Longtime readers of Kent Nerburn’s spiritual adventures are likely to picture him in motion—driving along back roads, walking in the woods and, of course, taking us with him as companions on these journeys. At the heart of it, this is the enticing spiritual voice of a Nerburn book: Dare to open the cover. Risk reading the opening lines. Don’t even pack a bag—just travel with Kent.
The newly released Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life, opens with these words: “Years ago I was traveling across the great Saskatchewan prairies—a young man, alone, with a love the road and a dream in my heart. Evening was approaching, and long shadows were darkening the draws and skeching like fingers across the rolling golden land. A rancher, passing in a truck, saw me walking and stopped to pick me up.”
With those words, Nerburn readers are hopelessly hooked—once again. Where are we headed this time? In Part 1 of our coverage of Ordinary Sacred this week, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Kent about using this book as a Lenten reader. The unfolding sacred adventure between these covers fits perfectly with that reflective season of the year for 2 billion Christians around the world. But the truth is: This kind of spiritual journey is timeless.
Remember that powerful little sentence in Genesis 12 that kicked off the Western world’s love affair with spiritual journeys? “So Abraham went.”
Or, recall the words of Homer that raise the curtain on The Odyssey: “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide.”
Generations of American students have marched through the opening lines of Beowulf: “Forth he fared at the fated moment.” And, of course, millions have tagged along on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a boy who is brow-beaten by a home-spun sermon about the need to try to reach Heaven (and avoid going to Hell). In the face of such pressure, Huck defiantly stakes out his claim to the American journey: “All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.”
Then, of course, there’s always Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”
Right now, Kent Nerburn and his wife Louise Mengelkoch (a writer and editor who taught for years at Bemidji State University near their home) are quite literally on the move again. The next generation in their family has relocated far to the West, so Kent and Louise are planning to migrate in that direction.
Kent is even thinking of selling a landmark he created for the woods around their current home—a large wooden body of Christ that Kent sculpted and painstakingly weathered over many years. Countless Americans know Kent as a popular author, especially of Native American and on-the-road stories, but he was trained both in theology and in the fine arts as a gifted sculptor.
David Crumm speaks with Kent Nerburn in:
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
KENT NERBURN ON ‘ORDINARY SACRED’
DAVID: I love the mental picture of what’s unfolding now, Kent! You and Louise are on the move, once again, but first you have to figure out what to do with Christ. Right there in that one line, we’ve got the story of your life. And, having visited you and Louise in your home—I know this is quite literally true. You are, indeed, planning to move from your little Eden in the Minnesota woods, but first you’ve got this life-size wooden representation of Christ that has to go somewhere. What are you planning?
KENT: Well, I could move it with me, but I’d really like to find a church that would agree to buy it—and maybe help me pay for my kids’ education. Really, I would like people to have this piece and see it as a part of their community. I’m thinking of it as ideal for a church to purchase and place at a focal point for people to contemplate. I don’t have any offers at the moment, but I’m open.
DAVID: Perhaps we can suggest to our readers that they email us ([email protected]) if they’re interested in a major artwork for a Christian house of worship. This whole process you’re undertaking feels to me the plot in one of your books.
KENT: My whole life has been traveling but Louise just retired from Bemidji State at the first of the year, so she’s just getting her sea legs under her. Moving West is a difficult decision in some ways, but both of us are so smitten with our grandkids. Now, it’s time for us to fold up our tent here in Minnesota and move to the Pacific Northwest.
DAVID: Your body of writing and this book, too, explore American restlessness. I know that, overall, you’ve been trying to help sketch a kind of American theology—a spiritual sense of what it means to live on the soil and in the waterways of this continent. So, tell us how Ordinary Sacred fits into that larger quest you’ve been undertaking for years.
KENT: Earlier, I wrote books closer to home. A lot of readers still enjoy what I wrote about family and being a father. But, by the time I was working on this book, I wanted to cast a net farther afield. As a result, readers will find stories about encounters near and far. I take readers to Oxford University, to Italy and to New Mexico. I wanted to take people in many directions. My love of art is clearly a part of this book, too, and I invite readers to think about art with me at one point. Beyond the title on the book’s cover, you might call this Surprised by God. Through it all, I wanted to end with the core conviction I have that Native spirituality is the authentic spirituality for this American land. So, that’s why I placed the story called The Circle at the very end.
DAVID: I may be one of the few readers of classic writers who is drawn to their lesser-known travel books. I love Mark Twain’s travel writing, especially his remarkable account of visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I love Charles Dickens’ non-fiction travel writing. And, I was thrilled to see that a little of Dickens’ non-fiction has been revived for his big bicentennial bash this year.
KENT: I hope that readers do see the unity in the journey that runs through this book. I put this together from various pieces and I hope that I have stretched the sinews far enough and solidly enough so that readers see it all as connected.
