old-fashioned feel.

Once we’d driven the five-mile stretch of dike to its end, we turned around and headed back to Boyd’s. Along the way, we decided to turn onto the three-mile-long levee which extends to the north. Apart from a few bicyclists and a birder or two, we saw few people until we noticed a small cluster of cars parked at the side of the road.

Not yet aware that we’d stumbled across one of our area’s favored destinations for windsports, we got out to see what was happening. There wasn’t enough wind for kite-boarders or wind-surfers, but conditions apparently were right for powered paragliders. One man preparing to fly seemed friendly enough, so I pulled my camera from the back seat and decided to try a little sports photography.

As he took off, his flight seemed effortless, and with good reason. Post-trip sleuthing revealed we’d been watching Andy McAvin, founder of TxFlySports. Established in 1999, it’s the oldest powered paragliding school in the state and has graduated hundreds of students. Andy himself has flown and taught the sport around the world.

Browsing his site, I was surprised to discover Andy and I have something in common. I began sailing in 1987, and by 1990 was beginning my own boat-related business. His first powered paragliding experiences took place in 1997, and two years later he established his school. It must have been an equally significant career change for Andy, who previously had established himself as a Broadway actor and voice-over actor for touring companies, animations and tv commercials.

What goes up inevitably comes down, and watching Andy land was pure pleasure. The landing was easy, controlled, and seemingly effortless. Of course, four thousand or so flights and several thousand hours of experience helped to make that easy landing possible.

Powered paraglider accidents do occur, of course. One of the most recent, involving a collision between a Cessna Caravan cargo hauler and a paramotor pilot took place just outside Houston. Other local mishaps have ranged in severity from scraped knees to injured ankles and wrists, as well as a few hands damaged by contact with a propeller.

But on our warm Saturday afternoon, there were no incidents. There was only sunshine, a light breeze, and the pleasure of watching someone who knows what he’s doing, do it.

Once he’d landed, we drifted back to the car and drove on. Later, an online search for ‘Texas City powered paragliders’ led me to the Texas WingNuts website and message board. A post from someone who’d been flying at the levee Saturday afternoon caught my eye and I replied, thinking it would be nice to send along any decent photos I’d taken to the person we’d watched.

That ‘someone’ turned out to be Andy, of course, who no doubt has more than enough photos of his participation in the sport. Still, he liked the pictures, and I liked the complimentary close of his emails. There was no ‘cheers’ or ‘ciao,’ no ‘regards,’ and no ‘yours truly.’ His emails ended with what surely must be the hope and joy of every powered paraglider: the short and simple expression, Blue Skies.

In an increasingly constricted world, in a world filled with people determined to eliminate every risk, every joy, every gesture of freedom, spontaneity, and independence in their pursuit of some mythical security, the self-reliance, attention to detail, sense of responsibility, physical conditioning, and pure joie de vivre represented by people like Andy is enormously refreshing.

I have no doubt that both Andy and his students have heard the plaintive cry: “You could die doing that!” I heard that same protest when I began offshore sailing, just as a friend heard it when he announced his intention to hike through South America.

Of course an aircraft of any sort could crash. Certainly a boat could sink or a hiker be murdered. On the other hand, any of us could choke on a peanut and die. I could step off a curb and be hit by an out-of-control car. I could be mugged while taking out the trash or shot dead in a grocery store. Even staying inside the house, avoiding all the dangers of the big, wide world, isn’t foolproof. I could be confronted by a home invader, or slip in the shower and crack open my skull.

As my more anxiety-ridden friends like to remind me, anything can happen. But most of the time it doesn’t, and even if it did, I wonder: could giving in to fear ever be worth missing the blue skies of life?

Annie Dillard has her own way of putting it:

There always is the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self-conscious, so apparently moral. But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous, more extravagant and bright. We are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

I don’t have a thing against a good tomato, but if we find ourselves slogging along, eyes to the ground, oblivious to birds and breeze alike, perhaps we also should be raising our eyes to those beautiful blue skies. It might be time to fly.

