pilgrim, roads are made by walking

winter and spring 2016

contact diffusion: Every good life sleeps on a myth…

Dear Sebastien:

There are not accurate words in the languages we share to express my gratitude for you and your spirit. My visit with you was life-changing. A paltry thank you will never repay my debt or your gift. I struggled to discover how I could thank you, how I could share my sincere depth of relief, of courage, of solitude. How like a faucet you turned something on, moved something forward within me. Do you know anything about psychics? I don’t. But I do remember a few rules. Namely that a body at rest will remain at rest. A body in motion will continue in motion. A body at rest, collided upon by a body in motion, is a victim of violence. Energy cannot be created or destroyed…You unhinged and re-aligned a passion within me that was stopped like a bad gear, or a sore leg. Your effervescence, your compassion, your longing…this incomplete essay is an attempt to elucidate and verbalize what was truly a pilgrimage for me. A journey back to myself, with breadcrumbs in the woods of time, through you. Thank you for keeping the road wet, and clean. Thank you for the shoes, for the love, for listening. Thank you for being here for others when we cannot be there for ourselves.

I’m not one for private emotions in public spaces. But social media, and the bathroom wall, is a liminal floor, where nothing is quite private because everything is now public: we publicize every private thing we do, usurping our vulnerability in turn. When it’s all personal, it isn’t necessarily honest. When we are safe, we are raw nerve, which is the biology of growth. To paraphrase Michael Ondaatje, the coin of the word “passion” is so over-circulated that it’s now bankrupt. But it’s currency nonetheless, and language is our legal tender. For all debts private and public we trade words: vows, promises, remorse, provocations, imprecations. We even swear on time, as if we owned it, not vice versa. The human indulgence for liquidity, for credit, is at best, dramatic. We’d mortgage our noses to finance our face if only its money would fold.

I grew up with people above me. People taller, older, wiser, reckless, richer, educated—giants of Lilliput in strength, balance. The poise of hubris, beautiful in its very human swanning. I watched that. And I’ve believed since day zero that someone should always block your view; those frustrated by life will blame others. But maturation teaches a gentler reciprocity between analysis and motion: step and pause. Eventually, hopefully, you’ll cease to blame others for blocking your view and make it yourself. When past blame, you’ll realize that your own steps trip, your own mind slips, your own eyes miss meaning. The role of a mentor is to tell you not to look for something which is already here. It’s the diagnostics of omnipotence, in a gentle genesis; we may ceaselessly turn over the leaf of our lives, tracing its cuneiform, its scars; we beg the oracle for what we know we will find when we really begin to see. We know it’s there, what we seek, and that’s why we long for it. We want what we deny ourselves, but which others give. The petty dialectics of fear. Like a child playing hide and seek, we yearn for the concealment knowing we’ll be discovered. Yet we cannot wait to be found, to allow our clever choices to reveal us. The smoke clears, and we hold the mirrors smiling. The mentor is meant to flesh out the palm; to trace it, read it, guarantee it. A mentor’s role is to disrupt fear, never to displace it. Without that blood of doubt, we’d lack the oxygen of substance. But without the spleen of reason, of faith, we would achieve nothing beyond pale resentment. A limpid, translucent life. The veins of a leaf are visible years after it’s alive; on the tree that transparent flesh is buoyancy against anonymity. The vulnerability of showing where we’ve come from, if only to tack sail closer to where we may go. It was the roots which fed that leaf, and the branch which let it go.

Enter Sebastien Boudet, stage left. Graying hair, blue eyes, a gibbous moon of a face. That face is his invitation. Polished cheeks, alacrity, lungs like tommy guns blasting away at anything. His mind is a Geiger counter, pulsing the presence of any activity—atomic or microbial. He has dexterity like molten rubber, which will bounce from biology to psychics to the Maquis resistance to Nazism, before it cools itself. He cultivates fibers like spiders silk between Freud and Jung to Plutarch and crooked timber. Priest, pied piper, zealot. Gesticulating like twisted lightning, evangelizing gypsy of bread who has taught nearly 200 classes. Fatigue would only approach him with weapons and caution. And arrogance. He has put on sneakers of quicksand, and he flies like Hermes through the liminal. The prophet, in his case, is more important than the religion; it is the religion.

