Wayward at the Year’s End

The year’s end is upon us. Colder temperatures seem to match a mood to ponder where we’ve been and what remains to be done. Whether the scale is international, national, local or personal, it feels as though many rocks are strewn in the way and, if turned over, will too easily show the unseemly sides of life, and with that, more than we bargained for, especially if we are only trying to clear a bit of the path.

One of the bright spots this month has been a re-read of Wendell Berry’s The Wild Birds. Over the weekend, walking across the open field, I could see in my mind’s eye Burley Coulter sitting in Wheeler Catlett’s office, talking about how he wanted to will his farm to Danny Branch. He describes the farm coming to him, and passing from him, as “wayward.”

It’s wayward, Wheeler. I knowed you’d say what you’ve said. Or anyhow think it. I know it seems wayward to you. But wayward is the way it is. And always has been. The way a place in the world is passed on in time is not regular nor plain, Wheeler. It goes pretty close to accidental…. I’m just the one whose time has come to turn it loose.[1]

So much of where we find ourselves might be described the same way, even if we think our path has been straight. Certainly the inheritance of land passed down through generations, worked by many hands other than ours, is wayward. We were born wherever we were born, and how we got to this place in mid-life, doing what we hope holds meaning and making a difference for good in the world, has probably been wayward. Maybe the census of the people riding this very train into the city with me today is wayward. Surely my travel from here to South Africa to Yellowstone and back again, all in the circuit of a year, and with many points in-between, has been wayward. Have any of the emotional journeys also been so?

Burley’s description of the journey of land as wayward has an innocence that is completely lost in the formal definitions of the word: “ungovernable, untoward, unpredictable.” Even obstreperous makes the list of synonyms. But here at year’s end, I want to shun these negative notions and see at least a few things as Burley does. Maybe he reminds me of my large, red-haired great-uncle Burnie, “kin,” as they say, on my mom’s side: a brother to one of two Kentucky grandmothers. It’s a simple fact that what’s come to me has had less to do with me than I think. This doesn’t give me a reason to not take care of it; instead, it’s a reason to cultivate some humility.

The bottom line, at the bottom of this blog at the bottom of this year, could be as simple as the fact we benefit from others, and hopefully others will benefit from our care. Wayward doesn’t have to imply irresponsibility. Maybe wayward is grace.

[1] Berry, Wendell. The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986, p 122-23.

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