Comments always are welcome.

Too Many Tricks, and The Wrong Kind of Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties galore skulking along the edge of consciousness, and with every horror movie classic — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

In parts of the country where offense isn’t so easily taken, children delight in dressing up as princesses, cowboys, or Cruella de Vil.  Meanwhile, for the faux vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable night-creatures who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil, corn syrup blood is dripping, and the body parts are piling up

There’s no question that Halloween has gone commercial. From our neighborhood haunted house to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone hopes to take a bite out of the consumer. Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes for a perfect holiday.

In this season dedicated to thinning the veil between life and death, one of the most unlikely purveyors of horror is the American poet, Carl Sandburg.

Sandburg isn’t much in favor these days. He’s too common, and too plain-spoken. In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary; today, he might well be censored, cancelled, or de-platformed.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged the value of the workers and builders, families, and business people who knit this country together, and he honored them with his work.

After decades of allowing his poetry to fade from memory, I began thinking of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike. Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the introduction to his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind seemed relevant. ‘Yesterday’ was gone indeed, along with much of Bolivar Penninsula, a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast. “What of it?” asked the woman Sandburg named Tomorrow. “Let the dead be dead.” Today, different storms wrack our society, and different forces are attempting to dismember the body politic, but Tomorrow’s question still echoes: “What of it?”

When I compare Sandburg and Faulkner on the nature of humanity, Faulkner often wins. Despite the nature of some of his novels’ characters, his eloquent Nobel Prize acceptance speech inspires and elevates; Sandburg too often seems bleak; resigned; dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life. When Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone somehow seems more realistic — optimistic, even — than Sandburg’s. But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth that seems particularly relevant today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged through our national life, I’ve wondered if Sandburg ever imagined his beloved country would transform itself in this way. And yet his words are chilling and prescient: as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries, Sandburg should speak to us today. Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres, and the living dead prowl their haunted houses. Let the role players mask their intent and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of the fear-mongers’ tricks, and I don’t need the treats they pretend to offer. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare to face and battle our own unnerving horrors.

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind
Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
and paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
…and the only listeners left now
are…the rats…and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

 

Comments always are welcome.

To Rise, to Stand, and to Live

 

Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.

“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.

Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.

Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.

Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.

His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”

Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.

“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.

My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.

After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.

By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.

Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries: how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world, or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.

As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.

As late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.

Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.

Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. Eventually, I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.

I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness,
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.

And that, of course, is the gift: to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.

Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Stilll Working, After All These Years

In the beginning, I learned to call it ‘helping.’ Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and helping around the house was a way for children to participate more fully in the life of the family.

Eventually, I discovered that trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, so I looked for other opportunities to seek it out: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees; set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box. 

Eventually, I began watering flowers for next-door neighbors when they traveled out of town. It required a heavy bucket and multiple trips, but I never thought of it as a chore. It was fun: particularly since I was allowed to go by myself, on my tricycle, carrying my new responsibility with pride.

Over time, I learned another word for helping: ‘work.’ People worked on cars, and worked around the house. Painting was work: so was putting screens on windows, or vegetable canning.

Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work, and to differentiate among its varieties: homework and handwork, busywork and piecework. I learned to associate work with money, and occasional unhappiness. I discovered there were days when Daddy didn’t want to go to work, and people who worried over lack of work.

Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even adults chatting across fences or on the porches of our neighborhood could offer no higher praise than to say of someone, “That one’s a workin’ fool”.

Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land: forces happy to sunder work from pleasure and minimize its importance, reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure — particularly when government checks are increasingly available.

Our increasing ambivalence toward — or reluctance to engage in — work has reminded me in past months of a 2012 Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.

The title itself —The Way We Worked — could suggest that our working days are over: that work itself has become a curiosity or a museum piece, something to be noted and then forgotten as easily as the fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In fact, the exhibit was strongly historical in nature, and far from dismissive.

