The universe is fond of odd pairings. Electrons appreciate protons. Flowers like bugs. Forests need fire. How else can we explain the partnership—and the love—between the rebellious Gen-X spoken word artist Drew Dellinger and the erudite cultural historian Thomas Berry, three times his age?
i was born
in the eye of a storm, Dellinger writes.
It was 1969, in the piedmont country of North Carolina. The struggle for civil rights had been felt across the entire country but particularly the South. Schools in North Carolina finally began to integrate in 1966, but the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., just two years later left the region confused, discouraged, and numb. So when the Dellingers' new baby was born, they named him Andrew King Dellinger—Drew for short.
that balcony in Memphis
in my eyes
gunshot in my ears
As one of two white children in his kindergarten class, Dellinger was designated a “pace child.” But if his teachers expected him to set the pace because he was a white boy, they were disappointed. Dellinger was a restless child, constantly in motion. He hated sitting in rows, couldn't stay in his seat, refused to do his schoolwork.
Instead, as he grew, he haunted the library with his friend, Steve Snider, hunting through the rows of dusty books for answers.
i want to know the laws of earth and objects
like patterns of migration
like the boiling point of water
like the law that holds the moon
They discovered some of the answers they were looking for in physics, astronomy, world religions. They pored over the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., about somebodiness, about the Beloved Community, about his opposition to the war in Vietnam. They discovered Carlos Castaneda. (“Hey, is this really nonfiction?”) They struggled to understand the ideas of the radical feminists—Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon (“Whaddya mean, they don't like Playboy?”). Along with millions of others, they sat in darkened family rooms watching Roots and Eyes on the Prize, awakening to issues of race and justice.
to death row
let's close every jail in the nation, free a
I'm not joking,
we'll end in Oakland
sit-ins on the dock of the bay
like the Doc, MLK
watching the apartheid roll away.
Nevertheless, Dellinger and his friend sensed that what they'd glimpsed was only a small part of the big picture. By the time they headed off to Prescott College in Arizona in 1990, they were searching for a larger vision, a vision that integrated physics and astronomy and justice and ecology.
Then one day (“Oh my God! This is it!”) they found Thomas Berry's book, The Dream of the Earth. It was qualitatively different from anything they'd ever read, Dellinger says. “Thomas Berry was talking about the comprehensive story of the universe as a context for education, for economics, for thinking about the universe as a whole, about the role of the human in the universe. We said, ‘We gotta figure out how to meet this guy!'”
When they learned that Berry was scheduled to speak at the Earth and Spirit conference in October of 1990, they immediately bought tickets for Seattle.
Berry spoke for a half hour.
“I don't think I knew how old he was,” Dellinger says with a laugh. “He was the oldest person I'd ever hung out with. He was lovable and deep and sagacious and wise and humble and so learned.” So Dellinger and Snider approached Berry after the talk and invited him to come to Arizona and lecture at Prescott College. Berry agreed to come.
Teaching the new cosmology
Newly energized, Dellinger and Snider decided to invent and teach a class at Prescott called New Cosmology: The Universe Story, even though they were still freshmen themselves. They put together a syllabus and a reading list that included books by Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and Matthew Fox. (The class, one of the first in the country on this topic, became a fixture in the Prescott catalog.) They formed a rap band called Sweet Acidophilus. And they designed a magnificent prelude to Berry's guest lecture—an hour-long multi-projector presentation of music and stars and nebulae and galaxies. A love song to the universe.
“Tonight,” Thomas Berry said when he stepped to the podium, “is a night of cosmological significance.”
does anyone else feel this strange music?
A woman sitting near Dellinger began to cry.
Berry explained that the triumph of industrialization is so complete that it has destroyed itself. It has collapsed. It's over. Now, he said, we must build a new relationship with the land, a new relationship with life, a new relationship with the stars. We need a new story of who we are and where we are—a story told not by scientists alone, but by artists. We need to know that our destiny is not the accumulation of money; it is the expansion of soul.
everything is singing a story
The next summer Dellinger and Snider traveled to Assisi, Italy, to study with the great teacher for the first time. They were not disappointed. Thomas Berry lectured from dawn until dusk for nine days straight, following trains of thought that wove through millennia and swept all the different religious and cultural traditions into his vision.
In all these cultures, he explained, humans find meaning in the same way: by integrating human processes into the cosmological processes. In ancient China, for example, the Emperor's palace had both a winter and a summer quarters, so the Emperor had to move from one part of the palace to the other based on the season. And anyone who played winter music in the summer or vice versa risked throwing off the whole cosmological order.
Each day Dellinger and his friend wrote pages and pages of notes until their hands ached. Then when it grew dark, they sat around the table together, students and teacher, eating pasta and drinking wine, laughing and talking. Dellinger was learning more than he ever had. And he and Thomas Berry were becoming friends.
I think, maybe this
could be a bliss
like when Dante met
Since then, Dellinger's star has risen. He has won awards, performed cosmology rap and spoken-word poetry at more than 200 locations across the United States, and sold more than 2,000 copies of his CD with the song “Universe Jam,” and 1,000 copies of his new poetry book, love letter to the milky way. He's writing his dissertation about the similarity between Thomas Berry's ideas and those of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And he has remained friends with Berry. “I owe so much to his vision. I try to use my energy and my creativity in the service of the larger issues that affect all of us—the extinction crisis, the issues of white supremacy and the legacies of slavery and genocide that we're still dealing with as a nation.”
But Thomas Berry's powerful spirit may be fading.
“I'm almost 90,” he says. “My memory fails me. What we need now is people like Drew, people who have the understanding of the scientific interpretation in back of industrialization but who see where we need to make a completely new approach.”
Berry thinks about his legacy, the world he'd like to bequeath to the creatures who swim beneath the waves, who thrive in the soils, who grow in the meadows and forests—and the human creatures, too.
“My hope is largely with the artists and the essayists,” he says. “The arts are our healing. Our salvation. Our hope.”
I've had limitless
I've had limitless
to write rhymes
and get my game tight,
then waited to be incarnated
‘til they invented
twists and fades like
smoke in the stage lights...
Carol Estes is a YES! contributing editor and co-founder of Estes Media, a film production company.