Pulling the Weeds: “Kindly Use” in Our Shared Relationships

Here in the Southeastern U.S., plants are the backdrop of everything. Kudzu is only the half of it—plenty of native species are just as eager to engulf any unsuspecting open space. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a region as warm and humid as this one, green growing things rise with astonishing speed to the challenge.

Tending a piece of land is mostly a never-ending battle between the things you intended to grow and those you didn’t. Old-field succession is almost an olympic sport here, with poison ivy, various tree saplings, and the ghosts of escaped groundcovers from a nearby bed jockeying for position in a fresh-cut lawn almost before the mower has cooled off.

This, of course, presents a metaphor.

Relationships require tending. Our natural and forged connections with neighbors, friends, family, church, city, county, state, nation, and world are just as apt to be swamped by the vines of division, suspicion, ingratitude, and pride as an empty farm is to be swallowed by the forest. It is difficult not to sense that we are in a great period of “re-wilding” in all our allegiances. The careful work of sowing, watering, and weeding our mutual loves has not kept pace with an entropy juiced with the artificial fertilizer of the Internet.

Nowhere is this more true than in politics, or, more precisely the subsuming of all things into politics. It used to be a truism that all politics is local, but now even local politics is global. Every idea, every passion, every preference has been agglomerated into one of two opposing commercial-entertainment-culture-habit-values models that demand every human interaction conform to themselves. They function like religions, and actual church life and theological study have trouble competing.

Bonds of kinship, proximity, shared experience, and responsibility wither as these new growths take root. Like some invasive species that secrete chemicals to inhibit the growth of competing plants, these complexes then work to ensure that nothing else that grows but their own clones. These replacements bonds are sterile, only capable of using up the good created by the rich ecosystem they supplanted and never producing fruit.

This new field is depleted of trust. Acquaintances size each other up to decide whether this new person is a confidant or threat. Instead of cherishing their closeness and dwelling fondly on what they share, old friends quickly dive into political questioning to suss out whether the connection is still viable on that basis alone. Parents and children would rather fight about matters far removed from their actual concerns than continue the project of learning how to give and share life.

Performing Self-Assurance

This is not to say that there is no merit in social and political ideas of either the “right” or the “left”. Rather, these ideas cease to have value when uprooted from the soil of interconnectedness that makes any real political life possible. Epithets like “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling” spring up when there is a pervasive sense that reality is under assault by those on the “other side” of a given issue (as though there were always only two). When everyone you disagree with is assumed to be insincere and on the make, calculating what they say to conform to a standard language deck passed out by their dark overlords, is it any wonder we can’t have a conversation?

When it comes to policing these filters (shibboleths?), our attitudes are by turns “evangelical”—suffused with the feeling of having figured out the real story and eagerness to have others believe—and “fundamentalist”—ensuring that our perceived opponents understand that they are wrong, I am right, and that this makes me superior to them. Imperative in both these attitudes is urgency. Time spent caring for one another, listening to one another, and reflecting on what we learn from each other is a threat to the system, and so must be avoided at all costs. Far better to fling slander from a safe distance.

Perhaps, though, the adherence to views and language we demand of others is only the projected manifestation of the fear we feel. We wonder what it would be like to lose our precarious place in the world, to disappoint the circle that holds us and feeds us only so long as we stay in line, so every opportunity to take down someone else (who, notably, isn’t us) is a little hit of the fentanyl of self-assurance. One less opportunity for it to be me who falls. The ethics of the cool kids’ table have expanded to the world entire. But in direct proportion to how performative a virtue becomes, it ceases to be formative. Good things are often more in need of cultivation than defense.

Learning to Be “Kind”

Novelist, poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America about the value of “kindly use” of land—that is, intimate knowledge of a place and its particulars that protects it from abuse and fits it to flourish in producing what it is designed to produce. Kindly use is knowing not to plow in ways that will cause erosion, recognizing that some slopes need to be forever forested, or recognizing that a low spot will always be a wetland instead of a crop field. This is in contrast to “general use” that seeks to apply an outside set of land management practices based on abstract principles without benefit of local knowledge. Such use is often abuse—doing more harm than good.

