Wendell Berry, Finding Life in Limits

Finding Life in Limits: Well-Read Mom pays a visit to author, Wendell Berry.

by Marcie Stokman

On June 6th, in the heart of rural Kentucky, Carla, Colleen, and I convened around the kitchen table of the Berrys. Our conversation, which for me was a taste of heaven, lasted three hours. At first, I was nervous and held my notebook with scribbled questions close for security, but after ten minutes, I put the notebook aside. There is friendship here, I thought, I can be myself.

“Creativity springs from limits.”

Wendell Berry

Mr. Berry, I live in a small town, and for 30 years, I have wrestled with the limits of small-town life. You live in a remote area too. Do you ever think, ‘I have to get out of here; I need more?’ What is it like for you? Can you find what you need here”? I ventured to ask.

With a twinkle in his eye, he looked at me and said, “If I can’t find it here, I can’t find it anywhere.”

And apparently, he has found plenty of life rooted in his rural community. He and his wife Tanya have been married 64 years. They told us how they work together: He writes with a pencil; she types up his writing on their old-fashioned typewriter. Back and forth, the manuscripts travel to the editor and back via snail mail. There is no television, no computer, no internet, no smartphone, not even a voice recorder in their home. Yet, despite these limits–or maybe because of them–86-year-old Wendell and Tanya have been prolific in their writing and influence.

 Wendell acknowledged, “Creativity springs from limits.”

That certainly has been true in his case. And come to think of it, it has also been true in my life.

I remember back to the beginnings of Well-Read Mom. At the time, I hungered for more than what my small town offered. Without university lectures or cultural events to attend and surrounded by the growing needs of children, I longed for an intellectual space to call my own. The creative idea for Well-Read Mom sprang up, in part, from the limits of small-town life.

One of our earliest selections, A Lantern in Her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich,  helped me see the possibility of growth within the restraints of living in a particular place. In the story, the character of Grace reflects on living her life in one place,

“You know, Grace, it’s queer but I don’t feel narrow. I feel broad. How can I explain it to you, so you would understand? I’ve seen everything…and I’ve hardly been away from this yard…

I’ve been part of the beginning and part of the growth. I’ve married…and borne children and looked into the face of death. Is childbirth narrow, Grace? Or marriage? Or death? When you’ve experienced all those things, Grace, the spirit has traveled although the body has been confined. I think travel is a rare privilege and I’m glad you can have it. But not everyone who stays at home is narrow and not everyone who travels is broad. I think if you can understand humanity…can sympathize with every creature…can put yourself into the personality of everyone… you’re not narrow… you’re broad.”

A Lantern in Her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Limits are part of the human experience. During this “Year of the Family,” I hope that we live with greater creativity and gratitude within the limits we face. May our homes not just be places to consume, be entertained, and sleep, but rather places that shelter us to grow amid the modern forces that seek to fragment our lives.

May integration of life come through a firm rootedness of faith and faithfulness where we experience what is good, true, and beautiful; where we taste and see the gift of family life in a new way. May this happen not only in our own lives but in our homes and communities as well. I agree with Wendell Berry, “If I can’t find it here, I can’t find it anywhere.”

Marcie Stokman
Marcie Stokman

Marcie Stokman, M.A., is the founder and president of Well-Read Mom. She writes and speaks to encourage women and share the power of reading. She is the author of The Well-Read Mom: Read More. Read Well. which is an inspiring book on how, why, and what to read.

For our Tenth Anniversary, the reading list put together by Well-Read Mom will be reflecting on the theme of family. When Well-Read Mom began, we desired to create a place for women, not to escape from family life and work, but to experience a kind of leisure through friendship and literature so that women could return to their lives with a renewed vision and vigor. By reading books together, we help sustain a tradition of reading, which is a gift not only to our families but to the world. We hope you’ll join Well-Read Mom for our Year of the Family. Find out more.

Well-Read Mom