I met Sebastien on a road trip he was making in a flame orange Mustang through the South. He had just come from Houston, where he interrupted the NASA guide about wastefulness: why, he demanded, was money spent on Mars when Alabama was starving? Something in the accent, the jocularity of English in a French mouth, instill fears…I was on my back, underneath my 2500 lbs flour mill, when my door opened. It was Sunday, and I was alone in my bakery for the first time in two years. A mutual friend had let me know that Sebastien was in town for a bit. Three days before we’d received one of the country’s largest stone mills, in New Orleans nonetheless, a city that can’t feed itself. And today was consummation with my bride. It was Lorca’s blood wedding that made me run into the bramble of my shop, alone, and I rolled my eyes the minute I heard him at the door. And since that day they’ve never rolled back.

Sebastien could charm a rock because he is charmed by it. He grew up in Montmartre until the age of seven, when his parents packed the Citroen and siblings for Normandy. They opened a bakery and he was encouraged in a plein-aire Montessori way, ensconced in the French values of liberty, fidelity to ego, fraternity to tradition. The iconoclasts in France, of which Sebastien is a prime minister, destroy always the prayers but never the dogma. In his milieu, a divorce is full of love, absent only of passion. And it was in this Eden that he grew among whole grain breads and brown eggs. The chimney of his family’s bakery ran through his bedroom and he knew what was baking just by opening his nose. He made his BAC at 15, then his CAP (French professional bakery certification), and did fourteen months conscription as a paratrooper trainee in Pau by 19. He was, by 22, a father, and owner of his first bakery in Malaga; a legionnaire of sorts, flung to the far corners of the heart’s empire, to defend it against itself. Like any healthy Frenchman, he is blinded in flight like Icarus from the wax of his unyielding values. France, like Sebastien, is not a place of compromise, but of compulsion. They preach reason better than they practice it.

Stints, diversions, and the peripatetic journey to nowhere of every talented chef led Sebastien to Spain, Florida, New York, and eventually Stockholm. And it has been here, in the crown of Scandinavia, that he has come to form. In order to break the rules, you must know the rules. And in his grounding of classical French baking—baguettes, Viennoiserie, tarts, cakes— Sebastien has populated a brand new landscape of baking. The world is saturated with mono-cuisine: from Shanghai to Seattle to Stockholm there is the burger, the fries, the soda. There is the starch, the corn-fed protein, the processed sugar. We’ve lost 50% of our biodiversity in the past 30 years because I can get the same meal in Johannesburg than I can in Lima. It is absurd, this globalization of food, because it has eroded the precedent of local food systems. Systems which not only curated the stomach and our health, but guaranteed public health, regional economies, security. Oh, and the cohesion of culture, the sacred human right of community. The threat of Big Food’s presence is the absence of small food. There are no whales without plankton, no McDonald’s without small producers. The food chain is not a Keynesian belt of low-rent leather from a sweat shop, style and price dictated by the omnipotent “market”. It is a Gordian knot which climbs up just until it needs to fall back down, to start the ceremony over again.

Sweden, like any other place on earth, was a self-sufficient pantry for its entire modern history. Some vitals like coffee, wheat, sugar, and fruit had to be imported, but the system was intact until World War II. Like Mexico or Louisiana or Senegal though, that smooth patterned rug of consumption has been pulled out from under the dinner plate. Heritage grains and breeds, native to the region, are in precarious existence as the country has been groomed for monoculture by corporate food companies.

Entr’acte: They used to mock me, make me feel disappointed. That I’d stay in, stay back; retreat, redraw, sleep. I preferred staying from the petty and going towards the pregnant. I’ve had my fun, my epics, my towers—the binges, the waltzes, the nightcaps and heart attacks. I have seen the sun set in the east, so let us compare mythologies. But most of it never fit; it grew cheap, that’s what I felt, noticed like wet felt, with the frequency. The more drinking, the more departure, the more swerving—it went from raw Technicolor to wet celluloid, where the experience of youth made me feel old. Because that’s all we wanted, a cruel departure. Wanted an exit stage right, where I could walk into something greater, something important. It was so impotent, so dry, so light; I wanted weight, measure, some laws of psychics, just a few. Theatre is for action, not existentialism. Bread is for sharing. Maps are for finding, not getting lost. And yet I fell freely like an apple without the affection of Newton. I knew there was something beyond, something deeper than the faucet. Something formidable, heavy, a metal. If I could only move beyond the doubt, the pity, the apology. If I could pull myself away from the shipwreck, yet still remain wet. If I could take wings and use them for walking. If I could love myself, I would love others. If I served a faith bigger than my life, I’d find the community. I’d find the peace, the sand, the glooming. It is not the murder which flies, but the crow. And see now the trees we perch.

