If Wendell Berry were editing the aphorism, “Hell is other people” it would become, “Hell is busy people in search of something more, or something else… Heaven is a good friend.” On this first day of 2016 we do well to consider these hells and heavens that we inhabit, that we have made of the world. “Hell is in business here all the time,” Berry says, “Heaven too, or we couldn’t stand it.”
I was in the audience the evening the video below was taken. After the reading Berry signed my copy of Leavings. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him I was from Salina, Kansas he nearly jumped out of his skin. We spent a few moments talking about Wes Jackson, the Land Institute, and how beautiful it is there. He lamented that these days nobody thought it was possible to drive across Kansas without a DVD player to distract them from its beauty (dismissed as monotony). I asked him if he gets back to Salina much and he said, “No, I’m like a high school girl anymore,” pause for effect, “I say ‘no’ to everything.”
My New Year’s wish is pretty straight forward: that all of us would turn to our fellow human beings in love and compassion, that we would refuse to see only enemies and adversaries, but be glad to see friends and to find friendship with even the strangest stranger.
If you need a little motivation for the task, perhaps giving Wendell Berry the first word of the New Year will help. “The Letter”, the poem excerpted below, would be my recommendation. Only Berry could be so profound and hilarious at the same time. You can read it, or better yet watch the video at the bottom and listen to Berry read the poem himself.
Oh, that it would be a Happy New Year, everyone.
I dreamed that you and I were sent to Hell.
The place we went to was not fiery
or cold, was not Dante’s Hell orMilton’s,
but was, even so, as true a Hell as any.
It was a place unalterably public
in which crowds of people were rushing
in weary frenzy this way and that,
as when classes change in a university
or at quitting time in a city street,
except that this place was wider far
than we could see, and the crowd as large
as the place. In that crowd every one
was alone. Every one was hurrying.
Nobody was sitting down. Nobody
was standing around. All were rushing
so uniformly frantic, that to average them
would have stood them still. It was a place
deeply disturbed. We thought, you and I,
that we might get across and come out
on the other side, if we stayed together,
only if we stayed together. The other side
would be a clear day in a place we would know.
We joined hands and hurried along,
snatching each other through small openings
in the throng. But the place was full
of dire distractions, dire satisfactions.
We were torn apart, and I found you
breakfasting upon a huge fried egg.
I snatched you away: “Ed! Come on!”
And then, still susceptible, I met
a lady whose luster no hell could dim.
She took all my thought. But then,
in the midst of my delight, my fear
returned: “Oh! Damn it all! Where’s Ed?”
I fled, searching, and found you again.
We went on together. How this ended
I do not know. I woke before it could end.
But, old friend, I want to tell you
how fine it was, what a durable
nucleus of joy it gave my fright
to force that horrid way with you, how
heavenly, let us say, in spite of Hell.
Do you want to know why
you were distracted by an egg, and I
by a beautiful lady? That’s Hell.