Tag Archives: construction

Crows I Have Known

My childhood was filled with unusual characters, all products of my father’s fertile imagination. A Freudian would probably say that each was a projection of a different aspect of my father’s personality—all I know is that their appearances were both unpredictable and entertaining. The “Flying Gynzbyrd,” for instance, was a heavy bird who liked to land with a thud on the breakfast table and stomp through either my brother’s or my toast, leaving imprints the size of the tips of my dad’s index and third finger. The “Claw” was a dangerous creature who liked to be petted but would fly into a rage and attach himself without warning to your face or the top of your head if you rubbed him just slightly the wrong way. My favorite was “Pet Crow.” He was, I’m sure, a projection of my father’s affectionate and emotional side, a part of his personality that was not frequently on display in traditional forms. Pet Crow loved to sit on my shoulder, then work his way farther and farther into the crook of my neck between my clavicle and my jaw in a ticklish way that sent me into spasms of hilarity.

I included these childhood companions and several new creatures in my own parenting repertoire; I found that gynzbyrds, claws, crows, Thursday Turkey, and Friday Frog were far more successful in getting my sons up for school than yelling “get your asses out of bed NOW!” Crows are an ongoing fascination. When we moved to Providence eighteen years ago, I noticed in short order that the urban crows on our street were unusually large and noticeably louder than other crows in my experience (Pet Crow, for instance, was entirely silent). I also noticed that I never saw more than three crows at a time, so I came to the obviously logical conclusion that they were the only crows. I named them Edgar, Allen, and Poe, after the E.A.P. of “The Raven” fame who had a strong Providence connection. Jeanne once asked me how I could tell them apart—I told her that if we saw just one, it was Edgar, just two were Edgar and Allen, with Poe making it a threesome every once in a while. Jeanne, used to these sorts of insights on my part, never questioned my story. She bought me a painting a few years ago of a crow striding down a path with large galoshes-style boots on, which hangs proudly by the door in my office. It’s a very dependable conversation starter.

Not everyone is as willing to embrace my crow logic as Jeanne is. Upon seeing two crows on campus once while walking to lunch with some colleagues, I said “Hi, Edgar and Allen.” Asked for an explanation, I filled my colleagues in on my insight that there are only three crows. After an uncomfortable silence, a theology professor said tentatively “Uh, Vance, I think there are more than three crows in the world.” I responded “When have you ever seen more than three crows in one spot?” Of course, he couldn’t think of such a time. To which I responded “Q.E.D.” I wonder why I haven’t been assigned to teach logic recently. One time a while ago my smartass son and I saw what appeared to the untrained eye to be four identical crows on a lawn. My son said “So much for your three-crow theory, Dad.” To which I responded, “That’s Edgar, Allen, Poe, and a raven.”

In his later years, my Pennsylvanian-born-turned-Westerner father became interested in various Native American myths and traditions, particularly the idea that certain animals and birds have a special spiritual significance. He claimed for a while that the raven was his totemic bird, which is not a surprise since ravens make occasional appearances in the Bible, including the Noah and Elijah stories. After hearing over the phone yet another of his stories about his latest brilliant insight being confirmed by a mystical raven circling overhead, I asked Dad one day “what’s the difference between a raven and a really big crow”? After a few moments of silence, he honestly admitted “none, I guess.” The next time I heard him say anything about totemic birds, his was now the golden eagle. I think he believed his spiritual stature was a bit more exalted than could be handled by a mere crow. Raven, yes, but not a crow.

I don’t know, though—there’s something special about crows. In one of Aesop’s fables, a very thirsty crow comes across a pitcher containing a small amount of water. When the crow put its beak into the mouth of the pitcher, he found that he could not reach far enough down to get at the water. He tried and tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then he had an Archimedes-like “Eureka!” moment about the physics of water displacement. He picked up a nearby pebble in his beak and dropped it in the pitcher. Then he dropped another pebble in the pitcher. And another one. And another one. After several hundred pebbles or more, the displaced water rose high enough in the pitcher for him to quench his thirst.

In my experience, the Holy Spirit is very much like Aesop’s crow. I’ve felt spiritually dry for a long time, and have considered the liquid faith poured into my pitcher as a child as long gone—good riddance. But the best of that liquid remained, hidden and unattended at the bottom. The Holy Spirit has been dropping pebbles and drips of water into my pitcher over my whole lifetime—an experience here, a word there, a book someplace else, a person—without my even being aware. Jeanne has told me several times that “this is your time”—all of the spiritually confusing years were actually years of pebbles collecting, one by one, in my pitcher. During my sabbatical three years ago, one of my colleagues said  “you’re not the same person you were when you came here.” She was right—I was dry, but now I’m wet and getting wetter all the time.

