These days, I'm caught in the tension between two difference visions of living. Between the places I exist currently and the imagination of what could be, with simply time, work, grit, choices and risk in the way.
In early January of 2017, I took a big step: I moved back to Rural America, to my home in the hills to the heart of Appalachia - West Virginia. What came with this was immense inner-turmoil, struggle, deep joy, expansive meaning and visions of a future. It also brought a lot of disconnection - a realization of the pushback I'd get from friends, from family, from society; the way that it would limit certain opportunities and social engagement. The way in which I am going is viewed as backwards, as isolating, as meaningless to the mass of society, seen as foolishness.
I remember coming back to West Virginia after my first trip back to Charlottesville, Virginia where I lived for a year and a half before moving. I was driving on interstate 81 South, a mile away from turning off to interstate 64 West towards Charleston, the capitol city of West Virginia.
For most of 30 miles on i81, traffic was consistent; It was highly congested. But as I turned off onto i64, there was not a car in sight, either in front, behind, or on the other side of the interstate. This continued for nearly 10 miles before I saw a car pass on the other side of the interstate.
What became overwhelmingly clear to me was the reality that I am a lone traveler, returning to what most consider as "no mans land." Yet, joy flooded my soul as I accepted the truth of my current dilemma of traveling on a road less traveled, returning to a place most of society sees as a desolate place of little to no meaning; a place becoming more and more seen as backwards, not progressive - a place of intellectual death. And I have to say, some of this is true in the current communal constructs of rural communities, but not because of the places and ideas that historically have existed, but because of the industrialized world's exploitation of the communities themselves, the destruction of cultural and communal heritage, and the rural history of a place and a people.
In this midst of this, there is another story here - a story deeply resounding in my own soul. A story that most cannot see unless they step outside of modern distractions (technologies, media, the business of the urban world, the pervasive advertising complex and pop culture), accept the gaze of the contemplative lens, let go of the idle climbing of the American Dream, and allow one's eyes to be opened to a wider meaning of their human existence.
I was caught in this gaze, in this contemplative lens years ago, and have been on an invisible inner journey ever since that has changed my life in drastic, terrifyingly beautiful, and profound ways.
I arrived back in my parents humble abode - a place I promised I'd never return to - a place of humiliation that produced true meekness in my soul. That night after settling into my new room, I picked up three books - (1) Culture Making by Andy Crouch, (2) The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr, and (3) The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry. I had no idea what book I wanted to read. Thinking to myself that I needed feedback from some external reality, I inquired my Instagram community via Instagram Stories, only to realize no one really cared which book I read by the amount of responses - zero.
I sat there and picked up the book I thought I wanted to read. As I held it up from the others and paid close attention to my intuitive instincts, something inside me simply said, "Nope." I picked up the next one, and the same Voice spoke, "Nope, not that one either." I was a bit frustrated, saying, "Why not those!" I eventually gave in and surrendered to the knowing within me. The one that was left was Wendell Berry's collection of agrarian essays, written between the 1960s and early 2000s called "The Art of the Commonplace."
Sitting in my bed in my parents house with numbing, comforting silence all around, I postured my soul for a few moments, took a deep breath, and slowly opened the book, easing myself into the reading, contemplating the opening words. I've always enjoyed reading the dedication, table of contents, and introduction sections slowly, as a way of preparing my whole self to partake in the words on the pages to come.
My heart was immediately penetrated. I felt a gapping hole open in the center of my chest, ready to accept the rich wisdom of a modern contemplative, thinker, farmer, creator, writer, activist, mystic... And I began to feel the narrow way that had seemed so daunting within my own visions for my future widen; visions of my exploding heart being comforted in the confirmative language of a fellow explorer of deeper meaning, place and belonging; of the invisible world within and without. My heart was confirmed within these pages, telling me that my ambitions, beliefs, visions and heart were not insane, were not stupid, were not backwards - they were adequate, appropriate, good; that my return to this humble place where deep familial and cultural roots reside was a step in the right direction, no matter how difficult.
As I read through the introduction, I found myself groaning within, tears flowing, then immediate laughing, smiling with joy as I shared a deep camaraderie with Wendell and my own story; feeling my eyes become like a dried ocean being filled by the waters of words and wisdom.
This introduction was a recollection of memory and story of Wendell's process journeying from a urban, industrial, intellectual, educated and technologically-advanced environment, mindset and worldview back to his home in rural Kentucky where he grew up, exploring his mental, spiritual, philosophical and contemplative journey to arrive back in those simple lands that held immense meaning, story, history, memory, and heritage; this place held a sound that he could no longer dismiss, but had to embrace, no matter the circumstances. And his journey at home provided the compass for works that would change the world.
Wendell's writing and story was reading my mind; I was overcome by the camaraderie of thought and perspective that I had been tilling within my own soul for years without knowing how similar it was to Wendell. And every time before trying to read his book, it just didn't seem right... But this day it was, the day I realized Wendell's story is my own.
This rural landscape is my home.