December 2, 2013 § 10 Comments
The other evening, the four of us watched a Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Berry. It’s a bit of an ordeal to watch anything on a screen in our house; we have an old computer set up in the corner of our living room, which Penny uses for photo-related stuff and which the boys listen to music on, but to actually sit comfortably in front of it requires wholesale rearrangement of furniture. The overstuffed chair/dog bed must be slid to one side, the other overstuffed chair/cat bed must be slid to the other side, and the old sofa/dogandcatbed must be pushed across the floor until it is within general proximity of the computer. This is all ok by us; frankly, we’d rather it weren’t particularly convenient to avail ourselves of passive entertainment in this house, and there is the small compensation of all the long-lost items revealed by said rearrangement.
Anyway and whatnot. I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Wendell Berry. I realize this puts me at risk of sacrificing whatever so-called sustainable agrarian credentials I might have cultivated over the years, but there you have it. It’s not like the man’s not a genius, or that I fundamentally disagree with anything he has to say. And what little of his poetry and fiction I’ve been exposed to, I’ve quite enjoyed. But I’ve always had a hard time with his essays. I’ve just never found them that compelling or readable.
The interview was at once mildly disappointing and fantastic. The disappointment was not for anything Wendell said or didn’t say, but rather, I think, due to the format of a made-for-television experience. It was clearly edited with a heavy hand to fit the boundaries of a particular time slot and to add some visual intrigue. But the overlays of the earnest audience member faces, awash in a soft, honeyed glow as they listened attentively and then in some post-production bit of magic, overlaid atop Wendell’s written words as he read from the text, were a bit much. Myself, I woulda rather they just let the man talk.I woulda rather just watched Wendell. He has such a wonderfully open and expressive face.
The interview also made me want to give some of Wendell’s essays another shot. He’s an enormously endearing fellow and in person, at least, dispenses his wisdom in a way that radiates humility and grace. If you can watch that interview and not feel as if you simply like the guy, not feel inspired to radiate a bit more humility and grace your own bad self… well, I don’t even know what to say. You’re probably one of those miserably unsentimental hard asses who’s not moved to tears by this song.
There was much of what Wendell said that lends itself to discussion, but the thing that really caught Penny’s and my ear was his comment on making a living. “Making a living isn’t about making a killing. It’s about having enough,” is what he said, or close enough to it.
Penny and I talk about this all the time. The question I have for Wendell, the question I would dearly love to ask him if I only I could, is this: What is enough? Because this is the other thing Penny and I talk about frequently: How do we decide what enough is? In many cases, I suspect, we don’t have enough. We certainly don’t have enough money saved to ensure we could weather any one of the numerous setbacks that may at some point befall us, be they health-related, job-related, or some unforeseeable contingency. We certainly don’t have enough to feel entirely confident that we will be able to live out our old age in the modest standard of living to which we’ve become accustomed.
But in so many other regards, we have much more than enough. We own 40-acres and a spacious home and we have more autonomy over our days than almost anyone I know. We have a truck and a car and a tractor and a computer upon which to watch a Wendell Berry interview. We have four freezers filled by the good, sweet work of our own hands. We have the company of our children, our friends, our family. We have more than so many. We could, in many regards, do just fine with less.
I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m being too hard on Wendell. I don’t think it’s his responsibility to define “enough” for me, any more than it’s my responsibility to define “enough” for anyone else.
I just think it’d be a really interesting conversation.