Breaking Ground

A few weeks ago, someone from the College Events office contacted me, wondering whether I would be willing to speak on behalf of the faculty at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new humanities building that is being constructed on our campus. Since I am director of the large program that will be housed in this new building and have been part of the design and planning committee for the past year, the request made sense. I spent the next week and a half thinking about what I would like to say, then shaping it to fit into the rather tight four-minute slot reserved on the program for my insights.

What I did not anticipate was that as one of four speakers at the ceremony, I would be doing more than just speaking. I would also be one of the six persons ceremonially “breaking ground.” The 150 or so attendees were driven by a driving rainstorm inside the library for the speaking portion of the event, but the rain mercifully stopped long enough afterward for everyone to step back outside. In front of the security fence surrounding the construction site was a mound of dirt; stuck in the mound in a neat row were six small shovels painted gold—in size roughly half-way between a kid’s sand shovel and a working shovel—topped by six white hard hats, of the sort that one might buy at Toys ‘R’ Us. A shovel and a hat for the college President, the Provost, an honors junior representing the student body, the several million dollar lead donor, his wife, and me. Orchestrated by the main photographer, the six of us were photographed several times each with our hands on the shovel, picking up a tiny bit of dirt, and throwing it gently in front of us, all the time wearing hard hats that could not have protected us from a falling twig from the overhead elm.

It has struck me frequently since what a strange and peculiar ceremony this was—the official start of construction on a $20 million dollar, 63,000 square foot building that will take 15 months to assemble is marked by several people wearing fancy clothes pretending to work, equipped with pretend and completely useless work tools. The actual construction work began the next day as a barrier wall and small utility building were demolished, numerous backhoes arrived, and real workers wearing real hard hats and wielding real shovels started in earnest. I’m thinking that at the dedication ceremony when the building is finished, we should mark the event by asking six construction workers to don academic robes and submit to a few photo ops while they pretend to be professors.

Of course, no one thought that any real construction work was going on at the groundbreaking ceremony—it’s just a tradition that has developed to mark the beginning of a long, expensive, loud and messy process. I think it might be good to think of church attendance as having the same relationship to the life of spiritual commitment as a groundbreaking ceremony has to the construction of a building. In church we are going through various ceremonial reminders—liturgy, scripture, Eucharist—of important elements of the life of faith. But these ceremonial reminders are no more a replacement for real spiritual work than digging up a few clumps of dirt with a toy shovel is a replacement for the heavy lifting of actual construction.

My lengthy list of novels to read this past summer included The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. It is an end-of-the-nineteenth-century story of a woman who came to be considered by many people in Mexico as a saint, a miracle worker and a healer. Half Indian and half Spanish, abandoned by her mother and abused by her aunt who is raising her, Teresita is recognized as possessing special gifts by Huila, a midwife/healer/miracle worker in her own right. Huila welcomes Teresita into her home and becomes her mentor. In the midst of a lesson about the sacramental nature of all things, Huila tells Teresita of a fascinating legend.

“The Virgin came to your people,” Huila said.

“My people?”

“Oh yes. The Mayos saw la Virgencita before the priests came.”

Teresita stopped and stared up at her teacher in the dark.

“What happened?”

Huila puffed her pipe. It was good. It was very, very good.

“It was before. Before you, and before me.”

Teresita was astonished by this revelation: there had been a time before Huila.

“The Mother of God appeared to a group of warriors who were out in the desert, hunting. And they looked up, and there she was, descending from the sky. She was, I imagine, all in purple. The Mother of God likes purple. So she came down to them from heaven, and they were stunned and shaking with fear.”

“What did they do?”

“They ran away and hid behind bushes.”

“What did she do?”

“Well, she had an accident.”

“What happened?”

“She landed on top of a cactus.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes. The Mother of God was stuck on top of a huge cactus, and the warriors started throwing rocks at her and shooting arrows at her, but they could not hit her. You see, they had never seen a Yori before, and they had never seen a flying Yori, or a magnificent creature like her! So they tried to kill her.”

Teresita put her hands over her face.

“And then what?” she cried.

“Then the Mother of God spoke to the warriors from atop her cactus.”

“What did she say? What did she say?”

“She said—‘Get me a ladder!’”


“Get me a ladder, that’s what she said. It’s true. Holy be her name.”

Both burst out laughing.

“What did they do?”

“I imagine they fetched her a ladder! You see, this is how Heaven works. They’re practical. We are always looking for rays of light. For lightning bolts or burning bushes. But God is a worker, like us. He made the world—He didn’t hire anyone to build it for him! God has worker’s hands. Just remember—angels carry no harps. Angels carry hammers.”

Annie Dillard once wrote that if we truly paid attention to what we were doing, we would wear hard hats to church rather than fancy clothes. Or perhaps at least during the Sanctus when we celebrate the “Holy Lord, God of power and might.” Each of us is “something under construction—real tools are in order.