The final story, The Circle, is something that I wrote originally with no knowledge of where it would wind up. Writing that story was like catching lightning in a bottle. I was there at a service and, as soon as I got home, I wrote up the story. Then, I felt strongly that The Circle fit into this book. In the end, that story becomes the linchpin for the entire book. This time, the book doesn’t feel like it is set around my kitchen table in the center of my family. Readers move with me far afield in these pages and then The Circle really brings it all home.
DAVID: This raises the question of ceremony or ritual—activities in our everyday lives that help us to see the sacred in the moment. In the course of this book, readers will stand at your shoulder as you eat with friends, as you tell stories, as you open a toolbox and as you attend this final burial. Part of what you’re teaching us in this book is that recognizing the sacred involves recognizing patterns in our lives that open windows to the rest of the world. Do you agree?
KENT: In The Wolf at Twilight, I write about the difference I see between ceremony and ritual. To me and in the Native sense of this, ceremonies are part of a larger framework of actions that have been honed and proven through generations to bring a person into spiritual awareness. Theologians might debate this point, but this is my own linguistic distinction. I see rituals more as: habit made holy.
Overall, I’m interested in what we can do, each day, through eyes that see the spiritual significance of a moment. Some of these things are very basic. One of the small graces in my life is my first morning cup of coffee. I always hold it, before I take that first sip of coffee. I regard that first sip as the coming of new life for the new day into my body. It’s a small thing but it’s meaningful.
‘Showing kindness … when we don’t feel like it’
DAVID: You have a hugely compassionate heart. In some ways, you look like a big, rugged, woodsy guy and some of your writing is quite muscular. There are strong emotions in your books. But there’s a deep compassion that runs through your body of work. I know that this stems from your childhood and runs throughout your life.
KENT: Yes, my father was the director of disaster services for the American Red Cross in Minneapolis. So, he would go out to all the fires and disasters that took place and would arrive usually at the same time the police and fire fighters were doing their work. I would go with him, starting when I was about 12 years old. An apartment building might have burned down and we’d be there getting ready to distribute clothes and blankets, food and water to the people affected by the fire. Sometimes, if it was winter, he’d put someone in a car to keep warm. I can recall sitting in a car at age 12 with a woman who had just gone through a fire. She was in her 80s and was sobbing because her cat was left behind in the apartment. I knew that no one could go save this cat, at that point. I remember thinking: What can I say to this woman? So, what I did was: I sat and listened to this woman. I stayed with her in that car. Of course, my daily life as a kid was full of all the other things that fill a kid’s life: school and girls and sports and all the rest. But I found myself, at an early age, called to these moments of empathy. My life definitely was nurtured by those events with my father and the people we were serving. My role was sitting with people and listening to their stories.
What calls me to mindfulness most in my life, now, is making an effort to show kindness in situations where I don’t feel very kind. Showing our good and benevolent values, especially at times when we don’t feel like it—that’s important. This might mean spending extra time with someone, asking them about themselves, and really listening. It’s so easy to start a conversation and use it just as a springboard to talk about ourselves. In fact, this interview is not really natural for me because here I am talking all about myself. I’m glad that you called on me to do this, but on a daily basis I try to spend more time engaging with people about their lives. And, when I have a chance, I try to listen to the people who no one else listens to. That’s the kind of practice that most animates my life: the pursuit of kindness and giving of my time to listen, particularly to people who others won’t stop to hear.
CONNECTING WITH READERS WHO SEE ‘A GREAT MYSTERY TO LIFE’
DAVID: Throughout your writing career, you have drawn some extremely loyal fans. You’ve racked up a remarkable amount of 4-star and 5-star reviews on your book pages in Amazon, for example. What do you know about these readers?
KENT: At one point in my writing, I had two separate groups of readers: One group followed my Native writings and one group followed my general spiritual writings. In a way, this has become my own spiritual journey to try to connect these realms in my life. As I’ve said, I am trying to articulate an authentic American spirituality. I’ve followed that path in the sculptures I have created that try to combine Western-European art traditions with this American land. For some years, the Native track in my writing moved so far to the forefront that some of the readers of my more spiritual books felt a little betrayed. Yet, for the most part, they have come along with me because readers can see that I’m trying to inhabit the Native books with the same spiritual ideas that run throughout my work.
Among my readers, I know that I have more women who are readers, than men. I know that there’s a kind of male reader, who I think of as actually gentler than I am myself, who likes to follow my work. I’m seeing some younger readers showing up at events where I appear and I like to see that. People are drawn to my books if they have an eco-awareness, if they are interested in Native spirituality or if they have a Buddhist kind of sensibility about the world. The unifying picture across my regular readers can be summed up as: They’re people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. More than that, they’re people who embrace the idea that there is a great mystery to life, an overarching creative force and a permeating spirituality in our everyday lives.
Care to read more about Native American life?
ReadTheSpirit publishes Dancing My Dream, a memoir by Warren Petoskey. If you click this link, or the book cover, at right, you’ll find Warren’s homepage within ReadTheSpirit. A beautiful city on the shore of Lake Michigan still bears Warren’s family name.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.