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How It Went by Wendell Berry

Re-membering: A Contemplative Practice from Port William

contemplative practice remembering spiritual practice wendell berry Feb 01, 2023

Driving down the road.

Putting wet laundry in the dryer.

Picking up a garden trowel.

The quiet moment before falling asleep.

A memory slips into your mind—their familiar whistle, particular look or smell, a phrase spoken…you remember and for a moment you re-member
The Port William Membership…if you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s time to be introduced to Wendell Berry’s fictional town in Kentucky, its landscape and people.   How It Went: Thirteen More Stories of the Port William Membership is his latest (and hopefully not last) book.  I bought it for myself for Christmas and quickly read it, but like each of his Port William novels and short stories, they stay with me long after.

Berry has a knack for describing the lived experience of the land and its people.  Even if their particularities are not your particularities, you find yourself woven into their human experience. 

Stories of small town & farm-life, a barber and his shop, being a child or a parent during a world at war in the 1940s…they pull you in and draw you like a threaded needle into the fabric of your own life

With an ease that may surprise, you open your own memory box containing the people and places that have made you and many times, held you together. 
This particular book centers on an old man, a writer, looking back (like Berry himself).  “Memories of times and places he had forgotten came back to him, reached him at last as if they had been on their way for a long time.  He realized how fully and permanently mere glances, touches, passing words, from all his life far back into childhood, had taken place in his heart…” (p. 76).

Andy Catlett remembers those no longer living and “yet by their absence his old companions have in a way come closer to him than they were when they were alive.  They seem to involve themselves intimately in his life as he goes on living it” (p. 131).
He sounds a lot like Saint John Chrysostom in the 4th century: “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.”

There are expressions of wit and wisdom that you have inherited.  
There are people whose presence, whether still with you in body or not, continue to bring comfort, encouragement, or perhaps curiosity! 

Pause for a moment: 

  • Bring them to the kitchen table or garden of your heart, the living room or hiking trail of your mind.  Who wants to walk out of or whisper from the past to you?
  • Allow for a moment to come back together, to re-member.  What does this occasion call for?  Gravity or levity? Andy recalls grandaddy Feltner on occasions more than enough saying, “What can’t be helped must be endured.”  Or when someone is talking on and on, he can’t help but hear Art Rowanberry’s judgement: “I reckon he must be a right smart fellow, but whatever he knows he learnt it from hisself.” (p. 132)
  • Let these simple memories of Andy’s spark your own.  Receive a gift from the past you didn’t know you needed today…from your own membership.   

Just now as I finished writing, my son opened a can of sparkling water and the sound of his pouring it over ice took me back to childhood.  I’m in 4th grade, pouring a cold glass bottle of Pepsi over ice and running it out to my mom who is push-mowing the front yard.  I knew she loved the frothy fizz and wanted her to enjoy it that hot day.  Although little fizz was left by the time she stopped and knelt down to drink it, I remember her look of appreciation, her joy in being remembered.  


To Get Started with Port William, look for these books:
Jayber Crow
Andy Catlett: Early Travels
Hannah Coulter
Nathan Coulter
A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership
How It Went: Thirteen More Stories of the Port William Membership


Kasey Hitt is a co-founder and instructor for Wisdom Tree Collective. She’s been a spiritual director since 2003 and has been reading Wendell Berry novels and poetry for just as long. 


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