Like a cave. He is the belly of the earth, all dark and damp, where the most primitive transactions occur. It is within him, and through his strength, that we see ourselves through what we eat. In Lascaux, men and women took blood and earth to mirror their lives on material indelible. They wanted what they saw everyday—themselves, their food—to remain forever. It wasn’t selfish, or vain. It was gratitude for the grace of life. It was religion without the pollution of judgment, of fear, of church. It was mature love, awe. It was inspiration in dried ink upon a wet earth. In Lascaux, France, we became for the time human adults with innocence intact. We wanted to depict, to praise, without an ounce of pride. And this is precisely what Sebastien seeks to share. This is the redemption, the resurrection he seeks. (Abstract signs of divorce, of longing, are entirely absent). It was the secular Eucharist of life into art. Of moments into infinity. Painting stars into the sky.

At first, Sebastien was like Kierkegaard’s clown. The country village was enjoying the summer circus when suddenly a fire started. In the tumult and because of the hay, the clown made a snap judgment; while everyone bailed water on the flames, he would run and enlist the help of the neighboring village. Like a fox he ran through the fields and exhausted into the main square. In the cacophony of the moment, he was completely disarmed by reality—of course, he was still dressed in costume, face paint and all. When the villagers began to gather round, they laughed and jeered at the perceived pantomime of his exhaustion—the clown! Doubled over and belligerently gesticulating, selling the snake oil of a fire in the next village! The clown, reaching his arms to heaven like two halves of a ladder, the white paint on his face bright and runny—the fire, the flames, the breathless imprecations to flee, to help! You are next, his lungs leavened with silent rage, you must run—as he became more animated, more vehement, the crowd only grew in size and laughter. This clown was incredible. Bravo. Bravo! What a show, what gesture, what passion—the profundity and sincerity were life like. And it was in this pregnant hypnotism of scorn, in that womb of spectacle, that the villagers failed to notice the approaching flames, rushing towards their lives like a red sun. And it was in this way, laughing at their own disbelief, that they were swallowed by fire.

Contact diffusion is a concept in archaeology that believes in the simultaneous yet autonomous development of traditions and inventions amongst separate groups. The belief that the wheel was invented in multiple, isolated communities around the same time; the belief that agriculture was developed in multiple, isolated communities around the same time; the belief that access to food is a human right, not a commoditized privilege.

What we need now in the food movement, I’ve come to learn, is not archaeology. Yes, we must understand where we are coming from in order to know where we are going. Sankofa is not merely a concept, but currency. But we do need to apply sociology and living sciences to food today. The Food Rights Movement must not seek forgiveness or permission, nor must it achieve its goals with antagonism. No, we direct change with confrontation. The argument of flavor. Sebastien teaches this; he told me that medicine causes sickness, as does modernity. And we cannot treat sickness with the same chemicals and medicine which cause the initial sickness.

I realized, as the night bled through the tin train windows, that I don’t want to meet anymore scared people. I want fear out of my life. And I want it out of all the people I love. Sebastien has taught that: there is a zealotry, a compulsion, a momentum to his presence. there is conviction. That is something I’ve held to like treasure, like coin, like talisman my entire life. But I never used it; I never squeezed. I’ve had ice but could never use the water. Sebastien is a terrestrial Icarus, an angel in flight, an angel without repose, without religion. He is a raw nerve, electivity, fat wisdom, knowledge. Secular church. Iconoclast. Counter-revolutionary, libertine, father, savior. What could the arrows ever pierce St. Sebastien, except mere flesh? He unhinged me. And I’m blinded by sheer light. No superlative no hyperbole—I’ve never been more rapt, more motivated, more shocked. The man is a guillotine, with the blood appetite of Robespierre and the poise of Danton. He is Mary Magdalene, with his compassion and ostracism. His distance is his power. His distance is his power.

 

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