Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Distant Neighbors and Close Friends

Last week, I grabbed a book off the shelf that I've been meaning to read since I bought it shortly after it was released in 2014:  Distant Neighbors:  The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder.  Reading some of those letters just after reading a few pages of Lila was quite the contrast:  2 men quite serious about their patch of land and the work that the land requires and the work that their artistic vision requires--what a treat!

It was also interesting to read about academic life of a different time, when people still had visiting writer kind of positions--and tenured jobs, often without advanced degrees.  Now we understand the artistry of the two men--and these letters are written in the 70's, when both men have an impressive body of work.

Still, I felt a bit of the bile of jealousy.  There's a letter where Berry is deciding to give up his academic position because it's just too draining and the university is solely interested in the good publicity that he gives the school.  I know so many academic folks with solid credentials who can only find part-time work and would be thrilled to find a school that would give them full-time work and benefits in exchange for publicity.

In part because of my spouse's adjunct life, we have been having that kind of time period where we feel like we don't really have time to mow the small patch of grass or get the pool chemicals back in sync.  Still, these letters that describe life on the land have such pull on me.  It's interesting to watch these two men discussing ideas of ecology that will shape their work in their later years.

It's also interesting to watch them forge a connection despite living so far away and having very little time to visit in person.  And their letters often apologize for long silence--and yet, they still have a bond.  These days it feels hard to forge a connection with people who live in the same county.  Maybe I should go back to writing letters.

I bought the book because I expected and wanted to hear about their artistic journey and their interactions with their land and their place on the planet.  I didn't expect the book to have so many interesting religious and spiritual aspects.  Snyder is a Buddhist, and Berry is a Christian, and their work deals openly with spiritual beliefs, so I'm not sure why this came as a surprise.

But what a wonderful surprise.  I find the ideas themselves interesting, but what I find even more heartening is that their religious ideas are so very different, and yet, they still can have civilized conversations.  And the depth of those conversations!

While I have friends with whom I share visions of the future and drafts of our writing, I don't have friends with whom I can have religious conversations of this kind of depth.  I'm glad I can listen in on the discussions Snyder and Berry are having.

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