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This is a Metaphor

By August 10, 2016 2 Comments

Empty nest


Our guest blogger today is Sarina Gruver Moore. Sarina teaches English literature at Grove City College. 

Your dwelling place is enduring. And your nest is set in the cliff.
Numbers 24:21

Sometimes our metaphors will mess us up. I mean, you think you have an idea all worked out—all nice and neat and clean—and then life reveals itself and whoops! Your metaphor skews sideways and your head explodes.
Here’s a story by way of example.

Two days after we moved into our new/old house last summer we discovered that we needed a new well. I need not tell you that such things are expensive. Nor do I need to tell you that such things must be handled immediately. Water: I have never felt so grateful for it as when I did not have it.

So a few weeks later the well guys showed up with backhoes and a dump truck and big drill things and a chain saw, and our three boys lined up on the back porch in boy-bliss to watch the exciting happenings. I was in the kitchen, unpacking, when my mother-ears heard what no mother-ears ever want to hear.

The roar of a chain saw.

The screams of children.

Reader, you know the terrifying images that flashed through my head, don’t you?

I ran out to the porch to discover all three boys beside themselves with grief, a huge dogwood branch lying on the ground, a robin’s nest shattered with two naked, newborn baby birds flapping helplessly next to it, and a bewildered well guy holding a puttering chain saw.

It turns out that they needed to trim the tree in order to get the backhoe behind the house, but the well guy didn’t know that in this same tree, on the limb he needed to cut, was the robin’s nest our three bird-loving boys had been observing since we moved. If our boys had not been watching the process, I’m pretty sure no one would have noticed the baby birds, and the backhoe would have rolled right over them on its mission to get us clean, fresh, life-giving water.

My husband got the well guys to pause operations, then gently nudged the baby birds back in their nest and moved the nest to a shady spot behind the shed. We didn’t want to put it back in the tree until all danger of the machinery was gone, but we couldn’t explain that to the mama robin, who flitted and fretted in the dogwood for the next many hours.

Be relieved: the nest was returned to the tree, the mama found her babies again, and nature resumed its course without further human interference. After the birds left the nest for the season, we watched it disintegrate into nothingness until all that was left of the event was memory.

In the “this is a that” logic of the metaphor, Nest is often equated to Home, with connotations of safety, security, contentment, and nourishment. There’s a rich literary tradition of the metaphor of the bird’s nest. “For Every Bird, a Nest—” declares an uncharacteristically optimistic and Oprah-like Emily Dickinson. (Here’s a nest for you, Wren! And one for you, Lark!) Anne Bradstreet enumerates and celebrates the brood of children sheltered in her home-nest:

I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,
Four Cocks were there, and Hens the rest.
I nurst them up with pain and care,
No cost nor labour did I spare
Till at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.

But the poets are always one step ahead of the rest of us, and they understand that metaphors are more dangerous and messy, more human and meaningful than our safe readings accommodate.

The beautiful and strange John Clare describes a yellowhammer’s nest, for example, that is under threat:

For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil
To watch such nests and seize the helpless young,
And like as though the plague became a guest,
Leaving a houseless home, a ruined nest—

No one knew more about the loss of home, the ruined nest, than Clare, who was locked up in an insane asylum for the last twenty years of his life.

Even under the most normal of circumstances, birds build nests, raise their little hatchlings and send them out into the world, then abandon the nest. The nest disintegrates, and the birds must build a new nest the next year. So nests are not static places of perpetual safety, but living things headed for death, always on their way to ruin.

Like the poets, the mystics are often out ahead of us. Metaphor, they say, is our only way to name and describe God. But they’re always deficient—these metaphor-names—and since none of our names for God fully encompass God, then we therefore must name God endlessly with layer upon layer of metaphor. What’s more, we also de-name God endlessly—one metaphor deconstructing the other, or even a single metaphor deconstructing itself.

Whatever nests my husband and I are building for our boys and ourselves—as beautiful and as safe and as homey as they may be—they will disintegrate. To build a Nest as Home is to already embrace the temporality of the home, which must be rebuilt anew, endlessly.

I wonder: Is this endless rebuilding of our nests, in part, what it means to faithfully practice being human? Here is perhaps another form of faithful practice: The chain saw roars to life, and we let our metaphors—about home, life, God—slip, fall, and shatter.

Soli Deo gloria

Sarina Gruver Moore

Sarina Gruver Moore is a writer in western Pennsylvania.


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