Experience community for Christmas

Coffee With Dan: Christmas Conversation

MERGE — Tuesday, Dec. 25 at 11 a.m.

Coffee With Dan and Read Me Weird Things emerged as community conversation projects in 2018. — via Coffee With Dan

Christmas has a mixed reputation. Sure, it’s the season of love and of giving, of stepping outside yourself, of the world becoming a little bit brighter. But for those who feel alienated for any reason — whether they’ve stepped away from their religious faith; or they’re separated from family, by circumstance or choice; or they simply find themselves alone in a strange place with no way to reach out — it can go from being the most wonderful time of year to the darkest.

But community can exist outside of faith, family or even friends.

Dan Boscaljon (a frequent Little Village contributor) has been spending the better part of 2018 building community. His creations — Coffee With Dan and Read Me Weird Things — are formed not around the typical binding ties or even around common interests, per se, but around curiosity.

The first was inspired by Dave Gould and the Green Room series, a free lecture series that began last year with the aim, in part, of bridging the divide between the City of Iowa City and the University of Iowa. Coffee With Dan’s collaboration with the Green Room didn’t pan out, but Boscaljon did use the conversational model he’d developed to engage the community on politics and the arts, including work with this year’s Witching Hour festival. In the spring of 2019, Coffee With Dan will present three co-sponsored panels in conjunction with the UI’s spring theme semester: American Dreams. Boscaljon will work with the Iowa City Downtown District, the University of Iowa and the university’s Stanley Museum of Art to explore the notion of home in that context.

Read Me Weird Things is a collaboration with Vero Rose Smith, tangential to the music series Feed Me Weird Things, which also began last year and which specializes in bringing experimental artists to Iowa City. Inspired by a suggestion from Smith, the project is what Boscaljon calls “a reading group devoted to strange perspectives.” It meets every other week.

“I think that people have a hunger to live better, richer, deeper and more intentional lives.” Boscaljon told Little Village in an email. “There’s a real need for adults to think deeply together and very few institutions that encourage this kind of thinking. One of the reasons why I eschew most ideologically driven institutions (churches, political parties, etc.) is because they have tended to shut down curiosity in favor of providing certainty. I’m trying to open a space where asking questions about why life matters safe to ask.”

“Other places in town are doing similar kinds of things,” he noted, “the Englert, FilmScene, the Green Room, Witching Hour, Mission Creek, Feed Me Weird Things, the UI Stanley Museum of Art, Riverside Theatre, the ICPL, Prairie Lights. I’m trying to add an interdisciplinary arc to it and, especially in [Read Me Weird Things], am trying to expose people to resources that are largely neglected and forgotten.”

A special Christmas edition of Coffee With Dan will take place Christmas Day starting at 11 a.m. It’s broken up into three 90-minute sections with a half hour session at the end: Sharing Silence, Sharing Stories, Sharing Songs and Sharing Snacks. Instead of the typical Coffee With Dan panelist discussion model, this event will “honor the holiday in a humanist spirit,” the event description states. The day won’t be devoid of ritual: “Two buckets will be provided at the door: as you enter, feel free to share a sorrow, anonymously, that you wish to leave behind and no longer carry with you. On leaving, you’ll be invited to share a blessing or cause for gratitude.”

Boscaljon’s fascination with the space surrounding Christmas began through a heavily religious (but sparse in tradition) childhood, marriage into a family suffused with holiday traditions and education and study in theology and humanism. A couple of years ago, things were brought even more starkly into focus for him.

“Once I got divorced I spent a Christmas alone (after plans unexpectedly fell through), and last year [I] spent a Christmas that helped me understand, for the first time, a lot of what people find joyful and positive about this time of year. The combination of the two events — and a lot of my reflections about the holiday — encouraged me to open up a space for those who might want a community distinct from traditional religious or family spaces, one that was filled with warmth, joy and reflection. I want to create something that has the solemn reverence that I appreciated in Christmas Eve services, something shorn of Santa, something that has solidity, warmth and joy. It felt appropriate to do this in the context of [Coffee With Dan] — a public space that is interested in questions of character and value in a space beyond the family, but at odds with the larger currents of society.”

Regardless of religious tradition, the old joke “axial tilt is the reason for the season” reminds us that there are innate forces at play even in the cycles of nature that ripen this time of year for contemplation and community. Here in the northern hemisphere, the shortened days and the cold weather drive the desire to connect with our support systems and not go through the darkness alone.

“[T]here’s something deeply important about ritually remembering the space of light in times of darkness, and winter holidays do this,” Boscaljon wrote. “It reinforces one’s sense of belonging and provides a way to divide the times of darkness. It also provides a time to reflect, with gratitude, on times of bounty — which is as good an excuse for feasting, or eating well, as one might need.”

“Part of my work as an experimental, post-theist theologian is understanding what kinds of communities, rituals, events and encounters might emerge without the centrality of symbols,” he continued. “It’s tricky to think of ‘cycles’ outside of some sort of symbol, because recognizing cycles is already moving to a vantage point that isn’t immersed within the moment. Any recognition of cycle already involves some sort of ritual, at least in the form of language. Embellishing that recognition and being intentional around it also makes use of symbols in a relatively helpful way.”

If you’re looking for a new way to be in community with others this Christmas, Coffee With Dan brings that opportunity to the (aptly named, in this case) MERGE on Christmas morning.

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