Wendell Berry

Posted: July 16, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

I returned to my office today after taking a three day weekend.  One of my clients called to say that he had sent me a file.  Then he added, “I hope you have time to look at it while you’re on your trip.”  One of my friends accompanying me was asked by his boss to have a project done by Sunday night even though the soonest the boss would look at the report would be Tuesday.

What’s going on here?  People in general are losing a sense of when we are on and off the clock.  In the days when most people punched a clock, employers respected workers’ time for one simple reason: overtime.  Now, when many people work on salary and technology lets us work remotely, employers and clients often feel that work can be done anywhere and anytime.  Many of my clients who have flexible “work from home” schedules also end up putting in the most hours each week.

What can we do about this?  On an individual level, not much.  As a culture, we need to remember the value of time off.  My Sunday feature for this blog is based on Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems.  Berry reminds us that a good life needs time off to refocus and recharge our batteries.  We need to remember that and, as a group, we need to ask our employers to do the same.  Life can’t be all work all the time.

Posted: March 31, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blogs explores a diverse topics beyond the world in “Sabbath,” a title inspired by the similarly titled poems of Wendell Berry.]

Here Comes the Sun

Yesterday was a great day.  For the first time in several months, I put aside my winter coat for a much lighter jacket.  Yesterday and today, the sun has been out and so are people, who have clogged sidewalks in my neighborhood.  Spring is here – finally!

Where last winter was unusually mild, this winter was average in its temperatures, cold but not too cold.  This year’s winter, like an unwanted guest, would not go away.  We had no warm, sunny March days.  Tomorrow, April 1, which is opening day here in Chicago for our American League team, will go back to being cold, but that is just the way April tends to be: a few good days, a few bad days, and a few really cold, gray, rainy days that almost make one wish for the dry, sunny cold of February.  The real good news is that Spring is here and the worst is over.  It will be five or six weeks before we get to the next stage of the season: complaining about how hot it is.

Today is also Easter, a day of hope and change.  I’m not religious, but I do enjoy seeing people going to and from church.  This holiday invites bright colors and an equally light spirit.  For those of us who follow a more secular bent, it’s the start of the summer game, a new baseball season.  The teams I root for most, the Indians and the Cubs probably are not going to be contenders.  However, the joy of spring brings hope for a miracle.  Fans, like church goers, are people of faith, especially those who root for the Cubs, a team that hasn’t won a World Series in more than 100 years.

A few blocks from my office, two new businesses are opening, which follows a national trend for an improved economy.  2008 taught us that anything can happen in a large, complicated economy, but recent news has been more upbeat.  Hopefully summer will bring more jobs, higher home prices, and businesses that are making money.  I’m a little worried that we are seeing a new real estate bubble, but that worry is tempered by warm weather and bright sun.  Tomorrow’s problems will come tomorrow.  Today is a good time to smile.

Enjoy this fine day and those that will follow.  I’ll close with a few words from Wendell Berry’s 1982 Sabbath poem III:

The flock, barn-weary, comes to it again,

New to the lambs, a place their mothers know,

Welcoming, bright, and savory in its green,

So fully does the time recover it.

Nibbles of pleasure go all over it.

Posted: November 22, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

On Sundays, I write a “Sabbath” post that takes its title from the similarly named poems of Wendell Berry.  These poems are not preachy or philosophic.  Like much of Berry’s writing, they are simple reflections on how we do live and how we should live.

In that spirit, I want to ask:  How insane have we gotten that people have to do their “Black Friday” shopping on the evening of Thanksgiving?  How selfish have we gotten that we will deny a day of rest to others so we can get a discount?

Our lives have become a mess of schedules and deadlines.  Few people work 40 hour weeks.  Our time off is a matter of running from place to place.  Even the lives of children have become organized nightmares of leagues and structured activities.  We seem to have lost the ability to sit quietly and enjoy a peaceful moment.  The business lie of productivity where no minute can be waste has seeped into our personal lives.  “Are you making the best use of your time?”

Americans should remember the lesson of the Sabbaths our grandparents enjoyed.  We need time off to rest and clear our heads.  We need that time to reflect on what is really important and what we should be most thankful for.  In Berry’s words:


What stood, whole in every piecemeal

Thing that stood, will stand though all

Fall – field and woods and all in them

Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.