“The Way We Worked,” adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the work force and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.

Equally interesting were concurrent exhibits created by ‘partner sites’ — small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in exploring the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their individual programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives, or emphasized particular industries. But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present.

The Way We Worked in Blue Rapids, a photographic exhibit sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in partnership with the Museum on Main Street,  opened February 2, 2013, at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit featured eighty large-format photographs taken by Blue Rapids photographer Tom Parker, along with a running slideshow of more than 400 additional photos he captured during 2012. Describing the scope of the project, Parker said:
Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories — mining, agriculture, black populations — ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of historical record.
It was more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding. Along the way I spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers, and volunteers – even a cat and a dog.
I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors, and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went.

When Tom first told me about the unfolding project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As the months passed and images of life in Blue Rapids began to pile up, it was impossible not to be amazed by how little some things had changed.

Occasionally, the sweetest of memories were evoked. Lunch with Daddy at his work place seems to be as special now as it was sixty years ago.

Photographs shared along the way always were interesting, and often compelling. Of equal interest were Tom’s musings over his project. Recording the frustrations, joys, technical challenges, and sheer exhaustion that attend any large, on-going process, Tom clearly understood that blank canvas, empty pages, or vacant walls present significant challenges to those charged with filling them.

Triggering [my] edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure.
After delving into Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years… I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles.
It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”

The process of advancing the story was as slow as it was detailed. There was a lot of waiting, and a lot of work:

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence, or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole: similar to writer’s block, but much more debilitating.
When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, “When I can think straight.” But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of The Way We Worked project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

As he snapped the project’s final photo at 11:59 p.m on New Year’s Eve, in a local bar, there still was work to be done before his deadline was met. Still, no one imagined it wouldn’t be done. Through the whole of 2012, Tom Parker had proven himself a working fool: capturing 40,000 images, considering and culling, rejecting and retrieving. He went big and didn’t go home, all in order to keep advancing the story.

Today, Tom still is at work: capturing and processing photographs from the world in which he lives. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he says. Then, he grins, and adds, “But isn’t that just the point?”

For my parents and grandparents, for the neighbors who surrounded me, and for all the workers who filled my young world, that certainly seemed to be the point. While doing their best to eliminate drudgery from their lives, they seemed intuitively to understand the truth of Freud’s famous statement that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

They understood that, even as age, illness, or infirmity eventually would change the nature of their work, work itself should go on: advancing a multitude of meaningful personal and communal stories.

Comments always are welcome.

Take Two Poems, and Call Me in the Morning

The path forward

Anxiety. Astonishment. Anguish. Anger. The cross-currents of emotion swirling through the nation as we await the coming Presidential Inauguration are easy to identify, but difficult to navigate.

Ill at ease and confessing to exhaustion, a friend may have spoken for multitudes when she said, “I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the nastiness; sick of conflict; and sick with worry that, on January 21, we’ll find the real struggles have only begun.”

Despite the seriousness of her concerns, I couldn’t help smiling at her references to sickness. My mother, a consummate diagnostician, mastered the art of separating true illness from  childhood excuses before I reached first grade. I always knew when I’d been found out, because she’d dismiss me with a saying far more common in the 1950s than it is now: “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.” It was her way of saying, “It’s not serious, and you’ll be fine.” She always kept an eye on her little excuse-maker, but in almost every instance I was fine, and life went on.

Recently, I found myself thinking that a slight revision of her advice might be useful in these tumultuous times. “Take two poems and call me in the morning” does have  bit of a ring to it, but the phrase also raises a question: which poems should be prescribed? 

I often turn to a pair of poems from Wendell Berry: one quite familiar, the other less so. His poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things,” first published in 1968, is often quoted because of the comfort it offers:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My favorite of his poems, titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” is sharper, with more of an edge. The sharpness makes it especially appropriate for a time marked by edginess; what it lacks in gentle comfort, it makes up for in wisdom.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
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.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
 

Comments always are welcome.