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.
We did it! With the support of 122 generous backers, we managed to raise a little more than enough to fund the first printing of Backstage at The Lost Colony, and bring a dream to life.
The idea for Backstage at The Lost Colony evolved through a series of conversations I had in early 2017 with Elizabeth Evans, who was a dancer in the show and worked with me in The Lost Colony's public relations office in the early 1990s. We first imagined publishing a compilation of stories from the actors, singers, dancers, and technicians who have been a part of The Lost Colony through the years.
That vision changed when, after several months of encouraging people to submit their stories, we had only a fraction of what we needed to make a proper book. I was getting worried, when one day there came in the mail an essay by Dwayne Walls, Jr., who had joined the show as a 19-year-old actor technician in the late 1980s. Entitled, "Sand," it had grace and power and heart. Several weeks and several more essays later, I asked Dwayne if he would be interested in writing the book. We agreed he would follow the cast and crew through The Lost Colony's 80th anniversary season and write the narrative.
Dwayne is uniquely suited to tell the Backstage story. A self-described “space puppy” when he first came to The Lost Colony, he was too preoccupied with the itch of his colonist’s beard and the paucity of his paycheck to enjoy his first summer with the show. But he returned a few years later with a different outlook and, even though his beard still itched, he grew both professionally and personally. After leaving The Lost Colony, Dwayne went on to New York City to build sets for theater, film, and television—including NBC’s Saturday Night Live, before returning to North Carolina with his wife, Elizabeth. Dwayne's love of the show and the people who have kept it going for 80 years is evident in the story he tells.
By the time we put up a Kickstarter campaign to fund the print run, the book had evolved into a 170-page coffee table book, with more than 100 photos, mostly color, by Outer Banks photographers Delena Gray Ostrander, Eden Saunders, and Duane Cochran, and actor Jamil Zraikat. Dwayne's narrative is supplemented by first-person stories from Colony alumni.
My first Kickstarter attempt failed, but I learned from it and solicited advice from friends like Elizabeth Evans and Gail Hutchison, who know the Colony community (and me) so well, and my daughter-in-law, Christina Sherlock, who has a keen mind for business. I can't wait to put the printed copies in the hands of everyone who believes in us! We'll have the book ready for the start of the 81st season.