We Ate a Chair

“We Ate a Chair,” Susan Ryder

Matthew 17:20– Jesus said, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jay Michael– Suffer the little children who dwell in possibility, for theirs is the kingdom of love.

Albert Einstein– “Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.”
“Everyone knew it was impossible, until a fool who didn’t know came along and did it.”

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland
“I can’t believe that,” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said, in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carrol was well known for his love of the absurd, and Alice in Wonderlandis considered to be the epitome of the absurd, populated with talking rabbits, disappearing cats, and an ill-tempered queen who orders that all the white roses be painted red, among other things. While the quote I shared from it sometimes has religious associations with belief in miracles as literal or figurative, in reference to religious quarrels during Carrol’s time, I prefer the interpretation I grew up with, that suggests one can only do impossible things if they believe in impossible things. In this scene, Alice doesn’t appear able to recognize the importance or existence of the imagination. Being imaginative takes practice – the Queen herself used to take half an hour a day to consider the impossible, once believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast. The Queen understands that Alice cannot be imaginative if she’s never tried, and if she hasn’t tried she won’t believe that impossible things can happen. So the Queen was trying to get Alice to understand that imagination is very powerful – it gives one power – and Alice will need the power of imagination in order to defeat the Jabberwocky. As Einstein said, “Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.”

Unlike Alice, I had a very active imagination as a child. Growing up in the 60’s I was able to flex my imaginative muscles more than it seems like kids are able to do today. And if not more, certainly in different ways. We didn’t have computers or iPads or Xboxes back then, and we were only allowed to watch our ONE television set, which had 4 channels and went off the air before midnight, for very limited times and not even every day. So my playtime relied on exercising my imagination. Whether it was playing “horse ranch” with the neighborhood kids or riding my bike on an epic adventure around the block or helping prepare gardens with a spoon and fork for planting by the Lilliputians who lived in our backyard – my imagination regularly got a good workout. I remember those days fondly, and sometimes even with longing. Perhaps some of you had a similar experience enjoying the unlimited imagination of childhood.

Of course as we got older, we were encouraged to put away “childish things” to prepare for the responsibilities of adulthood. About the same time we found out the truth about Santa and the Easter bunny, it was recommended we begin to color more inside the lines than outside of them, and take fewer risks so we would become successful and productive – a suggestion that became more adamant as each year passed. “Taking an advanced chemistry class is more prudent than another elective art class, especially since few people actually make a living as an artist?” Or, “You need to volunteer at this or that charity instead of taking guitar lessons after school to help your college application stand out.” And though they meant well, they were also unintentionally discouraging our creativity and suppressing our inventive spirits by their insistence on practicality. Which we in turn repeated with the children in our lives. Don’t get me wrong – there certainly comes a time when children need to transition into adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could parent or mentor children in a way that balances the realities of adulting with encouragement to remain open to a variety of possibilities?

Robert Fulghum shares a story about two young college men who seemed to have benefited from that kind of balance. He writes …

We say the young have much to learn, but I find they know and do things unfamiliar to me, so I am pleased to learn from them when I can. Example: Two young college men asked me for a ride, because they were late to work. Their summer construction job was near my office, so I was glad to oblige. On the way I asked, “Besides working hard and playing hard, what’s happening in your lives?” They exchanged glances. Then one said, “We’re eating a chair.” What?

Yes. It seems that their college philosophy teacher gave them an extra-credit assignment: Do something unique and memorable — not dangerous or foolish, but something imaginative, inventive, and instructive. Write it up, and explain what was learned and how it might apply to their philosophy of life. So. They are eating a chair.

They bought a plain wooden kitchen chair at an unfinished furniture store. Using a wood rasp, they have been shaving away at the chair, mixing the dust into their granola for breakfast, and sprinkling the dust on their salads at dinner. So far they have consumed most of a leg, two rungs, and a back piece. And while they don’t want to overdo it, the pace is picking up. Still, the project may not be finished before summer’s end, so they may enlist friends, who, it seems, are enthusiastically willing to help eat a chair. And yes, they consulted a physician to make sure the wood dust was not harmful. And no, it doesn’t taste bad—especially if they mix in a little cinnamon at breakfast and a little lemon pepper at dinner. And yes, they have learned a few things along the way.

“Like what?” I asked. Like how amazing long-term goals can be achieved in incremental stages. Like how something seemingly idiotic affects your thinking about other things you do. For example, they routinely run about fifteen miles a week to stay in shape — around and around a lake. They wondered where fifteen miles a week would take them if they ran in a straight line. So they got a road map and have been marking off the mileage, headed south. They could be in Portland, Oregon, in a couple of weeks. But that’s boring, so they have a European map now and are starting out in Vienna headed for Athens. Using guidebooks, they’re figuring out what there is to see and do along the way. They’re touring the world in their minds.

And, of course, they’re very pleased with themselves. They’re sure they’ll astound the professor when he asks for their report. “We ate a chair. It will blow the dude away,” said one.

For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance. Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the-long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change. As wonderfully silly as it seems, eating a chair may lead my young college friends to wisdom and nobler aspirations. In their foolishness lies the seed of What-Might-Be, little by little. (https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/call/workshop9/chair-men)

Isn’t that a great story? Yes, eating a chair is kind of silly, and not necessarily a marketable skill for one’s resume. But the lessons those young men learned as part of their gastronomic experience will be invaluable, and I hope they never lose sight of the spirit of creativity that led them to do such a thing in the first place. I also hope they remember the power of doing what they did together – first with each other and then with the others they brought in to help them achieve their goal. When I shared the story with Bob earlier in the week, he commented that their eating that chair was an act of commensality. Sharing a meal – in this case a chair – over time created and cemented relationships between all the young men who took part and taught them how to use their imaginations to work together to achieve a common, if trivial goal. They did the seemingly impossible – they ate a chair! They also ran to Portland and then through Europe, even if only in their minds. Their creativity lead to cooperation and innovation – getting outside of their own personal expectations or behavior norms allowed them to experience things way beyond the act of consuming a chair, and building lasting bonds.

As we conclude our month-long consideration, I wonder if the question this month isn’t so much “What does it mean to be a people of possibility?” as it is “Who’s beside us, and who are we bringing along with us? Who have we gathered to pick us up and tend to our wounds when the path gets bumpy?” After all, no one makes it down the road of possibility alone – those young college men didn’t. Nor did Alice. And perhaps that’s the real message in all of this: that saying “Yes” is sometimes best said with someone else by our side; that saying “Why not?” is something we often need to say with companions with us on the journey. That’s a good word – companion. Its etymology is Middle English: from the Old French word compaignon, literally “one who breaks bread with another,” based on the Latin com- ‘together with’ + panis ‘bread’. This is why for us the celebration of communion is not focused on the story of Jesus’ sacrifice. It is about the community we create as seekers, the bonds we form whenever we say yes to the possibility found in the breaking of bread with one another, with a little sawdust sprinkled in for good measure.