Guest Blog

Breaking Bread, Drinking Wine and Talking Big… But not in Paris
by Jeff Pearce, Long Time Author, Journalist, Skeptic

I don’t know about you, but I don’t pour myself a glass of wine and eat a fine meal in
front of a Facebook page.

No, no—don’t worry. This isn’t going to be that kind of guest blog, bashing social media
even as I reach out to the Internet. My point goes directly to that notion of wonderful
food and wine complemented with great conversation.

Cortney and Ralph have both written here about communion and the big, gaping hole,
that lack of spirituality, that many of us feel, and I have certainly felt it. Being of English descent, we white bread types don’t do spirituality. We do hymns and tea (and if you’re atheists like my parents were, you don’t do hymns). Now the spiritual is one aspect. But
there’s another rich component of their Friday night get-togethers, and that’s intellectual
discussion. Think of salons.

And no, no—it isn’t that kind of guest blog either. Pretentious, self-congratulatory… At
least I’ll do my best not to make it like that.

I wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old, so I grew up eager and ready to find
a good salon. There’s a romanticist mythology for such circles, from the Impressionist
painters arguing technique to Picasso and Sartre in Les Deux Magots café in Paris to the
incredibly self-hyping Beats gunning their engines, roaring off to San Fran. There’s the
Algonquin Table. Hell, even Winston Churchill had Einstein and Chaplin out to his brick
pile in Kent called Chartwell.

In the Nineties, magazines like Utne Reader tried to revive a salon movement, but unless
you’ve got the will to organize things you’re just blowing nostalgic bubbles. And to
Ralph and Cortney’s credit, they’ve organized something special that crosses tribes.

Every group I spot lately seems to reinforce the tribe, the clique, or it doesn’t bother
to open the windows to let new ideas in. An example: being bisexual, I get attitude
sometimes from both gays and straights for various reasons, and so I tentatively looked
into so-called support groups and online forums for bisexuals… which often turn out to
be nothing more than sessions for bitching and whining about how gays and straights
treat them. How tedious… I like to think I’m more than who I sleep with, and I don’t
want to be reduced to a label.

Certain efforts at communion do just that. They limit us.

We yearn for intellectual discussion, but being social animals with our own inherent
biases, like seeks like, when what we really should be doing is what Cortney and Ralph
do. The wine gets poured, the bread gets passed, a blessing—which in no way could be
offensive to even die-hard, cantankerous agnostics like myself—is uttered and shared.

And then there’s talk. Good talk. Stimulating talk. And laughter.

I find certain other efforts at communion put on blinders and will never grow, even as
they try to live large. Here is an example that will likely raise a few hackles, but let me
put it out there, and please be patient as I stroll up to my argument. Occupy Wall Street
served a purpose in New York and made a much-needed point, and for reasons unique to
British culture—trust me on this, because having lived among that tribe for several years,
I know—the one in London likely made its point, too. But their nerdier, sadder little
brother of a movement in Toronto in 2011 was a badly-organized communion. It was a
self-congratulatory drum-fest that had no clear goals, which didn’t start any dialogue at
all or influence anyone.

If you walked around the muddy church lawn occupied by protesters, which by the
way, was nowhere near the business district, you noticed the lack of vitality, the too-
earnest effort to jump on the NYC bandwagon. It was clearly a striving for intellectual
communion, instead of a coherent protest against… well, anything. These days we
reflexively think our attempt at communion must be a crowd, not a circle. We have to go
big with spectacle and placards, when maybe the best thing we can do sometimes to help
ideas and facilitate dialogue is go small.

It’s easy to shout slogans in a crowd, to be adversarial, but on a more modest scale,
you are more mentally invested. On a New Sabbath Project evening, sharing wine and yummy dishes, civility is understood, and more than that, what else have you brought to
the table…i.e. from your mind?

For one thing, I know I’m not merely cutting and pasting a quote from Neil deGrasse
Tyson into my Facebook page, I have to be able to remember the words accurately, plus
actually talk about what they mean to me. Now being a writer, sometimes people expect
me to be witty, eloquent, deep (silly people). Yet I’ve got my own hang-ups over this,
just as I’m sure many people do in such social settings. It goes back to that whole self-
congratulatory, pretentious thing we worry about.

It took years to actually call myself a writer because of a certain defensiveness over a)
not being rich from my writing; b) feeling alienated from what I consider a snobbish,
insular culture for literary elites. If I’m not writing contract books on history or current affairs, I often do hack novels—erotica, science fiction, thrillers. It used to be that no one asked our type for our deep thoughts. So to enjoy vibrant conversation on jazz, art, even a neighbourhood revitalization project, could often feel to me like a pose, like putting on airs. Who the hell did I think I was?

But who the hell are any of us? Like the spiritual communion, intellectual communion
isn’t a privilege for elites, it’s a right and a gift we give ourselves.

So join the salon! Open one of your own. And you don’t even have to be in Paris or
Greenwich Village to do it.

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4 thoughts on “Guest Blog

  1. Thanks again for having my crew over on Friday. Because of the ‘project’ nature of the project I had expected it to be a little more formal, I guess, or more flashy or something. But it was dinner with your family and some blessings. It was great. All three of us were shocked when it had become so late. Isabel and I both agreed that we though it was 9 when it was almost 11. I’ve told the rest of the team about it and you’re probably going to have more people knocking on your door. I’ll let you guys know when we’re doing events that you might want to participate in. Take care.

    • Hi Darren,
      Thanks for your comments and for taking part. Since deciding to take what we do “public” as it were — based on what we saw as a crisis in both citizenship and community — we wondered about whether to introduce things that made it more formal. We are still not entirely sure if we should be introducing more structural elements into it but I think the whole point is that if you create a formal atmosphere with bells and whistles and great expectations, it might bring more self-conciousness into what has naturally evolved into what is otherwise an intimate gathering place — even a salon as one guest from last Friday labelled it in his note to us afterwards. What we feel is most important is ensuring it is not just another dinner party full of small talk — but instead a place for bigger conversation (most of the time – kids usually in bed), some cultural and spiritual rituals, and simply making sure you do it regularly. It then becomes more than an occasional dinner party but a disciplined and ritualized way of creating a bit of a fence around the sacred.

      • This was sent to our New Sabbath Project email and I thought I would post it here.

        This is a beautiful rendition of a time-honored tradition. It reminds me of this beautiful woman in her 80’s at Baycrest (I volunteer and lead a group Monday mornings) who I adore. A Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family she has a grateful positive loving nature. She tells a story of being a little girl back in the homeland and at dinner time her mother would send her out to the street to find a hungry person to share their table. You are on a good track in my opinion. Mazel tov Cortney and Ralph!

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