Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ripening --- Wendell Berry


The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been.
And yet as we know the dead
we grow familiar with the world.
We, who were young and loved each other
ignorantly, now come to know
each other in love, married
by what we have done, as much
as by what we intend. Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know. It was bitter to learn
that we come to death as we come
to love, bitter to face
the just and solving welcome
that death prepares. But that is bitter
only to the ignorant, who pray
it will not happen. Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening. How sweet
to know you by the signs of this world!

---Wendell Berry

Ripening by Wendell Berry

As I "ripen" and the "signs of this world" present themselves in a variety of unpredictable ways I find myself repeating a common refrain: If I had knew then what I know now…To have the knowledge I do now, when I could have used it sooner is absorbing, tantalizing, and slightly mischievous. Yet again fate seems to have the upper hand, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe, as Wendell Berry shows us in his poem Ripening, there is nothing more natural than taking the bitter with the sweet, using our lives and taking risks rather than allowing our days to expire routinely toward inevitable death.

"The longer we are together / the larger death grows around us." Yep, now that's an uplifting beginning to a poem; I can almost feel the sunshine, smell the fragrant flowers in bloom, see the rainbow, and hear the sweet notes of a harp. It may not be fun or comforting, but Berry's blunt first lines plant us squarely into the mindset he wants us to be in. Those of us that are lucky to live long enough will have a moment where we look around and see tangible clues that death is venturing toward us. Maybe death is still a long ways out, but it's clear that his itinerary includes a visit with us. You see it in the friends and family that are no longer with you. When your bones ache, thoughts of death are not far off. When you can't remember the name of the restaurant you ate at on your first date with your spouse, death will remind you exactly what it is you're forgetting. These are just some of the "costs of having been," but as Berry reminds us the collection of these costs coincides with refreshing discoveries. Similar to those aha moments I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, as we "grow familiar with the world" we lose some of our ignorance and "come to know / each other in love." With our accomplishments and motives mixing, Berry notices that we carry sparks of passion and long suffering dreams, contained and "bearing the seed / of what we know." He compares our gray and thinning hair, falling off and away to those seeds of ourselves scattering amongst the world. I'd like to think this image, this metaphor, is a little late. We give these pieces of ourselves once we realize, with confidence, that what we have to give is worth any sacrifice we might incur. Berry assumes this moment arrives later in life, but this is where I beg to differ.

Yes, it is "bitter to learn / that we come to death as we come / to love," that is to say it is bitter to learn that we are ill-prepared, a little selfish, and undoubtedly afraid. Yet, in both cases, we loosen and allow ourselves to transform, often changing for the better. I've heard friends comment on married couples saying "they help the other person to be the best possible version of themselves." This is not the work of a moment, but rather a gradual learning of each other as they ripen to different places in their lives. When this proverbial perfect couple is afraid of the next step they discuss those fears, they live those fears, and they plan for what those fears might become. What might seem "just and solving" at one point in life changes with perspective. Acquiring experiences seems to shift the prism through which we view our lives and these new vantage points are what allows Berry to surmise that death is "bitter / only to the ignorant, who pray / it will not happen." I don't need to tell you what they say about death and taxes, but still there are people who live in utter denial (and I'm not talking about paying their taxes!). I feel sorry for those people, but I know how difficult their load is to bear. It only dawned on me within the last five years that I would someday die. It took me to my mid twenties to figure out that I was not immortal, when even a child could have told you that simple bit of knowledge. I didn't really pay death much mind and in some ways that was a great thing I can never have back. But when I came to the realization that myself and all the people I care about will one day die, I was immediately awestruck with a chilling, debilitating fear. I would think about it all the time, even in moments of joy when there was no reason to think about anything bad at all, let alone death. I couldn't reconcile the truth with what I wanted to be true. As I've continued to ripen, I've come my own "bitter way to better prayer." By the way, how great is that line! The internal rhyme of bitter and better is genius and there's even a little something going on between way and prayer. The poem's epiphanous conclusion is "the sweetness of ripening" and fittingly it is not given, but earned over a lifetime. I know I haven't completely tasted the sweetness of my ripening, but each time I have a moment where the signs of the world present themselves I know I'm on the right track and it feels as good as bittersweet can.

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