On a consulting assignment in New Brunswick, Canada, in a conversation over dinner with my new clients, I made an offhand comment about a French-Canadian great-grandmother and how some of my ancestors migrated from Canada to Louisiana. “Your ancestors must have been driven out during the Acadian Expulsion,” they said. “That means you have Acadian blood!"
That conversation led to hours spent researching my ancestry and the discovery that my people were indeed among among the earliest settlers in Port Royal, in modern-day Nova Scotia, tracing back to a sea captain named Pierre Arsenault who is believed to have sailed from France in about 1671.
My father glorified our Irish heritage, claiming that we were descended from the Irish King O’Laoghaire (“O’Leary”). I do love Ireland and recall, during my first visit there, feeling gobsmacked by déjà vu when I came upon a vista of horses grazing in a green field against a wild sea. These days, however, after nearly four years of regular travel to New Brunswick, I think of myself as a Lost Acadian, who found her way to Maritime Canada by pure dumb luck.
Or was it?
We are bound to our ancestors by delicate strands of DNA. Might DNA also explain why I fell in love with the French language at the age of 12? Why, when I was planning my first trip to Europe, it had to be France? Or how I ended up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, working a project led by a woman with the last name Arsenault—my newly discovered distant cousin?
Is there something in our DNA that pulls us toward the stories and places of our ancestors?
What follows here is the text of a letter written to my youngest sister, Maureen Rose Morley, by the great writer Wendell Berry. Maureen had studied his writings in graduate school in Vancouver, where she met her husband, Steve Morley, and was strongly influenced by them. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, she wrote to tell Mr. Berry how much she appreciated and was comforted by his work. He replied promptly from his home in Port Royal, Kentucky, with a lovely handwritten letter. It was dated June 21, 2005--the date of her 38th birthday. In it, he tells a story of a time when his friend, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, took him to visit Thomas Merton.
When Maureen died in December 2006, she left the letter to me along with her own writings. To a young woman who cared little for things, it was one of her treasures. It is too wise and wonderful to keep to myself. Maureen was wise and wonderful too, and I know she’d be happy for me to share it with you. I have reproduced it below, leaving intact every word and bit of punctuation and paragraph break. His last line expresses my New Year's wish for you.
Dear Mrs. Morley,
I am very moved to have your letter, and of course I am deeply grateful that my books could have been valuable to you in your circumstances.
Since I received your letter I have been thinking of what I should say to you. The prognosis you have received from your doctor must make your situation seem rather dramatic, perhaps to you, but certainly to us “lucky” ones who have received no such official tidings. But of course we lucky ones are lucky only insofar as we successfully forget that we too may be living the last years—or days or hours—of our own lives. And this is a failure of imagination that all the great teachers have told us to correct. And so I have thought of a story to tell you.
Thomas Merton and I had a mutual friend, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who took me with him twice to visit Merton. On the first of these visits we got into a conversation about the Shakers. Finally I said I didn’t understand the Shakers. If they really believed that the world could end at any minute, why didn’t they live in little huts? Why did they build great, enduring, beautiful buildings of birch or stone?
Merton agreed kindly enough that I was right: I certainly didn’t understand the Shakers. If you really know, he said, that the world could end at any minute, then you know there is no reason to be in a hurry. You take your time and do the very best work you are capable of doing.
Well, Merton was a great teacher, and he had been careful to understand the Shakers.
I wish I could say that I am a student worthy of such teaching. I am not, as I know from all the time I’ve spent fretting and hurrying. Even so, what Merton told me sank into my mind pretty deeply. I think of it fairly often, and every time I think of it, it helps.
Now, having written this little story, I can see I’m taking a considerable risk in hoping it might be of some use or comfort to you. Maybe it isn’t. At the very least I wish for you whatever in your best moods you wish for yourself.
My neurosurgeon has recommended six weeks of radiation, five days a week, to prevent a recurrence of the tumor, an aggressive Grade 2 meningioma. I agreed to start the radiation in early June after my next visit with my clients in Canada. On realizing I’d be grounded for at least six weeks, I had one thought: Now would be a good time to get those chickens I've been promising my granddaughters.
When I am finally back in my own small house, surrounded by four oaks that have seen the Civil War, I wake to the resonant call of a mourning dove. I look outside my bedroom window and wonder, what’s next? I am grateful to return to ordinary days, but I’m altered. Finding work to replace the projects I’d had to give up, paying the medical bills, taking care of the house and my little patch of land—these are small matters. Mortality is no longer an abstract thought, but I place that thought aside, knowing it will come up again. As Anne Lamott says, peace of mind is an inside job. I’m the only one who can acquire it for myself. I find it as Death’s newest apprentice.
In February, when I am finally cleared to drive again, I act on an uncharacteristic impulse to take an improv class. I resume work on the children’s picture books I’d begun a few months earlier. My client in Canada calls with an offer of work; I accept with gratitude and plan a trip for late March.
I visit my son and daughter-in-law and walk with their two eldest daughters to the park. I tell them I am thinking about getting chickens in the spring—how would they like to pick out their own chicks? It turns out they would like that very much. They immediately start thinking about names.
Theirs is a loud, lively household with crayon on the walls and Cheerios in the couch cushions. If Sean is sitting on those cushions, he’s apt to have three-year-old Virginia perched on his shoulders, five-year-old Eleanor snuggled by his side, and one-year-old Caroline on his lap. It amuses me to watch this man’s man raising three daughters, “feral princesses,” as Christina, my daughter-in-law, calls them. When I thank them for taking such great care of me when I was in the hospital, Sean draws a shape on the table with his index finger. “There’s a little circle and you’re in it.” That is all he says. It’s enough. It’s everything.