Urban anonymity: we can't name the taste of what's missing.

Catherine M Wallace

I have tasted the salt on another man's bread. The professor made much of the image, which was Dante's lament for his exile from Florence. I pictured a medieval Italian, salt shaker in one hand, a slice of bread in another. What? My small flicker of confusion was enough to lodge the line in my memory. There it waited until something in my own life evoked it.     

And now something had. There, on the crust of bread I was unwrapping for lunch, part of leftovers carried out from an Italian restaurant last night. A fine film of salt, so fine that that the crust might have been sprayed with lightly salted water before it baked or as it baked. That was it, I realized. That's why good crusty bread in the best Italian restaurants has a taste unlike any other bread anywhere else. Salt.

I hauled my Kitchenaid from its spot on the lowest shelf of my pantry and made a batch of panini. After it baked, after I brushed the fragrant crust lightly with a good olive oil, I salted the bread very lightly. Yes, that was it: the missing ingredient. Something missing all these years, something so deeply missing that I had no name for it.

       Dante had no name for it either. Or more precisely, being a poet, he offered multiple names, trying to reach beyond the words themselves to the embodied experience of loneliness. Not belonging. Not home. Not rooted and solid and secure. Not knowing-and-known, not oriented, so oriented that we find our way without thinking just as our hands can find our faces without being told how. I did not understand why Dante so grieved the loss of Florence just as I did not understand the salt on another man's bread. Why not move somewhere else, mister, settle down, build a new life? What's so bad about moving? I took mobility for granted just as Dante took roots for granted.

       What I was missing was far more elusive than a faint film of salt on crusty bread. I think we no longer understand the social cohesion that traditional cultures take for granted. In part, I suppose, that's because we are an immigrant culture. Even the few peoples actually native to this land have been so often and so brutally displaced that their sense of sacred belonging has been damaged almost beyond repair. For the rest of us, having made that one great move, or being descended from restless people who made that one great move, we remain mobile. Go West, young man, go West.

       Or at least when your lease is up find a better place to live. Get as many new jobs in as many new places as your career demands. Even those who stay put, defying such habits, face an ever-changing cast of neighbors and colleagues. The landscape itself changes: buildings come down and new ones go up. The pizza place around the corner from me just closed. All of us have grown accustomed to the loss for which Dante grieved so deeply it evoked a literary masterpiece.

       In American culture, change is commonly celebrated as liberation, as progress, as a step up the ladder. Change is growth, we say, and what's not growing is dying. Such claims are so commonplace that they are nearly invisible, another thin film flavoring the crust of our days. Stasis is stifling. To stay put is to be trapped.

       True enough, true enough. But I wonder now if there is another truth, a missing ingredient perhaps, something savory whose absence we taste even if we do not understand what it is.

       What does it mean to belong? To know-and-be-known effortlessly, identity clear, status assured, with little or no negotiation? To fit in, and to know you fit in, and to know where everyone else fits as well, in a clear network of mutual obligation and confidence that your own bread-and-butter needs will be acknowledged? The Middle Ages, like other traditional societies, spent a lot of energy complaining that such networks did not function as they should, that obligations were not met, or obligations were inappropriately imposed. Dante was a glorious part of that incessant grousing. It's no wonder, then, that one particularly daring subset of grousers set sail for the "New World," wanting to start over. Convinced that starting over was metaphysically possible.

       We are so accustomed to life in a rootless, anonymous society that it's hard to recognize what's missing: genuine community. What we have created may be a society so rootless, so anonymous, so incessantly changing that we are living at odds with our own biological character as social obligates. We have no herd. The vigilance that requires is exhausting, an exhaustion we fail to recognize, a stress we write off as inescapable, as a given, as a fact no less permanent than Dante's banishment from Florence. Or we lunge at anything that promises belonging, whether that's a Twitter feed or the online social network of your choice. Or the incessant ding of new email arriving: look, look, someone is talking to me, someone is reaching out, even if it's just more advertising spam. We walk down the street clutching our phones, proof positive that somewhere somebody else knows who we are.

       I have tasted the salt on another man's bread. Our mouths water. And a loss that can be named, something missing that is known as missing, is easier to live with than an absence that remains elusively invisible.

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I explore this topic further in my book Confronting Religious Judgmentalism: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination, forthcoming from the publisher Wipf & Stock. There I explain that religious judgmentalism, like common playground bullying, creates negative community, a community based upon exclusions, condemnations, and scapegoating. We know we are cool because we are Not Like Her. Understanding the psychological needs that fundamentalists exploit raises a fascinating question: How can any of us feel "at home" even in the ordinary, anonymous urban setting? What's the essential creative process involved in forging for ourselves that biologically-necessary sense of "belonging"?