What is that hymn?  Peace, which is what I wish all on this Thanksgiving day:  Peace.

Posted: June 10, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores life beyond career.]

A Sabbath Blessing on Tuesday.

Needless to say I was angry and disappointed at what happened in Wisconsin last week.  After hearing the election results, I shut everything down: Internet, TV, even most of the lights in my apartment.  I went to bed – and picked up Sabbaths by Wendell Berry.

This book helps me keep things in perspective.  I keep it at my bedside along with two books of poetry by Billy Collins, another genius of the everyday and ordinary. While I’ve probably read every poem in the volume two or three times, on this night I found poem V from the 1980 series, which begins:  “Six days of work are spent/To make a Sunday quiet/That Sabbath may return.”  That line caught me.  Sunday in itself is not Sabbath.  It is a place for Sabbath to happen.

Berry says Sabbath comes in “unconcern,” not something we can earn or buy.  It is a restful state of mind, something too uncommon in our over-scheduled, deadline-driven lives.  We lose the day and rest in anger at others or ourselves.  We lose it through vanity that lets us puff up our concerns and self worth.  Or we lose it this way:

The world is lost in loss

Of patience; the old curse

Returns, and is made worse

As newly justified.

We can only have the world, the peace of Sabbath, if we have patience.  But our curse, probably more so now than when this poem was published in the 1980s, is to have forgotten what patience is.  Our curses are productivity, time management, and multitasking.  We get things done and always have more to do.  We justify the curse.

In hopeless fret and fuss,

In rage at worldly plight

Creation is defied,

All order is unpropped,

All light and singing stopped.

Berry has taken us from a day of rest to a dark Hell of chaos without song.  Really, he has not taken us there so much as shown how we damn ourselves to such a place of “worldly plight.”  Sabbath is the place where we know unconcern and patience, a place where we align ourselves with creation and order.

It’s hard to find such a place in a world of smart phones, Internet, on-demand TV, and jobs that ask us to be “flexible” with our lives.  Still, as Berry presents it in his wonderful poem, we are the problem and the solution.  Just as we “fret and fuss,” we can learn to put things in perspective and value our time away from life’s craziness and its superficial demands.  To do this, we have to approach our lives differently, knowing when to have patience, when to leave behind life’s concerns and just live.

Sabbath is not a day.  It is a practice.

Sunday Extra Helpings:

Poetry Foundation’s page on Wendell Berry

A sampling of Berry’s poems from the Poetry Foundation


Posted: April 25, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

Common Dreams has reposted an editorial in which New York Times food writer Mark Bittman ponders the significance of Wendell Berry.  My admiration for Berry is clear in my Sunday blog posts, which were inspired by and often feature words and ideas from his Sabbath poems.  I’m also a big fan of Bittman, a great food writer who turned his attention a few years ago to considering the relation of how we eat and its impact on our health and the environment. 

Bittman seems in awe of Berry’s “patience,” his way of understanding the world as something bound in nature and its cycles.  He contrasts his city life with the rural community where Berry’s family has lived for 200 years:  “He knows the land the way I know the stops on the Lexington Avenue subway line and, predictably, I begin feeling like the fairly techie city person I am and wonder if it could have been otherwise.”  Even so, Bittmann cites Berryas someone who changed his thinking, an appreciation that is clear at several points in the editorial. 

Berry could live in a university town and enjoy the comfortable life of the academic.  Instead, he has chosen to stay where he was raised.  While his home may be isolated, Berry continues to engage his fellow Americans about how we eat and, more importantly, how we live.  His career is a gift to us and to the generations that will follow.  May we heed his wise, patient voice.

Posted: April 8, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog ponders life and work in “Sabbath.”]


For Christians, Easter signifies the highest level of faith and hope.  The holiday is marked by Spring flowers and metaphors of life renewed.  For all of us, regardless of our beliefs and philosophies, hope is the foundation of personal and professional success.  We will all face challenges and obstacles.  Hope gives us the strength to move forward even when we want to quit or give in to despair.

