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On Falling into Holes

April 6, 2013

I have started attending my local Unitarian Universalist church.  It’s an experiment on my part – less to do with anything theological, and more to do with connecting to my new neighborhood outside of the ivory walls of academia.  In that respect, it seems to be working, for now; I get my one hour a week interacting with people of all walks of life, many races, many different backgrounds, all ages, and though I rarely see them outside of church, I find I feel much more grounded in this city – part of a larger community, and not just a visitor.

Back to that “all ages” thing.  This church, like (I understand) many churches, keeps the kids with the rest of the congregation for maybe the first twenty minutes of the service, before they go off to their religious education classes.  Just before we sing them off to their classes, they get their own special storytime.  The story typically shares a topic with the upcoming sermon, and the minister tends to conclude with a bit of commentary or discussion on the lesson of the story.

Some weeks ago, the sermon was about how letting go of our histories would free us from prisons of our own devising.  The story was about a little girl called Jenny and her walk to school.

It went something like: Once upon a time there was a girl called Jenny.  Jenny liked to walk to school, and she always took the same path.  One day, as she was walking to school on her accustomed path, not really looking where she was going, she suddenly fell into a giant hole in the sidewalk that had not been there the day before! And she was quite shaken up, and brushed herself off and climbed out and went on her way.  The next day, the same thing happened, wham, Jenny fell into the hole, and she brushed herself off and climbed back out and went on her way.  On the third day, she got to the hole, and she remembered it was there, and so she edged around it, and so avoided a tumble.  And then, on the fourth day, quite daring, she CROSSED THE STREET and arrived at school right on time and so avoided encountering the hole at all. And she thought how silly she had been, those first two days, just walking on her accustomed path and taking the tumble down into the unexpected hole when she could so easily have changed her ways.

The moral of the story was that we should not cling to our habits and histories when they conflict with a changing world.  I suppose that’s a fine moral; adapting to reality, rather than expecting reality to bend to our wills, is an essential skill for any person.  But I keep thinking about that hole.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time sitting in holes, you see.  I’ve sat in holes in the tundra and the moors, sheltering from wind as I ate my lunch.  I’ve sat in holes in the beach, digging through dry sand until I reached the wet, and building castles around the edges.  I’ve sat in holes in the dirt, scraping it away centimeter by centimeter, revealing the fragments of ancient civilizations.  I’ve climbed down into holes in forests to study the gradating layers of soil and rock, root and worms.  And I’ve sat in holes in rock delved by miners, measured fractures and folds, and collected fossilized leaves from the tree of life.

Holes, from my point of view, are very interesting places, full of puzzles and mysteries.  You might say that they’re a gateway to another world.

So if, like little Jenny, I happened to fall into a hole on my way to school one day, my first step would be to brush myself off and make sure I hadn’t broken anything; but my second step would be to take a look at the hole.  What had dug it – shovels, backhoes, trowels, geological processes? How long had it been there? What were its walls made of – brick, soil, sand, rock? What strata were revealed in its walls? What creatures inhabited its depths? What buried fragments of  life had it revealed?

It would be a terrible betrayal of curiosity, I think, to climb right out of that hole and go on my way.  I go to school every day – but how often does a hole throw itself in my path? If I immediately climb out of that hole and go to school, nothing has changed.  If I edge around the hole and go to school, nothing has changed.  If I cross the street to avoid it, perhaps some little thing has changed, if the other side of the street is new and exciting; but at the end of the day, I’m still at school.  Real transformation lies not in crossing the street, but in turning outward to the wonders and mysteries of the hole.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2013 5:25 pm

    I think I would agree with you about the hole. For me, I think that choosing to explore the hole is the difference between simply crossing the street and coping with this unexpected change in my life or choosing instead to really explore this hole and find out more about it, maybe even why it has suddenly appeared in my path. If I just cross the street, I’m still going to end up in the same place at the end, but maybe if I explore the hole, I’ll end up changing my outlook on life and deciding to go somewhere else entirely.

  2. Cassandra permalink
    October 26, 2013 4:10 am

    Hi. It was your Tolkien quote about the green earth brought me here, and turned up to this post in particular. So, as you mention your practice of church attendance and wider community, and the story of holes, and your view of them as worthy of exploration…I just thought I’d put in a couple pennies of my own.
    First, yes, your point about the holes is quite a good one. As you’re a Tolkien fan enough to quote that bit from the journey in Rohan and a fan of holes, I have no doubt you’re familiar with Gimli, Gloin’s son, and his enchantment on seeing the fair caverns of Helm’s Deep a chapter or two further on. (My husband is reading aloud the series now to our eight-year-old, and we’ve covered both these bits in the last couple days.) It seems to me a matter of certainty that Tolkien would have agreed with you about the beauty and truth-value of holes, found by chance on one’s other-goal-oriented journey. Great was Gimli’s grief to leave that hole and carry on his way toward ‘school’!
    Which leads to a few comments on Tolkien himself–his chief study was that of ‘holes’, one might say, following the analogy of these meaning tradition, family and cultural and national or tribal history. He was a philologist, a studier of roots and etymologies, and the slow changes wrought by the working of time, given stuff of reality and history to work on. And, religiously, he was a Catholic, in England at a time when it was considered quite a low-class thing to be–nothing decorous or ‘respectable’ about it socially. He was a Catholic because his mother converted–so it was family history that carved out the gaping, unfathomable hole before him. And, to his mind, his stories showed it.
    I would agree that they really do. In fact, reading Tolkien as a child is one chief reason that I, as a young adult, eventually found myself open to converting–from secular nothing-ism to Catholicism. Anyway, the connection may be worth half an hour googling, sometime, if the human community at the UU church ever palls on a rainy day…and you feel a sudden itch to explore ancient caverns old and deep and shining fair, like cathedral halls.
    May a star shine on the end of your journey.

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