A pilgrimage is, by definition, a religious thing. I don’t mean that it is limited to a specific religion, and indeed, it isn’t even limited to an easily identifiable or government-sanctioned religion. But it is, nevertheless, religious. A pilgrimage occurs when the pilgrim chooses to go somewhere for a purpose that transcends the merely worldly. It is not a vacation, it is not a business trip, its purpose is more than practical (though, by being more than practical, it has the potential to become the most practical thing that the pilgrim can do).
Some pilgrims travel the Camino De Santiago possibly on the back of a donkey. Some pilgrims travel to Mecca, to gather by the millions as a humble though inspiring act of piousness. Some travel, every twelve years, to bathe in an Indian river, with over 80 million others.
And some pilgrims, though admittedly few, drive a 20-year old Toyota Tercel to Louisville, Kentucky.
I began my pilgrimage on Friday, September 26, to attend a conference. The conference title was “Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond Food” and the overriding, if completely assumed argument, was that it is vital, indeed it is beautiful, for each one of us to center our lives to live well in our place… which, for those long term readers (if I can be said to have any truly long-term readers), is a key concept that I am trying to understand, and more importantly, to live out.
I will hereby step fully into a tangent. It is ironic, I suppose, that in order for me to learn about how to live locally, I was required to travel to Kentucky. I hereby admit my flagrant sin. However, unlike all the other sinners, I had a good reason to commit mine, which I will soon go into. And thus, through the goodly gift of cognitive dissonance, I am absolved.
Before I get to the conference however (in regards to the chronology of this post… I have in fact already gone to the conference), let me start with my accommodations. I could have stayed in a hotel, those giant boxes on the hillside, giant boxes made of ticky tacky, giant boxes on the hillside, giant boxes all the same. But since the theme was localism, and desiring to limit my peripheral sins as much as possible, I decided to couch surf.
Couch surfing, for those who don’t know, is where you contact an individual, or, in my case, a couple, and ask them to host you for a couple of nights. The accommodation is free, though it is usually polite to provide a gift of sorts, and, other than wondering whether you will be killed and eaten in the middle of the night, it’s usually an incredibly positive experience. For those of you who are concerned, I was not killed and eaten. In fact, my hosts, Chuck and Trang, were incredible. I met them at an ice cream parlour, and then, after meeting some of their friends and taking a free trolley ride (something which Louisville offers on the last Friday of every month), we returned to their apartment. They had a lovely blow up bed with sheets and pillows (such extravagance!) but more importantly, they had many samples of bourbon.
We started with the poor stuff. I don’t remember the name of it. But it was poor. It was perhaps a cross between bourbon and lighter fluid, with an emphasis on the lighter fluid. We moved up. Of course Jim Beam came into the equation. But even Jimmy is fairly poor by any actual standards. We ended with Angel’s Envy. When distilling bourbon, the mist that evaporates, the mist that makes the distillery smell heavenly, is known as the angel’s share. The angels (especially, I assume, the teenage angels) delight in this beautiful bouquet of 80 proof oaken glory. Angel’s Envy however, is the stuff the angel’s do not get. It is the stuff that a certain, highly-repentant sinner gets as he glimpses what quite possibly may be a little bit of heaven-on-earth, a glimpse of the promised land, kingdom come… and it is good.
The conference was the following day, Saturday the 28th for those of you who are checking my facts (I assure you, few facts were harmed in the writing of this post). It was a short walk from Chuck and Trang’s, which is good, since after a fourteen hour drive, I was not looking forward to sitting in a car. I entered the library at the University of Louisville, spoke with some folks milling in the foyer, then took my seat in the second row from the front, dead centre.
The first panel got up, speaking of how they themselves are attempting to live well in their place (another way of speaking is to dwell, I will go into this idea hopefully in the near future). They were all quite good, and I have several quotations which I copied down. I will likely share many of the thoughts in the future, and perhaps, if you are very lucky and I am feeling particularly honest, I will actually attribute them to the proper person, rather than passing the wisdom off as my own.
Near the end of the panel however, something changed. The speakers were still quite articulate and interesting, but I could tell that the room was now different. I saw people looking at the back of the room, grinning the grins of children who know that presents are about to be delivered.
I followed the gaze, knowing what I would see. Or rather, who I would see.
Mr. Wendell Berry had entered the room.
For those of you who know me, Mr. Berry has been one of the biggest influences on my life. His poetry, essays, novels, and way of life, have completely changed my life, challenged me, caused me to consider my vocation, my values, and my aspirations.
Berry and his wife Tanya (pronouced, in Berry’s drawl, Tonya) silently stepped into their seats.
A new panel got up, speaking on the topic of educating for place, which is a very interesting turn on the concept of place-based education, providing, perhaps, a purpose beyond education for the sake of manufacturing an employee. Again, there were some great concepts being addressed, concepts which I would love to share at a later point.
Lunch was next, a local caterer providing local sandwiches made of local ingredients and with a side of Pepsi and Lays potato chips (purchased, presumably, from a local supplier).
After lunch, was Berry’s turn to speak. I will go over it soon, I promise, but I wanted to quickly give an overview of the rest of the day.
After Berry spoke, a third panel came up, addressing the Politics of Place, followed shortly by two authors who were about to be published and who were sharing excerpts from their books. Again, there was much wisdom and much laughter. And again, I will likely share the ideas later on… but I really want to get back to Mr. Berry.
It was an interview, with Jason Peters asking the questions and Berry answering.
There have been few times in my life where I have sat in a room, with a couple hundred other people, waiting with baited breath for somebody to speak. Peters joked at one point that it was difficult to interview Berry because of his penchant for pausing. Indeed, it was often the case that there was an incredibly powerful silence on stage, right before Berry would respond, or rather, continue to respond. In a day and age where silence has become persona non grata, where those with nothing to say unable to stop saying it, it was beautiful to see somebody use pause so effectively. To see somebody actually consider before responding.
The interview lasted for an hour. There was wisdom enough in it to last a lifetime.
I will likely share other key learnings that Mr. Berry shared over that hour, but I wanted to focus here on one thing. Peters asked Berry to address the crowd, specifically the young college kids that were in attendance. What grandfatherly advice would he give them?
Berry responded with a couple of statements, then suddenly, his eyes lit up and he turned and addressed the crowd. (A paraphrase from my hastily jotted notes follows).
“Don’t worry about understanding. The great things of life cannot be understood; they must be lived.”
He went on to share his non-understanding of the Christian scriptures, specifically Psalm 23’s opening line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” He shared how he didn’t understand that, how, since those words were first penned many years ago, many peoples had starved while knowing that those words were true. But they were a great truth, and as all great truths, they must be lived out, and only then will there be a possibility of understanding. Even then, understanding may escape us continually.
The drive home the following day was long. Made longer perhaps by my ample coffee consumption en route.
But its length was its gift.
As I sat in the car, a bottle of Angel’s Envy in the trunk, I had ample time to consider how to dwell in my place.
How can you live well in your place?
One way, perhaps, is by not worrying about understanding how to do it, but by living it anyways.
It should be noted here that Louisville is better pronounced “Loo-el-ville,”
though the”Loo” and the “el” are somewhat run together.
I feel more cultured having seen an original famous statue.
Admittedly, it is only one of several made by Rodin, but it’s still nice.
Making a Home Fit for Humans. A worthy goal.
Yes. I got his autograph.
I’m going to write a post on something he said in regards to this book
(this book being, quite possibly, one of the greatest novels ever written).
Completely unrelated to anything about the conference…
but this little bakery put a piece of bacon on a maple doughnut.
I’m not sure why Canada has not figured this out.