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.
Today I won the First Annual Chili Smackdown for our office, making me two for two in chili championships.
My Facebook friends from Lexington, Kentucky, may recall my first “Gold Cup” victory nearly 10 years ago. And my son’s friends will recognize the truth in the narrative of The Chili:
This chili was first concocted on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but this is no skinny barefoot surfin’ chili. No, no, no. This chili was perfected in Steel City, where it laced up its storm trooper boots, nodded politely at the vegetarians, and muscled its way onto the palates and into the loyal affections of the mighty Hampton Talbots football team, nourishing the squad through an undefeated season in 2002, nursing its star defensive lineman through two knee surgeries, and mending at least one broken heart, whereupon the team (in reverent tones) dubbed it “The Chili.”
A strong-willed and impatient chili, it believes fiercely in diversity, as evidenced by the variety of meats and beans and complex spices that give The Chili its deep flavor. Full-bodied and opulent in the mouth, it yields rich notes of cumin, sandalwood, and brown sugar, with hints of dusty road and blues guitar that will have your taste buds partying like a freshman Congressman on Bourbon Street. Even though The Chili is aggressive and suffers no fools, all it wants is world peace, a Steelers victory—and for you to hug your grandma.
Just say the word, and I’ll cook it for you.