The last few years have brought despair to many Americans.  Unemployment, wage cuts, falling home prices, and unending wars, the list of problems seems almost endless.  Some people quit when they hit the wall.  They stop looking for work or, worse still, take some action (drinking, gambling) that makes their problems worse.  When asked what is wrong, they blame outside forces for their problem.  They speak in a language in which they have no power over their fate, the kind of thinking that Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.”  For at least five years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, some of my clients blamed this event for their problems finding work.  Now, as the job market is showing positive growth, some people still say it is “impossible” to find a job in this economy.  This language of hopeless never leads to success.

The good news is that most people don’t fall into this trap.  They remain optimistic even when things don’t go their way.  Their attitude enables them to keep looking for a new job knowing that there are four job seekers for every open position.  I’m often amazed when clients tell me stories about how they were treated by a boss or how hard they worked only to get laid off.  Rather than give in to bitterness, they look forward and say tomorrow will be a better day.

Can we learn hope?  Is hope as much a skill as an attitude?  I believe that people can change their attitudes and outlook if they put things in the proper context.  Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, survived Nazi death camps.  He went on to develop a branch of psychology, logotherapy, based on this principle: We cannot control our fate; however, we can choose our attitudes in understanding our situation and the actions we take in moving forward.  Frankl believed that we bring meaning to our lives.  Successful people find a way to keep hope even in the darkest times.  Henry Ford had a similar belief: “If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

Easter could be called the Sabbath of all Sabbaths.  It is a great day to take some time and reflect on the good things we have, the resources that let us keep faith in the future.  Every day, the media bombards us with negative stories.  If we just went by the “news” we get from TV, radio, newspapers, and the Internet, it would seem that the world is a miserable place.  The good news is that most people look beyond the gloom.  We look forward to better days even when things seem impossible.  As the Spring bears new life, hope renews us.

Sunday Extra:

1.  In today's Daily Kos, Denise Oliver Perez explores the pagan roots of Easter.

2.  Wendell Berry wrote these words – a great Easter message – in his third Sabbath poem of 1983:

May our kind live to breathe

Air worthy of the breath

Of all singers that sign

In joy of their making,

Light of the risen year,

Songs worthy of the ear

Of breathers worth their air,

Of makers worth their hire.

Posted: September 25, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling explores intersections of work & life in “Sabbath.”]

Wendell Berry – Again

The Kentucky poet inspired this Sunday feature.  Over several years, Berry wrote Sabbath poems that reflect his (and our) spiritual connection not just to the land, but also to the cycles of nature.  In the fourth Sabbath poem written in 1984, he address this bittersweet time of year: “The summer ends, and it is time/To face another way.” 

The poem recognizes the need to store for the cold that is to come, the need to prepare the land for next year when the cycle begins again. Berry casts the poem in the scene of a couple: “You do not speak, and I regret/This downfall of the good we sought/As though the fault were mine.”  Unlike Robert Frost’s great poems “Death of a Hired Man” and “Home Burial,” which both focus on a dialogue between a husband and a wife, the actors here are vague.  One is clearly working the land on a plow.  The other, though, could be human or a personification of the season, an ambiguity that enriches the feeling.

The poem’s last lines describes the plow turning stems into the dark earth “From which they may return.”  But the last sentence is more plaintive, almost final, “At work,/I see you leaving our bright land,/the last cut flowers in your hand.”  This powerful image could be a lover, a son, or just summer, giving way to the dark, cold, flowerless time to come, a Sabbath reflection on what was, is and will be. 

Berry’s genius as a poet is to use simple language and images to capture the profound.  His poems and prose never lose the reader in a way that requires explanation or an expert. Berry follows Wordsworth’s poetic path of a “man speaking to men.”  He touches us – like the last days of summer.

Posted: May 29, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Normally I write longer pieces on Sunday, but I've been under the weather the past couple of days.  Instead of something new, I'll quote a few lines from a "Sabbath" poem that Wendell Berry wrote in 1980:

The intellect so ravenous to know

And in its knowing hold the very light,

Disclosing what is so and not so,


Must finally know the dark, which is its right

And liberty; it's blind in what it sees.


Wise, humble words from a poet and thinker who is underappreciated.  Happy Sabbath.

