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Filtering by Tag: Daniel Bowman

At the Table

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

17031-the-artist-s-family-jan-steen“Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. 'It's good to eat something,’ he said, watching them. 'There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here.’"

     —from “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver

When asked, I told the editors of this blog that my next post would be about “technology and human flourishing.”But I’m afraid I have nothing so grandiose to say. In fact, I had just one single image in my mind when I named that topic: people setting mobile devices on the dinner table. I know, what a super uptight and grumpy thing to discuss. Still…

When I consider my family and friends and eating together, I want to aim not for some idealized foreign film culinary-religious experience, but for a space where we can genuinely devote ourselves to one another. After all, it was nothing more or less than a supper where the bread and wine of the New Covenant were given for us.

In my experience, the presence of devices on the table, and the ubiquitous expectation that they will be employed at the first sign of wandering attention, can preclude the kind of intimacy that sustains me.

You know how you visit a business in person, then the business’s phone rings while you’re being helped? Often the salesperson makes you wait while he completes an entire transaction with the caller, and you think, “Glad I bothered to show up.”Watching people use devices when I’m at the table with them feels like that. Except worse, because ours is not a business relationship. We can do so much better than profit-driven corporate standards.

I’m not interested in building and defending traditional rhetorical arguments here. But I would like to present one more image to consider. (If you are looking for a compelling argument that touches on some similar themes, read Wendell Berry’s “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,”along with the follow-up letters that Harpers readers wrote to him, and finally his response to those letters. These can be found in What Are People For?.

Back to my image: I’m picturing Ann and Howard Weiss, the parents of Scotty in Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” You’ll recall that Ann had ordered a birthday cake for her son, who then died after being hit by a car. The disgruntled baker, having no idea what had happened to the boy and only anxious not to lose money on the cake, calls the Weisses with irritation multiple times to tell them that they forgot to pick up their order. Finally, Ann and Howard go to the bakery to confront the man, whose calls seemed inexplicably cruel.

When the baker learns what has happened, he expresses deep remorse to the Howards. Then he senses, in an unspoken and profound moment, the rightness of eating and giving attention, which ultimately lead to the beginning of healing—not only for the Weisses but for the lonely baker, too. From that moment, nothing precludes them from entering an unusual, even frightening, depth of communion. (Ironically, it was a phone that led to misunderstanding and isolation. In person, they can break through.) The covenant has to do with presence—embodied love.

The final paragraphs of the story, for me, comprise one of the most spiritually poignant passages in 20th century American fiction:

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

I would suggest that each one of us is perpetually Ann and Howard. Each of us is the baker. When we break bread together, we bring our hurts and fears, loneliness, the very stories of our lives, to the table. Let us partake while giving one another the attention our communion needs in order for each of us to flourish.

(Painting by Jan Steen)

Finding Courage in Community

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

Dead-Poets-Society-dead-poets-society-1051322_629_347 I love my job. I get paid to read and write and have deeply edifying conversations (i.e. teach classes) with talented and motivated fellow truth-seekers. Despite the difficulties that can arise, I live in the space of Frederick Buechner’s well-known definition of calling: “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”The word “job”doesn’t begin to cut it. I can’t speak a whole lot to other kinds of environments, but teaching literature and creative writing at a small Christian liberal arts school is a lifestyle choice. We’ve worked to cultivate a sense of community that extends well beyond the classroom. Sometimes community unfolds in Reade Center, room 241; sometimes it’s in the dining commons, The Jumping Bean, a van ride back from a conference, a hammock at our retreat, Twitter, or my family’s living room floor.

One of my favorite spaces is the lounge on the second story of the Euler Science Complex, with its massive wall of windows ushering in abundant afternoon light. Tuesdays@2 is our time to sit on couches and take turns reading from new work, old work, favorite books, or miscellany. Based on The Thomas Parker Society, we share poems, essays, and stories. We laugh a lot. We’ve invited guests: last spring, Marilyn Robinson joined us. (In the spirit of Tuesdays@2, she read an excerpt from her forthcoming novel Lila that she’d never before read publicly.) Once in a while, we’ll gather and, after ten or so minutes, it becomes clear that we won’t get to any reading, as the conversations that unfold have proven too important and enjoyable to cut off. And that’s okay with us.

This space and the community that has developed in it give us the courage to face the more difficult facets of our lives at home, in relationships, at jobs, in classes, and elsewhere.