What’s good for land is good for people. Kindly use of relationships calls for deep knowledge of one another. Good manners and professional habits are good insofar as they provide a baseline for courtesy, but are ill-suited to expressing real love for specific people—there is no kindness without intimacy. Even less so making shared politics a prerequisite for friendship. Assumptions that have no room for correction or curiosity toward others offer no basis for lasting kinship. Restoring community among our splintered selves calls for a faithful pursuit of “re-localization,” rooting our understanding of people, places, and viewpoints in the things themselves instead of filtering all local knowledge through political blinders.

In such a re-localization of our loves, we have to re-learn how to repent and forgive. None of us can live up to what we are striving toward, even if we are all striving toward the same thing. The most vicious patterns I see now are the accusation of double standards between the two all-encompassing “teams”. The right response to such, isn’t indifference to the standards, though. Perpetrating the same excesses you’re upset about just to “own the libs” or “trigger the snowflakes” just salts the earth for everyone. The process of cultivating virtue always starts with giving and receiving grace. The good works come after. There is no other path to hope and wholeness.

Again, Berry is instructive. Though he has made a life of argument for very definite stances on conservation and a host of political and economic concerns, his art has been to winsomely persuade and hold out hope that anyone is capable, at some point, of choosing a different path. Theologian Russell Moore, writing in praise of Berry’s 87th birthday recently, shared a story:

“I am not sure I’ve ever felt more sheepish than when, sitting at his dinner table in Kentucky, my iPhone started ringing in my pocked, right there with one who is, um, not a fan of such devices. When I cringed and said, ‘sorry,’ he said ‘Well, we’re all sinners, aren’t we?'”

We are all sinners. Expecting perfection is unbiblical and unholy. Rather, in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate.”

In a world well practiced at casting down the unrighteous and taking no delight in the serious business of repentance, daring to say “we’re all sinners, aren’t we” is act of utmost courage. In it, we stand up to the dictator within. Every act of grace is cultivating the hope that others might see, take up the call, and follow. The life you save may be your own.

It’s a dangerous world out there. Be “kind.”

Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.

Walter Hooper (1931-2020)

I’m saddened this evening to hear the news of the passing of Walter Hooper. If you’re not familiar with Walter, it’s largely due to his influence that C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction books remain in print and continue to have an outsized influence on Christian discourse decades after his passing.

I once spent an afternoon with Walter at his home in Oxford, just after Christmas 2004, and if you’ll indulge me in more than a little nostalgia, I’ll share the story.

A dear friend of my family’s from Western North Carolina (Anna Barry, who has also now passed away) knew Walter when they were at UNC Chapel Hill together in the 1950s. She had been an avid reader of and correspondent with C.S. Lewis, and connected with Walter over his work. She encouraged him to write to Lewis, and, based on that correspondence, Walter went to the UK to meet Lewis and ended up becoming his literary secretary near the end of Lewis’ life, and later the trustee of his literary estate. He never returned to live in the US.

Miss Anna stayed in touch with Walter through the years, occasionally visiting him in Oxford with her family and hosting him at her home on visits back to the U.S. Through him, she connected as well with the Tolkien family, who were close friends of his. In the summer of 2004, Priscilla Tolkien (J.R.R.’s youngest daughter) paid the Barry family a visit in North Carolina, and Miss Anna convinced her to have a little reception and give a talk for our county homeschool co-op. I was a sophomore in college by then, but came along with my family. Coming on the heels of the Lord of the Rings film franchise, this was a big hit with a bunch of young nerds like us. Pricilla was charming, and more than kind to put up with the mountain of questions and photo ops we subjected her to.

Later that year, I had the opportunity to spend Christmas break in the UK on a fine arts tour through my college. We had one free day in an otherwise full schedule, so I contrived a plan to visit Oxford, eat at the Eagle and Child, and (hopefully) wow my friends by taking them to meet Priscilla. Miss Anna graciously reached out to Priscilla on my behalf, but she declined to see us, citing ill health.

“There’s someone else there you should meet, though. Let me give you his information,” she said, and wrote Walter Hooper’s name and phone # on a piece of paper for me. At that time, I hadn’t read much of Lewis beyond the Narnia books and Mere Christianity, and was only vaguely familiar with his impact on popular Christianity in the West. I’d certainly never heard of Walter.

