Wednesday, July 27, 2016


by Christopher Bowen

When I was a small child, I used to create flipbooks with crayons and staples on construction paper late in the evening as my mother slept on a couch behind me after a twelve hour nursing shift. I used my first typewriter at four or five, an electric IBM my librarian grandmother had. I remember it's low, sleek hum when turned on, the power of pressing those keys.

My story, the one I live, is the most important story I'll ever create.

In 2008, I founded a small chapbook press called Burning River. We published eight chapbooks over about five years hinging on the credit that "the writing Burning River tends to admire, if not imitate, is human. It is flawed. It is incomplete. And it is seeking understanding into and of other human beings."

And I used grants from culinary school to fund it. I worked full-time as a hospital cook and lived in a cheap, cash-only apartment in a rundown, small Ohio town that industry forgot.

I'm not going to go into exactly how rough life was then, but the press, my life, was worth the sacrifice. I began booking readings and venues outside of Cleveland for myself and other authors. I began to travel more. Just after the closing of the press, I completed two author tours, one on the East and the other on the West.

What makes this part of my story important isn't the excitement or discovery, even the confidence of it—the writer residency in Quebec or anything else, but the knowing that you are capable of doing these things. What makes this part of my story important is how I earned the ability to do it, the humility and character of all that time, my life.

There's a small sidebar of random quotes I've collected over the years on the Burning River website, ones that still remain there today, even as I only blog from it.  I found this quote over ten years ago while reading a book called Henry Miller On Writing.

“With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.”

How can human beings improve? How can they shape who they are? Sometimes, it's just the simple decisions they make in the face of adversity.

I recently published a novella, or chapbook, about adversity. When I ReturnTo You, I Will Be Unfed is about some of the very things I've been talking to you about: adversity, life-changing, character. I will always be the very most important character I develop. I work now as a travelling, managing chef. I write when I can and appreciate being a part of both the literary world and, at times, the culinary. When I wake up tomorrow, two weeks, three months, one year down the road, what is my destiny as a man?

A lot of people measure successes with a yardstick, a map and a compass. Sometimes, it's simply the situation you never chose. The main character of my novella doesn’t choose mental illness and it's something that surely defines him, then and later in life. I have been blessed to have a very full life even at my very young age of thirty-six. I have been blessed with so much character: from hopping into a semi-truck as a kid with my father and sister after breaking down on the Ohio interstate to understanding the natural world: camping, a hike, weathering a storm. Life is a storm and storms haunt me. It's my ability to look back at them that makes life so much more worth it, that makes me so much more grateful for them, for my life, my human being.


The Farmers of Shangri-La

We are farmers. We are grown from a blackest dirt to be found above the clay table that’s there below the ground in Ohio. Black means rich, black means vitality to us because we are farmers. We plant trees, we grow them.

When years pass us by, by the old oak tree and the swing from its limb we used to climb, it will still be here to whisper secrets only children know and our hollow ghosts.

Summer passes us: the ball game, a worn leather mitt, the county fair and the dusk a part of the wind. Like the way it feels to skinny dip at night when everyone’s parents are asleep and though we are adults ourselves. The owl keeping one eye open and watching the summer pass us farmers and every creeping, crawling thing the night over knows it, knowing nakedness.

We’ve a barn to prove our stores, our progress and toil. We’ve a place behind it to smoke cigarettes or cigars or pipes after the family dinner. We’ve gravel driveways and blueberry homegrown stout or wine and rhubarb pie to eat while joking about the billy goat or how the dogs in the yard are just so stupid, just so dumb.

“What happened?”

“We were out by the dock out on the boat and it tipped, is all. That’s why I’m so wet,’ said as one enters the house, too late to notice the sun setting behind dripping ears. And the person in the living room or dining room nods in approval, knowing the question need not be answered and that it was only half asked to begin with, and offering the last slice of pie.

“What happened to the rest of the world?”

They are failing at something and running from us. It is well affixed in them to repeatedly escape this way, to take the fastest car, the fastest plane to do this, never to be seen the same way again and always lost in one or two or more ways. They leave behind the black, vital dirt of here and Shangri-La behind shaking heads, not shaking water, but disbelief at what is left behind in the past in the country in Ohio. They are on toward the city and clean futures like good barbershop haircuts to return the day like to some lagoon where a father or uncle or grandfather spits into the wind at mosquitoes and mumbles at the lack of predators in the area, natural predators to hunt and kill. This is God’s country.

There is incoming wind to an open window of a pickup truck, the bed filled with wood to last the winter. Bugs scramble at the weight of the statement. But no one hears this: not the bugs, not above the crack and shoot of gravel beneath rugged tires, not below the whistle of wind shaped for the ear and aimed from across a field of corn or alfalfa. Not God hears this, let alone the passenger.

Jackson Browne plays on the stereo, Running On Empty, and the car is in gear. And we will wait for you here, we will wait many years.

This flash fiction piece was first published by Stirring: A Literary Collection published at Sundress Publications.  Here is the original link to "The Farmers of Shangri-La."


Christopher Bowen is a Midwestern chef. Author of the books We Were Giants (sunnyoutside) and When I Return To You, I Will Be Unfed, he blogs from Burning River.

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