How To Be a Person

22 May

Wendell Berry has a poem titled “HOW TO BE A POET (to remind myself).” Even if we do not fancy ourselves as poets, I think it has some helpful tips in reminding us how to be a person. If you are anything like me, we can all use a reminder sometimes:

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill – more of each

than you have – inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

My writing professors challenged us to be contemplatives. They told us to sit and keep sitting. To sit in silence, to sit and think, to sit and question, to sit and do nothing at all, and to count all of this sitting as possibly the most important part of the creative process. They challenged us to get off of the screen and write in a notebook. One professor, in trying to get us to communicate slowly, assigned a measly two pages of writing a week, but he expected each sentence on those two pages to be perfect, to add to the silence, to have a rhythm and a life all their own.

This poem speaks to me, then, as a writer. But as I said, I also think it can speak to me as a person. Just this week a friend lost her father. I told her there are no words, and she agreed. We remained in the silence. I asked my young students how they discern the will of God and their first answer was, “Sit still. Reflect. Listen to the silence.” Each time we meet we carve out time to sit, quietly. They were skeptical at first, but they have come to love those few minutes. They look forward to it. They benefit from it. “Good sitting,” I say as we blink our eyes open together. They agree. The ordinary room feels sacred.

Together, we are getting better at finding a place to sit still, finding a silence to work from. It feels countercultural, and it feels like as we get better at sitting, we are getting better at being human. Maybe from this place we can hear the prayers prayed back to us.

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