*          *          *

When our students graduate, they leave behind expressions of community such as Tuesdays@2. While that is necessary and good, it sometimes worries me. I’m often in touch with alum who have been thrust into a different kind of space, what Richard Rohr calls “liminal space.”Suffering in a liminal space means you’re not in control; it means your desires are not translating into results. It can feel like a profound loss or humiliation, a step backward. Maybe you’re unemployed or supremely underemployed, or perhaps have taken a good job in a place where there are no friends or connections at all—much less folks who are invested in literature and writing. Even as we celebrate impressive alumni success stories every year, I talk with graduates who have, for a time, become cut off from the kind of art-and-faith community that helped shape their identity.

I’ve been there. And I want to speak now to those who no longer have access to the sacred spaces they once knew, especially those going through deep difficulties.

Suffer. There’s no getting around it. Feel the full weight of the loss without trying to run from it. Punch in to your soul-sucking job if you’re lucky enough even to have one, and be present, attentive to its tasks and to the people around you. Don’t do this because you think that God will reward your good behavior by suddenly making all your dreams come true. Do it because you have no choice. Experience the fear that such primal emptiness brings with it. Has the spark gone out of you? Will you ever thrive again? In the face of scary questions, be yourself, your best self that you want to be when times are better. Decide to be that self right now and moment by moment each day. Go back to the page and get something down, anything.

Though some people need to learn how to be alone, many of us are prone to avoid people when we’re in a dark place. We feel embarrassed about our failures, or think we should wait to meet new people until circumstances are more favorable.

Ultimately you must reach out. Timothy Radcliffe OP writes about “combatting fear by building community.”He recounts the story of Nelson Mandela: “On Robben Island, Mandela and his companions kept their courage alive by sending messages to each other. They hid messages in the false bottoms of matchboxes and left them by the paths; they concealed messages in the bottoms of their slops, and hid them under the rims of the lavatories. Courage refuses isolation.”(What is the Point of Being a Christian).

Obviously, leaving college does not compare to Mandela’s imprisonment and suffering. Wherever we are in our lives, though, we can learn a lot from his utter refusal to be cut off from connection.

Find some people with whom you can build even the smallest art-and-faith community right now. Create your own version of Tuesdays@2. I know several such groups that have existed over the years. (One was called, most appropriately, Come as You Are.) Don’t be discouraged by false starts, awkwardness, or apathy. Keep sending the message however and wherever opportunity opens.

Above all, trust that “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”does not refer only to some decisive dream, some buy-a-house-and-have-kids career move. We must believe that it can be cultivated even here, even now, wherever we are, when we reject isolation and find courage in community.

Loving the Expanse

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

14 spring

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky. . . . For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.

  — Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

On New Year’s Eve I had the privilege of attending the wedding of two of my dearest friends in cold, lovely Georgetown, Ontario (bonus: I had set them up). I pulled double-duty as a groomsman and reader. The passage I read—shown above—surprised me when I first saw it. I had read Rilke’s famous book of advice when I was young, but I’m sure I arrogantly passed over some of the language about an “expanse” between us, and the “impossibility” of merging. I was twenty and in love and those words didn’t account for how I felt! But here was this wonderful couple on December 31st, 2013—in their late twenties, well-read, self-aware—who had chosen a passage focusing on the distance between them to be read at the very event that would bind them together.

I read the passage in the ceremony. And I’ve contemplated it many times since. I’ve been meditating on the facts that “even between the closest people infinite distances exist,” and that if people can accept such a truth, “ . . . then a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

2014 will mark, to my eternal gratefulness, my sixteenth wedding anniversary with the woman I love. I’ve begun to wonder how many of the problems Beth and I have lived through over the years can be traced to my failure to honor, much less love, the expanse between us. Instead, at my worst, I try to change her, to transform her into something much less that the fullness of who she is. That robs her—robs us both, really—of our “freedom and development.”

And that robbery is, frankly, nothing short of evil.

So I think back to New Year’s Eve when I celebrated two dear friends pledging vows. One of those vows was a profound determination to love the expanse between them. As I look toward spring, I’m thankful that this long winter will be over. I think of the increasing warmth of the sun, and the return of living, growing things. Yet I can see that true renaissance—rebirth—will only come into my life if I, too, vow to see Beth each day “as a whole and before an immense sky,” and to love the expanse between us.

Let us go forth and gather honey.