Posted: March 27, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Common Dreams  has reprinted a piece by AP writer Dylan Lovan on Wendell Berry, poet, conservationist, and inspiration for this blog’s Sunday feature, “Sabbath.”  When we last saw Berry, he was protesting the coal mining industry by camping out in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.  Since then he has been honored by President Obama with the National Humanities Medal.  Lovan also reports that Berry has cut ties with the University of Kentucky over its too cozy relationships with the coal industry.  Wendell Berry is a man who lives his convictions.  Would that more of our political leaders followed his example.

Posted: February 26, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling looks beyond our jobs to how work impacts our lives.]

Working for the Earth and Local Economies

This Sunday feature was inspired by the Sabbath poems of Wendell Berry.  Now Berry earns our respect by his effort to convince the governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, to end the practice of mountaintop removal.  Along with 13 other protestors, Berry stayed in the Governor’s office for four days.  Beshear did agree to visit some open mining sites and talk to protesters, but he also said that he sees nothing wrong with a practice that scars the earth and pollutes water.

Berry disagrees.  He told interviewer Jeff Biggers of Yes! Magazine:  “You can go to a little stream that’s coming down off the mountain, and you know that one day that stream ran clear and you could have knelt down and drunk from it without any hesitation—it would have been clean. And now it’s running orange or black. And what people have to understand is that there’s heartbreak in that.”  Berry is not a radical or a tree hugger.  Anyone who reads his essays or poems knows that he is a traditionalist who loves the land.  Coal companies love only money.

Berry is also not a wide-eyed optimist.  He tells Biggers that there is no guarantee that the protest will make a difference.  What can be changed, he says, is minds.  Berry and his fellow protesters will continue to argue and persuade.  They are working to save their state and a way of life.

Berry’s current protest can be linked to his broader ideas, which he outlines in the “The Total Economy,” an essay in What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.  Rather than simply point the finger at corporations, Berry also implicates all of us as consumers who “have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter.” 

Two conditions of the current economy are that raw materials must stay cheap and the supply of workers must exceed the demand, which will keep wages low.  Berry sees this trend as a world problem in which country people (farmers) are forced into the city.  This transformation, in turn, changes farming by making it a mass market enterprise in which the farmer cannot afford just to sell to (or trade with) his neighbors.  Not only are price and quality lowered, but there is also no sense of “stewardship” of the land.  The agribusiness farmer has the same goal as the coal company that practices strip mining:  more money and more money. 

Like another of my favorite writers, Thom Hartmann, Berry debunks the claim that corporations should have the rights of individuals:  “A corporation is, essentially, a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.  Unlike a person, a corporation does not age.  It does not arrive, as most people finally do, at a realization of the shortness and smallness of human lives; it does not come to see the future as the lifetime of the children and grandchildren of anybody in particular.  . . . It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.”  Berry clearly states that not all corporations or people running them are bad.  However, their domination has hurt our economy by promoting big, cheap, and wasteful.

What is Berry’s solution?  We need to go back to a local economy in which consumers know where their food and clothes are produced.  We need to think about “human and ecological” costs of production.  The heart of this new (old) economy would be the “neighborhood,” an area where people would know and care about each other.  Berry is not so naïve to think everything can or should be made locally, but he wants people to have more power, which can only be gained from getting beyond an economy dominated by imports and exports.  He concludes the essay with these words:  “Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.”

Berry is not alone in this thinking.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that our industrial system of food production is neither efficient nor healthy.  Many critics have examined the growing power of corporations and how they influence everything from what we eat and wear to the politicians we vote for.  Whether the subject is food or elections, the underlying question is one of power:  Who will rule, regular people or faceless corporations?

On the surface, Berry’s Sabbath poems have no political content.  However, in the light of his protest against the Governor and the “Total Economy,” we see a deeper ideological blueprint in the respect for natural processes and time, which are often the vision of his poems:

“How long does it take to make the woods.

As long as it takes to make the world.

The woods is present as the world is, the presence

of all its past, and of all of its time to come.


To come into the woods you must leave behind

the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.

You must come without weapon or tool, alone,

expecting nothing, remembering nothing,

into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.