Habitat

Al and I returned to Providence, arriving at 10pm Thursday evening from our month in the country. Well, it was a little over a month but who’s counting. I return with a renewed sense of the importance of change – change in habitat.

After five days in London, catching up with friends and binging on theatre while staying on a yacht moored on the Thames – not quite Russian oligarch and more James Bond 007 circa 1982, we returned to the region in Southwest France where we have vacationed for some 40 years.

If you picture Bordeaux on a map of France and follow a line eastward through the famous viticulture landscapes of the grand cru Bordeaux wineries – St Emilion comes to mind – you come to Bergerac – whose most famous son, Cyrano is immortalized in a rather bad statue in the old town. Bergerac lies on the banks of the Dordogne River – a town of quaint half-timbered houses along winding cobbled streets. Bergerac gives its name of the specific wine region – producing both crisp sauvignon whites and reds but especially famous for the sweet wines of Monbazillac– the perfect accompaniment to the local cuisine which features duck and duck and more duck occasionally supplemented with goose. Here you find the famous Foie Gras, and a cuisine that incorporates a multiverse of woodland fungi – including the famous and illusive black truffle.

This is a very agricultural region of vines, plums orchards, corn, and sunflower fields. Of ancient bastides – fortified villages dating back to the 100 years war between England and France with names ending in ac – a vestige of the original Occitan language of southern France.  

Eleanor of Poitiers brought the duchy of Aquitaine as dowry to her marriage to the English king, Henry II. Aquitaine remained under the English occupancy between 1362 and 1451. Today the region hosts a large English expat community; a region famous for its rugby prowess and the Bordeaux wine so loved by the English they christened it Claret. The novels of Martin Walker, centered on his hero Bruno, chef de police in the small fictitious town of St Denis, capture the essence of contemporary life in this region.

Over the years we’ve stayed in many gites, small farmhouses and barn conversions. We try a new one each time and enjoy tootling past the places we’ve stayed before. We’ve learned that traditional barn conversions that keep the original construction are best rather than more modern adaptations because – as was sorely tested this summer – in a region where air conditioning is unusual, it’s the 3 ft thick stone walls and heavy terracotta tiled roofs the provide the best respite from the heat.

Speaking of heat, we arrived having just missed one heatwave in mid-June to very pleasant temperatures and bright sunny days before the onslaught of the worst heatwave since records began. Beginning in Spain, over the course of 10 days in the middle of July it moved accompanied by temperatures of 100- 106 up through France and into the British Isles, where it broke all temperature records. The local regional authorities from Aquitaine to Perigueux-Dordogne cancelled outside Bastille Day celebrations and banned firework displays. Fortunately, our farmhouse sheltered us comfortably, but for several days we really couldn’t venture outside much. Although except for one evening we did manage to eat out under on the covered patio at around 8pm most other evenings – dreaming of next year in Trondheim.

Everywhere one is aware of the effects of global warming. The vines – until recently regularly clipped of excessive foliage to allow the fruit’s exposure to the sun, are now allowed to retain their foliage to protect the ripening fruits from the increasingly brutal sun. Forest fires were an ever present danger. We awoke one morning to hazy and smoky skies as the winds had blown the smoke from the huge fire at Arcachon – some 80 miles away on the coast. It’s an eerie experience to smell smoke and not know whether its source is far away or closer to home.

Habitat is a wonderful word. The French use this word in ordinary speech to simply refer to the place where someone lives – the space – geographic, environmental, and relational -where the routines of daily life are lived out. In English habitat carries the same meaning as in French, but it has a more technical – less colloquial application- applied more generally to describe non-human environments say for plants and other living species. Habitat evokes an exploration of not so much the location but the patterns and routines of day-to-day life and how these interact and are challenged through the impact of stepping outside of our habits into new settings – in order to experience a shift in head space.

I count myself immensely fortunate to be able to go away and know that the life of the parish continues uninterrupted by my absence. I can take a month to enter a completely different habitat -as in – an emotional and intellectual head space in which a different setting and pace of routine works its different magic. I’m indebted to all of you, and esp. to Linda+ and the staff team – without whom my month away – if it were at all possible – would certainly be a more stressful and worry filled experience.

Transitioning between habitats – is an important pilgrimage experience.  We set out on pilgrimage thinking our goal is a destination. On arrival we find it’s not the destination as much as the experience of the journey that is life enhancing. Habitat signifies more than a place. It signifies a state of mind.

As human beings we have a need for stability. But it’s so easy to confuse stability – consistency of habit with predictability and controllability. These days it feels risky to travel internationally. The scramble for the timely COVID test has been replaced by the increased likelihood of last-minute flight cancellations. Two in our house party found out that their flight back from Bergerac to London was cancelled 12 hours prior to departure. We had to scramble to rebook them on a different flight out of Bordeaux – an hour and half drive away- to make their connecting flights back to the US.  

For anyone embarking on any kind of travel today in the face of so many unforeseeable and uncontrollable factors – airline and airport chaos, lost luggage, pandemic risks, and all the inconveniences of climate pressures, growing economic instabilities, and the erosion of international security require a certain attitude of mind capable of facing the unforeseeable and unpredictable turn of events.

Yet, the risk to step outside of one’s normal habitat is worth it. But to even say this is to make the mistake of assuming that to stay in the familiar and the somewhat predictable is risk free.

In Luke’s Gospel this morning Jesus counsels that life is full of unforeseen events. None of us can know at what time the thief will come, or at what hour the master will return. To live as if we can guard against unforeseen eventualities, is an illusion. Being able to withstand the challenges of the unexpected and unforeseeable involves a quality of heart.  Jesus reminds us that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If the capacity to take risks is not part of our treasure trove of experience, then fear will be where we find our hearts.

I return to routine life – both with some anticipation for new challenges and opportunities still unforeseen lying over the horizon, and also if I’m being honest, I return with more than a hint of reluctance to jump back too quickly into life as before. Not being anxious to get back into the pressures is a newish experience for me. One I interpret as a sign of emotional maturing. I also return thankful.

Thankful for having had the possibility of stepping outside the familiarity of day-to-day life to experience the way a different habitat – location and setting works its magic on me. I return to my normal habitat with a sense of an enlarged and more trust filled attitude to life. I return thankful for all of you that have made this experience so easy and worry free for me.

We may not know at what hour the thief will break in or at what hour to expect the master’s return. Yet, we live with faith that whatever happens we will be ready to face developments refreshed by a more open and less risk averse attitude of heart and mind. Jesus warns us about being afraid. He reminds us that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. In my experience the kingdom comes in different forms and in different ways from anything I might otherwise have expected. The trick is to let it!

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