Upon arriving in London, though, I dutifully phoned him (back then, kids, you didn’t call people from another country on a whim—it was so incredibly expensive!), and he was quite excited to to host some friends and me on our day in Oxford.

We took the bus and, after some obligatory sightseeing—Radcliffe Camera, the University church of St. Mary the virgin, the OUP bookstore—we walked 2 miles or so in the spitting snow to his townhouse. He welcomed us in, made tea, and intently listened to our stories about what we were studying, how we’d found England thus far, etc. And then I started looking around his house.

There was a large photo of Walter standing with C.S. Lewis hanging over the mantelpiece (Walter lived alone and never married, so aside from old family photos from the U.S., this one was most prominent). By the stairs was a picture of Walter with Pope John Paul II! It began to dawn on me that this must be a special guy who had lived quite the interesting life.

Once we had all been introduced and finished chitchatting, he started to tell his story. Walter made the connection for me of how he knew Miss Anna (he himself was a son of rural North Carolina) and then related how he came to know Lewis and become a British citizen. He’d actually lived for some months at the Kilns with Lewis and his brother, & inherited a good bit of their furniture, which he showed us. He told some classic Lewis stories about their first meeting, including the “Bathroom” anecdote that appears in his introduction to The Weight of Glory, and a story about Lewis’ giving change to a panhandler (he was chided by a friend, “He’ll only spend it on drink!” and retorted, “Well, that’s what I was going to do with it.”) that I’ve often retold when talking with Christians about erring on the side of generosity.

Walter then shared his faith journey, from his American upbringing (Methodist, if I remember correctly) and his studying for the Anglican priesthood, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism in the 1980s once he grew disillusioned with much of Anglican politics and cultural captivity (“The only real Christians in Oxford,” he said with a smile, “are in the RCC! Who knew?”). Time flew, and soon we’d been there talking of politics, eschatology—a particular comment of his about imagining the resurrected body being a bit like “Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his prime,” had us all in stitches— and so many other things for three or four hours. By then it was getting dark, and time to catch the bus back to London.

He sent us off warmly, and gave each of us his personal e-mail address (on AOL!) and an invitation to write anytime. When I arrived home, I sent him a note of thanks, and he wrote back promptly. We ended up corresponding for many months. I still have all the old e-mails, and looking back over them tonight, I am astonished at the time and care he took to write so faithfully. He even read and interacted with my paltry articles from the student newspaper! Eventually the conversation trailed off, though owing to my end rather than his, as I graduated, got married, got a job, and got too busy to keep up with old friends—to my great shame and lament.

Here is an e-mail from him (dated 5/17/2005) that I am still humbled by, especially given my lack of professional credentials or relevant projects of any sort and his incredibly full life. I’m sharing it here as a testament to the type of person he was.

Dear Justin—you are a good man for continuing to write. I like very much hearing from you, but I realise you have no idea of the strain I am under. After five years of unremitting hard work on the first two volumes of the Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis, I was hoping for a break. But because the big film of Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has its premiere in December 2005, the Estate of C.S. Lewis and the publishers have been pushing me very, very hard to complete Volume III (the final volume) so it can be published before the film. I work seven days a week, and I have had one day free since November 2004. Recently I’ve been getting up at 5 so as to try to get more done.

Most of those to whom I mention the letters imagine a little paperback, which they feel they could polish off in a weekend. But I am talking about a volume that is essentially a thousand pages of text and notes. Most of the 2000 or so notes in this volume have cost me many hours of research in the Bodleian. So, while this may be a job that could be polished off in record time by some people—I am not one of them. Besides all this, I get hundreds of visitors every year, and about 1000 letters to answer. So my work on the letters has to be sandwiched in between all these visits, all these letters. Nowadays when people make an appointment to see me I agree only on condition they not stay beyond an agreed on time. Otherwise, people will stay until they are ready to leave—which may be six or seven hours. They have nothing but free time, and I have none. I only have until the middle of June to complete the biggest task I’ve undertaken in my life, and the doctor is having to treat me for stress. So, the reason it is hard for me to be a good correspondent at this time—and until this job is behind me—is that I simply have to work ALL the time. I never have time off. I hope I can survive long enough to complete this volume, but if the presume keeps on building up I don’t know what I will do. I may simply have to ask the Lewis Estate to let someone else complete this volume. The problem with that is that it would be very difficult for anyone else to know how to finish it.

