A Tale of Two Circles: Revisited
I have a literary crush on Wendell Berry. I love the way he arranges words and the things he makes them say. Shortly after I first read his essay "Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer" two summers ago, I decided to act on that crush. So I stalked him down on the computerwebs and wrote him a letter, asking if mayhaps when I was in his neck of the woods visiting a friend I could pop in for a visit. It didn't work out that summer, or the next, but his responses were always kind and grace-filled.
This inspired me, in a fit of expansive presumptuousness, to mail him the following bit of writing in hopes that he could spare me an opinion or two. He could and did, and although I will not violate his courtesy by quoting his response directly, I will say that he was characteristically kind and encouraging. What is more, he did me the favor of throwing in a word of constructive criticism, absolutely free.
When Wendell Berry gives advice, you follow it, so I sat down to re-write and have decided to post the results of this edit. The last time I slapped it on here, someone was kind enough to suggest that I was most likely on drugs when I wrote it. I offer it again, therefore, but with Wendell Berry's approval.
A Tale of Two Circles
In the old days of The Land of Cowboys, things were simpler. There were only two types of hats: white and black. If you wore a white hat, you were a good guy. If you wore a black hat, you were a bad guy. If there were any questions, all you had to do was listen to the music.
Time kept on trudging, however, and black and white were left behind as the world gradually turned to color. The soundtrack faded and everyone began to notice they were living in a world where things were complicated. They became aware that there were cultures different than their own, whole groups of people who believed in things like, say, “modesty of dress,” just like they did, but who did not happen to believe that there was anything particularly evil about the female nipple. These people were not only refusing to wear the appropriate hats, they sometimes wore no hats at all - or anything else for that matter! Sometimes all they wore were gourds.
There was one group, in a place called “The Church,” that up until the color change had been totally in charge. They had created complex hierarchical structures that discouraged diversity and maintained strict definitions of right and wrong, good and bad—down to the tiniest details. But now that the world was becoming colorful, people began to have opinions of their own. They began to wonder if they, perhaps, could decide for themselves what was right or wrong. This produced the sort of results you would expect, but although The Church reacted strongly by attempting infiltrate the power structures that were gradually replacing their own, in time they lost the clout necessary to be able to lovingly convince folks of the error of their ways with pointed words and a well-placed, red-hot poker. This was absolutely terrifying for The Church. The truth was at stake, after all, and it was getting hard to tell who were the good guys.
At this point, someone had a wonderful idea:
At this point, someone had a wonderful idea:
“Let’s circle the wagons. We’ll make an encampment here and we’ll grab those red hot pokers they won’t let us use anymore and we’ll brand the words ‘Good Guys’ right across our own foreheads. We won’t have to worry about the fact that nobody is wearing their hats anymore—we’ll be able to tell by the brands!
“If anyone wants to add their wagon to the circle, we’ll gladly brand their faces and invite them into the club. It may get a bit cramped in here, yes, and we may have to ignore some pretty obvious things—like sanitation and the hunger pangs in our bellies—but that’s a small price to pay for certainty, so it’s worth it. Besides, if we get too short on food, we can just eat the children.
“We can sit here inside these wagons and throw rocks at anyone who rides by and refuses to join the club and take the brand. That way we’ll never get corrupted and we won’t have to notice our tattered clothes, stinking facilities, and the bone-strewn, grassless circle of land we are living in.”
They talked it over and decided it was a good plan. There really didn’t seem to be any other way to ensure that they would always know that there were good guys, and that they were them. If someone was going to be telling people what The Church was all about, they had better make darn tootin’ sure it was the good guys. So that is what they did.
They discovered, however, that the branding did not last. There seemed to be something in the air around their camp, a sort of insidious balm that, despite their best intentions, caused the marks they made to heal. As the pain of branding faded, so did the scars; and in only a few short days you could not tell at all that they had ever been there. The people in The Church were therefore forced to brand each other repeatedly, and so lived their lives in nearly constant pain. In time, though, they began to get used to it. They forgot what it was like to live without the branding.
A little ways off –within sight but out of throwing range—there was a second circle: a drum circle. Like all drum circles, this one had no outer boundary. Instead, it was a loose arrangement of people gathered around a blazing fire, having a wild and crazy party. All day long, they would sing and dance and enjoy themselves. They loved this, and were so grateful to be alive and to have a sense of the joy of life.
From time to time they had to go back to tend to their work in the surrounding countryside, but they always took that joy with them and always felt like they were still at the party. They had a tendency to smile, and to whistle while they worked. Because they were happy and having a good time, they liked pretty much everybody who came by their fields and gardens and were thrilled when new people passed their way. They smiled and waved and said howdy—which seemed a bit strange to these travelers, considering that the last people they had passed had just thrown rocks at them. Often this made them stop, and they would ask the gardeners why they were so happy.
The drum-circle gardeners were so joyful about their party (and so sure that the more dancers and revelers there were, the merrier it would be) that they would point towards the sound of the drums and say, “Just head towards the party. There is lots and lots to eat and drink and it’s so much fun! Do you drum? That’s fun, too, if you want, but you are welcome to just go and enjoy the company.”
