On seeking shelter

[I propose to fall silent for the rest of Holy Week, to Easter Tuesday or so; except a piece I owe to Catholic Thing for Maundy Thursday. So here is my opportunity to wish gentle reader a blesséd and serene celebration. In the words of this morning’s Introit: “Nos autem gloriari oportet in cruce Domini nostri Jesu Christi: in quo est salus, vita et resurrectio nostra: per quem salvati et liberati sumus. … Nos autem!”]


“But of course we had running water. How often we went running for it!”

As mentioned in yesterday’s Idlepost, I am haunted by the ghosts of my ancestors, especially those I once knew alive, but also those whose most memorable acts and sayings were conducted through them. The line quoted goes back only two or three generations, on my mother’s side, and looks beyond to a day when indoor plumbing was not even a novelty. It had never been seen in certain Scottish realms, which included the Outer Hebrides, and pre-industrial Cape Breton. The very idea of it would have been revolting; and that among people who thought nothing of sharing their small homes with cattle and sheep.

They built them in the hollows, in the Western Highlands, Skye, Lewis, the Uists. Today they build houses on the knolls. This is so the “summer people” can look out at the scenery through their large, pre-fabricated windows. The windows in the old crofts were small: to let light in and not the eyes out. If you wanted to look at the great outdoors, you could go outside. You went inside for shelter from it. A “brisk brattle of wind” was often blowing (“howling gale” to the tourist), and by building in the hollow, it passed unfelt overhead. The modern windows rattle, and though the people inside are kept warm enough, by invisible devices, there is a security they will never know, huddled next the hearth and behind thick walls.

These were people who sang and danced, played fiddles and pipes, entirely without cash payment. Whose storybook was chiefly the Bible.

Our outdoors have now been monetized, as a form of entertainment. Perhaps the outdoors were less entertaining to the dead folk, although they have left much poetical evidence that they could see its stark beauty, under sun, moon, stars; under moist blankets of overcast, or diffused in mists and fog.

Today we can buy a cottage, with all the suburban fixtures, among other cottages of increasingly monstrous size, gathered round each scenic spot, progressively blotting it away. It is there for the weekends. It is empty most weekdays. Here and there an old fusspot enjoys cramped quarters, and what we now call “minimalism.” But mostly the minimalists have selected a style: big rooms empty except for a few expensive objects. Indoor hollows, undisturbed by children.

Whatever you can afford: you write a cheque. It could be electronic. You get a mortgage from the bank, you can get bank loans for the contents; you don’t have to wait. By increments, you become indentured, to work it off. Your hands stay clean, and it’s good for the economy. Is there a cottage without a wide-screen TV? Perhaps, somewhere. The media follow, wherever you go. Who can argue against “options” that are taken by nine in ten, as a matter of right? Of course, vacationers may bundle into aeroplanes for Florida, instead. And there are other consumer options, to get away from the psychic hellhole of office life, into alternative hellholes for variety. All are lovingly described by the little devils who write advertising copy. We are rich in the poetry of their “choices.”

Yet, there is no shelter. I mean this in more than the material sense, for through this Holy Week we are reminded that the concept extends beyond this world, in which we must die.

These ancestors were riveted to “kirk” and to what we would call their “superstitions”; that is, to a worship quite different from ours for money and the shopped stuff. Imagine seeking shelter in the arms of the Cross!

And yet that is the only place where one may hope to find it.