Faithfulness to Family and Farming Life: “Fidelity” by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In the rural Kentucky community of Port William, people “do for each other”, in life and in death.  But what about in between – the terrible period when someone you love is dying?  You need to do something, anything, but you can’t be sure what is to be done.

Nathan Coulter and his family face this with their eighty-two year old “Uncle Burley” when he takes sick.  Do they take him to the doctor?  His son Danny thinks so.  Nathan wonders.

“He’s never been to a doctor since I’ve known him.  He said he wouldn’t go.  You going to knock him in the head before you take him?”

Ultimately, they decide to take him to the doctor in Louisville, who declares that Burley is too weak for surgery, that it would be necessary to build up his strength.  They admit him to the hospital, where he becomes disoriented.  His health rapidly declines.

… in the midst of the building of strength and the testing, Burley slipped away toward death.  But the people of the hospital did not call it dying; they called it a coma.  They spoke of curing him.  They spoke of his recovery.

Soon Nathan and the others realize their effort to “do something” for Uncle Burley has proven only to makes things worse.

Loving him, wanting to help him, they had given him over to “the best of modern medical care” — which meant, as they now saw, that they had abandoned him.

Thinking of this, unable to sleep at home in Port William, Danny is compelled to act, to do something.  He drives back to Louisville and rescues Uncle Burley, springing him from the hospital, bringing him back past Port William where Danny cares for him in a familiar barn.

This sets a number of things in motion…

…. a call from the hospital to Danny’s wife Lyda, who admits only that Danny was not there, that he said, “something about Indiana”.

… a call to friend and family lawyer Henry Catlett who advises Lyda to say nothing else, to send the investigating police to him.

… a visit from Detective Kyle Bode, a twice-divorced Ringo Starr look-alike who is weary of dealing with the deception of country folk.

Nathan is drawn into the action and his wife Hannah reflects on the nature of the Port William community –

When she thought of their neighborhood, Hannah wondered whether or not to count the children.  Like the old, the young were leaving.  The old were dying without successors, and Hannah was aware of how anxiously those who remained had begun to look into the eyes of the children.  They were watching not just their own children now but anybody’s children.  For as the burden of keeping the land increased for the always fewer who remained, as the difference continued to increase between the price of what they had to sell and the cost of what they had to buy, they knew that they had less and less to offer the children, and fewer arguments to make.

“Fidelity” explores not only the impending death of an old man, but the pending death of an old way of life – the farming community.

Thanks to the courageous (and illegal) acts of his son Danny,  Burley is able to die with dignity, on familiar ground and to be properly buried and grieved.

But how does a community die with dignity?  And who is left to mourn it?  Who remembers what is lost?

(“Fidelity” is found in Fidelity: Five Stories by Wendell Berry)

(photo of Wendell Berry from Jessica Clare {Civetta} in Creative, Eccentric & Talented)

Some Words of Wisdom from Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

My purpose is a language that can make us whole,

though mortal, ignorant, and small.

The world is whole beyond human knowing.

The body’s life is its own,

untouched by the little clockwork of explanation.

(from “Some Further Words” in Given: Poems by Wendell Berry)

Well, I’ve done it now.

In the past 9 posts, I’ve published as a 9-part poem my spiritual autobiography (beginning here).  I’m left wondering if it was the right thing to do.

It seems so raw, so stark, so undeveloped.  Like an unborn child not ready for the light of day, unable to breathe in the fresh air the world has to offer.

I’m left to wonder if in an effort to explain my pain I have violated some sanctity of life – my own and my family’s.  Is there not value in leaving some parts of life “untouched by the little clockwork of explanation”?

On the other hand, it could be that the doubt I’m having stems from the shame of “being Bipolar”.  Maybe the throbbing sensation I’m having in my gut now is more the hurt that comes from opening the wounds for healing.

I have no doubt this autobiographical poem needs a lot of work.  Now it’s like dry bones in a desert, waiting for a gust of the Spirit to come along and breathe life into it.

I’ll leave it up for now, present it to my writer’s group tonight, and decide where to go from there.

I would be interested in hearing from those of you who have read it (or parts of it).  Has this poem helped you know something in the world a little better?  How can I make it better?

(photo of Wendell Berry from Jodi Brownfield in ageless beauty)

How To Be a Poet by Wendell Berry

By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Source: Poetry (January 2001).

(posted at The Poetry Foundation)

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

from Dwain Preston in Poetry

Wendell Berry (and me) on Consumerism

wendell berry

Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.  (from Farming, a handbook  by Wendell Berry)

Wednesday is Senior Day at the “Goodwill” – 20% off all purchases.  My mom goes every week.  She also goes the first Saturday of each month when everything is 50% off.  I went with her once and as I browsed through the book section, I saw a woman rifling through the paperbacks and pulling out articles of clothing.  I asked my step-father what she was doing.

      “Oh, people come in here during the week and hide things so they can get them for half price on Saturdays.”

       Perhaps some of you might find value in bargain shopping, buying used clothing and what not and I would generally agree with you.  It’s much better than buying retail.  But consider this…

        My step-father once cleaned out the bottom of my mother’s closet and found she owned 72 1/2 pairs of shoes.  Now, they were mostly Goodwill shoes so the total cost probably wouldn’t have amounted to even 1 pair of Guccis.   But my point is, how many shoes does one person need?

        And, given that I’m the child of a divorce and can’t pick on one parent without also picking on the other, let me mention one of my Dad’s quirks – collectibles. Namely, Nascar driver Tony Stewart’s memorabilia.  My step-mother keeps a precise inventory of how much they have invested in Tony Stewart products.   At the risk of raising their insurance rates I won’t even bother to estimate it.  I’ll just tell you they recently built a huge pole barn mainly to store their die-cast cars and other objects (okay, so their real vehicles can still fit in there – but it’s early yet).

Wendell Berry who is a farmer in Northeast Kentucky as well as a poet and essayist has written a great deal on how poorly we have done as stewards of creation.  In the disposable society we have created for ourselves, we have lost our attachment to the land, to our community, to our God.  In a desperate effort to fill our lives with products , we have sacrificed relationships.

I want to close with another Berry poem,  part of a “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” –

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.

(image of Wendell Berry from wiselywoven, some rights reserved)