Gradually, the drum circle got bigger. It grew and grew and grew, until it was hard to tell where it started or finished. It was still open on all sides, except for one area near the middle, where a large circle of beautiful, flowering trees had sprung up. When the children would ask why they were there, the adults would just laugh and say, “because.”
The circle of trees annoyed the people of the first circle very much. They told their children (the ones they hadn’t eaten) that it only looked like it was made of flowering trees, but that they were actually big, pointy hate-machines that killed small children. They threw a lot of rocks at the trees and the trees were hurt by them, but they always grew more blooms. This seemed very suspicious and ugly and anti-Church to them, and only made them believe their hate-machine story all the more.
One day, a young man named Frank, who had just had his face branded, was sitting under the wagons, looking outwards and trying to catch a whiff of clean, blossomy breeze. He knew he shouldn’t, but his head hurt and he thought it might make him feel better. As he peered through the thick trees, he saw what looked like flickering lights. Because he was in more pain than usual and wasn’t thinking right, he got up and walked towards them. He walked right up under the big, pointy hate-machines and right through them and out into the middle of the circle, where someone promptly said “how-do” and handed him an enormous hamburger.
It was the juiciest, tastiest burger he’d ever eaten. He started to smile, and as he did he noticed that the pain in his forehead was almost entirely gone – had dissipated, in fact, as he had walked towards the second circle. Then the same person gave him a goblet of something cool and sweet and bubbly to drink, and he warmed right up inside as all the rest of the pain vanished without a trace. He found that for the first time in his life, he was genuinely happy.
Suddenly, a wave of guilt swept over him. He had forgotten all about The Church! He looked around and saw that there wasn’t a “good guy” burn mark in sight. The only person with anything similar looked to be the guy who had handed him the burger and the cool/warm drink –and all he had were some weird scars on his hands and feet and back, which were all bare naked. The man was only wearing a pair of flowered, knee-length Bermuda shorts. Frank knew that exposed skin was a terribly bad thing and that he ought to run back to the circle of the wagons as quickly as possible. But he was very scared and lonely and a little bit curious, so he asked the man what his name was.
“Joshua,” he replied, “you want to come join my party?”
“Oh,” Frank said, “Is this your party?”
“Well, mine and anyone’s who is willing to enjoy some good food, drink, dancing and drumming. Check this crazy beat!”
And with that, he grabbed a djembe and began to play such a dizzying, intoxicating rhythm that Frank could not help himself. He ripped off his shirt and started flailing it around in the air, dancing like a man possessed. Somewhere in the back of his mind this worried him—this sense of possession—but he was having so much fun that he soon forgot all about it, and he danced and ate and sang and danced and even drummed a little himself.
As time went on, he began to notice something strange: while this Joshua fellow seemed to be setting the rhythm for the whole, wide-ranging party, each of the partiers was adding to that rhythm his or her own little piece of music, and the end result was a glorious, throbbing aural environment. It filled the air and it filled the earth and it filled Frank so that he wondered how he had never heard it before.
During a restful pause in the music, he asked Joshua about this, and Joshua became very sad. “Well, he said... you could. It was always there, but the circled wagons were muffling the sound, and the pain from the constant brandings made a ringing in your ears, so that you could barely make out the slightest hint of my rhythm.”
Frank was very sad about this as well. He thought about all the fun he had been having the last while, and he began to wish that the people back in the circle of the wagons could experience it as well. He looked Joshua right in the eyes and he said, “Joshua, what do I need to do to make those people able to come enjoy the party.”
Joshua just smiled a sad smile and said, “There really isn’t anything you can do to make anyone enjoy the party. The only way a person can enjoy the party is to let the brand fade and disappear. Everybody is welcome at my party, but no ‘Good Person’ will ever come. They have to decide, as you did, to walk outside of the circle of wagons and eat and drink at the party. Then the brand will fade and they will be able to see that they are just like everybody else.”
Frank was very sad... and a little bit confused. “But, Joshua” he said, “I didn’t decide to come to the party. My head was just hurting really bad and I thought I saw something flickering through the trees.”
At this, Joshua laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed. And then he picked up his djembe and started to drum with reckless abandon. Frank wasn’t sure why, but this made him very happy. It also showed him what he needed to do. He walked back towards the circle of trees and then through them, carrying a djembe of his own. As he went he sang. It was a joyous song, a song full of Joshua’s laughter, a song that rode the rhythm of the party. This time as he left the circle of the trees, he could hear the sounds of the party all around him, and he called out to the good people of The Church to come and join the drum circle with everybody else.
Even in their pain, they heard him. They came to the edge of the circle and they saw someone who looked like someone they had once known, hitting on something that made no noise. They called out to him, asking him to come and be branded, but he just kept singing and hitting and dancing. They tried and tried and tried, but nothing worked. He was off in his own little world, completely unable to hear the good news they were proclaiming to him. He seemed to be crying.
Pretending to be sad themselves (but glad, if the truth be told, of a little excitement), they took up their stones and, calling out blessings, stoned Frank to death.