Writing from the Center

Winner of the Great Lakes Book Award, 1996

"... essays of substance and beauty... they belong beside the work of Annie Dillard, Samuel Pickering, and Wendell Berry." —Library Journal

"His essays are so good one is tempted to stand up and applaud after reading them." —Body Mind Spirit

From the Preface

How can one live a meaningful, gathered life in a world that seems broken and scattered? That question has haunted me for as long as I can remember. Insofar as I have found an answer, it has to do with understanding my place--in marriage, family, and community; my place on earth, and ultimately in Creation. To be centered, as I understand it, means to have a home territory, to be attached in a web of relationships with other people, to value common experience, and to recognize that one's life rises constantly from inward depths. This book is about glimpsing and seeking and longing for that center, that condition of wholeness.

My home territory is southern Indiana, in the watershed of the Ohio River, and so, in writing about where I belong, I focus on the landscape and culture of the Midwest. The skies in my pages are filled with thunderstorms and red-tailed hawks, the creeks are bordered by limestone bluffs, the fields are planted in soybeans and corn, the woods are thick with grapevines and hickories. Wishing to know my place, I read its literature, to see how this region has been imagined by writers who stayed here as well as by those who moved away. Although I speak of the Midwest, my deeper subject is our need to belong somewhere with a full heart, wherever our place may be, whoever our people may be.
This is also a book about writing, about the motives and disciplines of the art that I practice day after day. There is no special virtue in writing; it happens to be my work. A dancer moving to music, a carpenter fitting a dovetail joint, a farmer judging the health of soil could tell you as much as I can about good work, the kind that draws on every bit of one's devotion and strength and skill. The rare times when I have felt perfectly balanced and whole, in work or play, have taught me what it means to live from the center.

Because I believe that we have been too intent on what divides us--men from women, this race from that, all of us from nature--I write about the ground we share. I do so with a keen awareness of the damage we have done to land, to water and air, to our fellow creatures, to our cities and towns, and to one another. While acknowledging what we have damaged or lost, I also speak of the abundant resources in nature, in our human inheritance, and in ourselves that might enable us to live more caringly and joyfully. I tell about canoeing on a flooded river, walking in the woods, baking bread with my daughter, remodeling a kitchen with my son, meeting my father after his death, drawing a map, composing a sentence. Whatever the subject, I find hope in the land's resilience and the mind's reach.

The more attentively I dwell in my place, the more I am convinced that behind the marvelous, bewildering variety of things there is one source. I do not pretend to know how much of my conviction arises from genuine insight, how much from longing. The essays in this book are twelve expeditions in search of that unifying, vivifying source.