PRAYING FOR A LITTLE SHELTER
Bill Haw and his family had a pet store in Kalispell decades ago. I was visiting and invited to dinner. They had brought a tame chipmunk home with them. After dinner while we sipped coffee and chatted, the chipmunk was loose on the table.
My hands were interwoven in front of me on the table, making a little enclosure. The chipmunk saw this, moved my thumbs out of the way with his little near-hand paws, curled up inside my fingers which were warm, and took a nap. This was organic cross-species opportunistic architecture.
If I or a bear were to find a cave just the right size for snuggling, maybe with an accumulation of dry leaves on the bottom, this would not just be opportunistic but also mineral accommodation for the organic. For a bear this might mean survival by hibernation through a long harsh winter. The elements are not just adjacent, but interwoven.
Imagine a university: an historic, structured, partly brick and mortar and partly monetary, that protects professors and students while they think, allowing them a sheltered place. But also the university is sheltered by the culture in which it is created. Not all cultures will allow such a privileged place but in our Euro-culture this comes in part from the phenomenon of the church,
The idea of a hospitable space might be called “platonic” in the sense of lending itself to an abstract notion describing one thing inside of another, for the benefit and shelter of the inside entity. It can be found or built or temporary like my fingers which stayed woven around that little animal through empathic caring, imagining it snoozing in there, full of trust.
Imagine a university: an historic, structured, partly brick and mortar and partly monetary, that protects professors and students while they think, allowing them a sheltered place. But also the university is sheltered by the culture in which it is created. Not all cultures will allow such a privileged place but in our Euro-culture this comes in part from the phenomenon of the church, a sanctuary where like-minded people gather to anchor their felt meaning of life with iconography, familiar music, and the pleasure of being together regularly — being known.
It’s been said that a use of community is to remember who you are, so if you are traumatized (war, fire, crime) or push an adventure too far (drugs, madness, stripped), they will remember who you are and nudge you back together even if you are dispersed.
But all of these examples have a dark side, that of the trap. I could crush that little animal, hunters with dogs could kill that bear, universities can be exploited for money, and traumatized people can be made into puppets.
Communities can refuse to let their members grow and even destroy them if they are defiant.
These thoughts come to me because of experience and because I’ve moved among cultures. Some were traps and others were launching pads. At eighty my problem is that those from the teaching years think that’s who I am, those who knew me as a sculptor’s wife, those who knew me as animal control officer, those who knew me as clergy, those who know me as an old lady with cats, and so on have different and even conflicting ideas of who I am and what to expect. There is no living person who has known me through all situations and none who has known me intimately enough to see the foundational substrate that has carried me through. This is not very unique.
In fact, I’ve not been very good about considering my points of interaction as unique in themselves. I’ve tried to make all of them back into my happiest times, which were at NU in the Department of Theatre or with Bob Scriver in Browning — even without Bob Scriver in Browning. My present situation is the best I’ve been able to do and it’s been good until our collapsing culture began to affect this little village. But the point is interaction over time creating layers of identity in me, a sort of sedimentation except that they become something new. I sought shelter for this in my Valier house, and it’s worked.
Bill Haw’s pet store had a special burglar alarm that worked by listening for unusual noises and then calling him on the phone. Hooked up to a speaker phone, Bill could call out to intruders: “Who’s there!!?” His phone rang in the middle of the night and he shouted, “Who’s there?”
A voice came back: “Who’s there? Who’s there?” He was indignant at being mocked until it dawned on him that he was having a conversation with the gray parrot in the shop! Then he began to laugh and so did the bird. It didn’t know why, just that these birds love to laugh.
Concepts exist without words and even without abstractions. The parrot (I’m sorry I don’t know its name) could say, “Gimme shelter” though we don’t even know whether a parrot can remember its original egg and nest. They are born into niches in trees made by other entities, so their nests are “found” rather than made like a robin’s nest.
If you’re curious about wild parrot nests, this is a nice essay.
But parent parrots do recognize what niches will work, so they must “know one when they see one.” As do humans, who make imitation niches for raising tame parrots. But does a parrot or a bear feel satisfaction in a comfortable and safe place? My cats do. They settle against me or each other and begin to purr. They curl and in a while stop purring because they are asleep.
Ideally humans arrange for a safe, warm, comfortable place to sleep. This is one of the goals and definitions of a family. The scandal of our time is that so few can do this, though they scavenge what they can to make little hooches and nests against city buildings. This does not just destroy culture but also the felt meaning of life itself. It prevents the growth and cooperation of people. Where are the clasped hands that can hold us safe? Who will pick up the phone and ask, “Who’s there?”
And the parrot laughed and laughed.
Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, MT.