It’s a curious thing, which I can’t explain, that nearly all those who are constantly on the phone, or in letters or in emails, begging to see me, do not have the slightest notion of what I’ve spent the last 41 years doing. “What is it you do?” they are sometimes led to ask. I tell them, and they’ve forgotten five minutes later. Perhaps this is good for my soul, for I’m never given a reason to be vain. But it’s not good for my health because while these people have endless time, I have to either get up with the chickens and stumble into bed in the wee hours.

This is not meant to make you ashamed of having written—but merely to explain. I’m hoping good friends like you and your classmates will not write me off because—God willing—when this huge task is behind me, I want to keep up our precious correspondence. What I’m describing is not something new. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t one of God’s jokes that, while there are a few people in the world who actually know what I do, almost none of the people I know has the slightest interest in what I’ve being doing in Oxford for more than half my life. It makes me wonder why they are so keen to spend so much time with me?

On my precious day off—last Thursday—I went up to London with two friends to see the exhibition in the National Gallery of the paintings of Caravaggio. I am a member of the Athenaeum Club in London, but I am there so rarely I have to prove my identity when I go there. Anyway, I gave my friends Cyrus and Iain lunch there, and then we saw the paintings. It was wonderful to have a day out, and to see those marvelous pictures.

The other big change is my life is—Blessed Lucy of Narnia! Have you heard? I have a new cat. The Fathers of the Oxford Oratory would not give me a moment’s peace after Claret the Meek died. They felt that I needed another cat, and one of them dragged me off in search of one. Eventually, we found Blessed Lucy of Narnia in a little animal rescue place in Oxford. She’s a little over a year old, is a combination of tabby (which means rings) and tortoise (which means bright spots). She is very affectionate, and I worship the ground she walks on. But, Lord! What a merry dance she is leading me! She sleeps all day and is very busying during the night catching mice and birds. One night last week she brought me four mice. Not all together, but one after the other during the course of the night. If I’m lucky enough to get the mouse away from her undamaged, I fling it out the window. In fact it has just occurred to me that on that particularly night she might have brought in the SAME mouse four separate times. The same with birds. I take them from her, and put them out the window. This breaks poor Blessed Lucy of Narnia’s heart.

When she comes in from outside during the night she rushed to be with me. I have to turn over on my back because, while I can’t sleep unless I’m on my side, she can’t sleep on top of me unless I’m lying flat. So I lie flat, with Lucy of Narnia on my chest, and when she falls asleep I gently lift her onto the bed, turn over and go back to sleep.

But you must be bored with all my ramblings. Please, would you do me a favour? We often ask people to pray for us just to have something to say. But I am worried about the project I’m working on, and I’m worried about my health. Would you please pray hard  that the Lord will give me the strength to complete this task? Next time I’ll tell you why I am so very, very happy that the world has Pope Benedict XVI, but by this time you are tired of sitting at your desk, and tired of my voice! So, God bless you old friend, from Walter the Slow.

How do you respond to this? I’m sure I was more than sheepish, but we continued to write even so. Miss Anna was always also a faithful correspondent, sending me countless books, articles & longhand letters until her death in 2018. Among the many volumes on my shelf from her (always with lengthy introductions inside the front cover that showed her intimate knowledge of the text in question) is J.B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English (see article linked to in the first paragraph for the significance of that).

I was certainly a different person as a 20-year-old tourist wandering off the street into a busy man’s home than I am now, but Anna and Walter’s caring attention sparked a love for good books in me that hasn’t abated. Their nurturing correspondence with a young nobody is an example of faithful discipleship modeled by Lewis. It’s a level of willingness to pour out encouragement on others to which I still aspire.

Though I hadn’t spoken with either of them in a long while, I’m always grateful for their time and effort, and looking forward to reunions in glory. Rest well, friend.

Image: All Souls Quad, Oxford University. From ox.ac.uk.