Dancing in Fields of Wheat and Chaff

Chicago is usually cool and gray when I visit. Today is no different, but I’m just passing through, waiting at O’Hare for my connecting flight to Buffalo en route home. At 4:00 a.m. Mountain Time, I caught a shuttle bus from Santa Fe to the airport in Albuquerque, just completing a ten-day residency as part of my MFA program in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. Our summer residency takes place at St. John’s College in the high desert alongside the Glen Workshop, a program of art and faith that attracts poets, musicians, novelists, visual artists, and others from around the country.

The company of like-minded people was intoxicating. Here at the airport, I reckon with the fact that the earth is not peopled primarily with artists like the ones I met at the Glen. It is peopled with people. So I watch them.

A 20-something couple holding hands negotiates the terminal at a brisk clip, wheeling efficient luggage behind them. A moment later, an elderly woman with a cane almost gets hit by the airport golf cart beeping its horn over and over. The driver seems determined to stay cheerful though frustration is evident beneath her smile. But the old woman is oblivious to the sound of the horn and, more frightening, to the general flow and pace of things.

Then, a singularly odd image: a guy who could not be more than thirty sports one eyebrow almost entirely silver. A double-, and what I hope is a stealthy triple-take, confirms. His left eyebrow is the color of his hair. His right is more than 3/4 — maybe 4/5? — the color of the hair of a man at least twice his age, an airy but slick silver, unmistakable as the Crayola I reached for to color stars in the skies of my childhood.

The idiosyncrasy unsettles me. I want to get on the Internet and burn time clicking links, but I placed my laptop in my checked bag. So I go for a walk. At the gift shop, ten thousand charms gleam from shelves with no sign of the embarrassment I feel just for walking in. There are the Windy City T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, handbags, and ball caps in a range of colors and styles. Point-of-purchase impulse items display in descending order of novelty. On top, at eye level, is a new one to me: Piña Colada bubble gum. I settle on Tic-Tacs.

The distraction helps me forget the silver eyebrow, wayward twin of Normal. But I return to my departing gate and the young man remains where I left him. I cannot shake his innocuous but jarring irregularity, a feature allowing his face to hold the paradox of innocence and experience together in tension. Somehow he stands between the woman with the cane for whom the airport is a veritable gauntlet, and the young couple who could circumnavigate it all day and get up tomorrow to do it again. He wears on the outside what we get to hide from, put off, or ignore: our own slow march toward greater imperfection, and then, the end. It’s not about age; it’s about control. Control equals power, the gratification of the ego; Father Richard Rohr has defined suffering as “any time you are not in control.”

Last night represented the fulfillment of a long-time dream for me: to meet Father Rohr in person. I’d only ever known him through his books, meditations on weighty topics like suffering, contemplative prayer, centering, and respect for mystery. His talk last night touched on non-dual thinking and the notion that reality, seen through awareness that comes with the inner authority gained from suffering, is less clear than we like to believe. He spoke of Jesus’ mandate to let the wheat and the chaff grow together and let God have control in the end — God who is not threatened by the presence of chaff. If we took it upon ourselves to start weeding the field, we would get it wrong. We would proceed by making false distinctions, in groups and out groups, positions of advantage and of humiliation. We would grab power and disenfranchise anyone who didn’t fit the controlling narrative we created; we would pluck out wheat and call it chaff.

We know that this mess is not hypothetical. Ignoring the message to let it all grow together, we do what Jesus wanted us to avoid. We take his parables and drain them of mystery in order to construct lifeless theological systems. We seem to think that if we extrapolate correctly, we can develop a rule book for how to live. This has largely been religion’s work in the world. However necessary these systems are, there is usually no paradox, no mystery in them. We feel free to exclude anyone who doesn’t play the game. We know it’s not faith — it’s merely control, the fleeting and futile avoidance of suffering. It’s the opposite of the way of Jesus, a way that privileged the powerless, the weak, the suffering, and others from whom we often just look away.

Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa famously said, “The artist is the one who does not look away.” The service Fr. Rohr presided over was an anointing service for artists. We sang and read responsively, he spoke, and then he and three others took bowls of oil with which to anoint us — to, as Fr. Rohr said, “give us a permission we had probably never received from the church.” That is, the anointing permitted us to make art that respects paradox, or the suffering that leads to seeing. We were anointed for the creation of art that does not look away but looks more deeply and maybe finds the courage to celebrate what is called chaff, including those who, under control-based social and religious systems, have been rooted out. We were anointed to know that it is often in these dismissed ones, even “the least of these,” where we find true beauty. Unlike the temporal beauty of the young-and-in-control traipsing through the airport, this beauty haunts, instructs, and endures.

I stood in line to receive the anointing from Father Rohr. As I came face-to-face with this spiritual giant, I saw that he was, like me, a small man. His unassuming Franciscan spirit became palpable; his touch was imperfect and tender as a new parent’s. His oiled thumb crossed my forehead as he blessed me in a whisper. Then he placed his palm on the top of my head and held it there longer than I expected, as if this ritual were more than mere ceremony but an important physical act unto itself.

Aware of the thick substance on my forehead, I reminded myself many times that night not to accidentally rub it off. I wanted the oil of my anointing to stay, to reorient me, to remind me that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, that in this both/and world, I must refuse what tempts me daily: the arrogance to think that my particular group and I have discovered the final distinguishing features of chaff and are just now heading out the door to do some weeding. I want to be an artist who does not look away, who honors the messy real. I wanted the oil cross to be like a silver eyebrow, a boon, a reminder that real beauty is not even a simple turning of the tables that makes the first last and the last first — it is instead a revelation, a vision fierce enough to hold us all and to reconcile that which cannot be reconciled, like a lion and a lamb.

After the service I met Father Rohr, chatted with him, fumbled to articulate what his work has meant to me, managed to spew something about how “there is no way I’d be a person of faith right now” without having encountered his writings. He seemed happy to hear it but didn’t give me any sage advice. We made small talk about our hometowns. I asked a friend to take a picture of us. She did. In it, I’m red-faced, sweating in the warm room and in my nervousness. I had overeaten at the St. John’s cafeteria all week and felt bloated. Father Rohr could lose a few pounds too. His eyes are partially obscured by glasses, and his bald skull reflects the light. It’s an ugly picture, but the photographer did not look away. It’s real, so it’s good.

The night wore on. Father Rohr and most others had long since gone to bed, leaving just us MFA students. We were tired too, but our residency was decidedly not over, not yet. One last time we entered the Great Hall, a kind of Heorot where all week famous artists, our heroes, had held banquets of truth, beauty, and goodness. Now the chairs were pushed aside. Someone hooked a laptop to the PA system and pumped dance tracks. Heorot became a discotheque.

Some of us danced right away, at home in the kinesthetic world of rhythm and movement. Some even danced well. But for the most part, I suppose we are people destined to make art with pens and keyboards, not arms and legs. I, for one, do not dance well and am never in a hurry to demonstrate my lack of skills. But we needed to celebrate ten intensive days of art and community before heading home to our own communities around the country, places where we might not have permission — where, like salmon in New York’s October, we may well tire from swimming upstream.

A classmate danced over and invited me out to the floor, to the circle that had formed. I made a face that I thought sufficiently indicated my reluctance. But her face carried a message too: one of pure joy. A middle-aged woman who has both suffered and celebrated her share in this world, she took my hand as tenderly as Father Rohr had touched my head. She looked at me and did not look away.

I tried to dance. Awkward and unsure, I judged the other imperfect souls in the circle. Then I closed my eyes and listened. I stopped trying to dance, to be in control, and just did it, just danced. Just celebrated everything, wheat and chaff. I danced for a long time. Later I reached up to wipe the sweat from my forehead, surprised by a handful of oil.

Daniel Bowman Jr.’s work has appeared in journals such as The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey), The Midwest Quarterly, The Other Journal, Pyrta (India), Rio Grande Review, and Seneca Review. He lives in upstate New York where he teaches at Houghton College.

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