There is Warmth Within Her Walls, by Justine Riekena
This essay is a written tribute to our ailing, century-old barn which is in desperate need of the healing hands of a caring, competent doctor/contractor. Impotently, we watch her crumble and slump under her own weight. With sadness we listen to her sighs, creaks and groans. She is entreating us — entreating anyone — for support, literally. Not unlike a family awaiting the blessing of an organ donor, we wait, hope and beseech the universe for her rescue.
One of the most awkward aspects of animism — for me anyway — is accepting that sometimes I have a very strong, personal connection to an “inanimate” or “object-person” of human origin. Of course, this can manifest in as many forms as there are manufactured entities in this vast and diverse world of ours. One familiar version of this is the rapport built up with an automobile, motorcycle or bicycle. Humans like to name cars and bikes. We enthusiastically describe how they purr, we speak of them as companions and we curse them when their parts or engines fail. Most folks seem to have a very clear sense of their vehicle’s temperament, its personality, its spirit. It is a widespread and socially acceptable relationship. However, other associations of this sort are not so readily embraced.
As I reflect over the course of my life, I have noticed a tendency to bond with structures; our human shelters and sanctuaries, our nests. In fact, my only experience with the phenomenon known as “love at first sight” was with the house which my family inhabits today; a modest, one hundred year old homestead built by polygamist pioneers. Each of this home’s adobe bricks was formed by hand and fired in simple, charcoal kilns. It has the faintly crude, imperfect, organic beauty possessed only by that which is hand-and-home made.
I first saw the house in a real-estate flyer on a counter at work, its image poorly photocopied in black and white as is the standard for publication in a remote, rural town. The picture whispered, “We belong together… you and me…” This, of course, was an absurdity for a young woman living in her parents’ home, earning minimum wage with zero savings and no particular plans for the future. But I was smitten. No, crazed. “Where is this house?!?” I asked my co-worker. It was an impulsive, desperate question. At the end of the workday, I went home — not to my family’s house, but to my true love. There it stood in the desert heat, five years empty, dilapidated and overgrown — waiting for me to come home.
I must have appeared quite mad, creeping about the yard, peering into the windows, whispering and chattering away to this aged stack of bricks and ancient lumber. I was not mad, just wrapped up in a deep affection; a very basic, animistic attachment. Instantly, we had reached a familiarity, an accord of beings. I felt a desperate need to join lives with this structure, this building, this house. There was nothing to be done but to find a way to be together.
Never would I have imagined that today I would actually be writing from the shelter of its thick, protective walls, recalling the day when our spirits first met. Never could I have imagined the stories, history, secrets and memories this home has to share. Nor would I have believed that one day, while washing the smooth horsehair plaster in the stifling heat of this yawning desert, I would pause and press my cheek to the cool skin of these walls, just to listen to its heartbeat. Have you felt this too?
This is not the only building with which I have felt an empathy. Years ago, I lived in a tiny cottage in a New England forest. Once a vacation cabin, it had since been converted into a student rental. I adored the tiny hut, but it returned my adoration with a noncommittal, unsentimental attitude. My impression is that it was ungrudgingly returning to the Earth (as evidenced by much rotting, sinking and mildewing). It never had any solid investment in providing shelter for an endless stream of transient humans. Why should it when there was a beckoning forest and so little reciprocity from its ephemeral residents?
I was also drawn to an enormous, aching Victorian in Vermont. However, it was so terribly downcast that, like many depressed individuals, it seemed to sleep most of the time. Steeped in tobacco smoke and sadness, it bore the resignation of a long-term captive and curled up on the hillside to sleep away the years. I longed to rescue it, but that was not to be my role in its life. There have been many other buildings that have touched me in some personal way. Not all have been structures I have inhabited, nor has the relationship always been amicable, just consistently animistic.
What is the source of a structure’s spirit? I tend to think that it is somehow kindled during its creation. Or, maybe an autonomous spirit (possibly several?) takes up residence during construction. Perhaps this is why new buildings seem very much like newborns, still waiting to develop their singularity, their persona. Of course, this is pure speculation. It could be that what I perceive as the spirit or soul of a building is simply the lingering vibrations of its human occupants. Following this line of thought, older homes would naturally have a greater accumulation of echoes from the past and thus, stronger “personalities” or “atmosphere.” As an animist, I am not inclined to champion that explanation, but I do believe that occupants have a powerful influence on our structures’ moods.
There is frequent discussion in Pagan circles about honoring “the land.” Are our homes and other structures not part of this? Whether we “own” them or not, shouldn’t we aim to treat them with the same regard we have for the other significant persons and places in our lives? These structures shelter us when we sleep, provide us with work space, a place to create memories and a safe-haven for our material goods. They are central to our livelihoods. How sad it is when we forget, ignore and neglect them. How sad it is when we take better care of and maintain healthier relationships with gadgets and vehicles than with our sanctuaries. How sad that they can become so disposable. Shouldn’t we preserve and watch over them as they do us?
If we embrace the idea of our homes and other shelters as object-persons, how can we best honor them? Obviously, considerate care and upkeep (within the constrains of ability and means) are fundamental. Do you tend to your shelter’s inside and outside as you do your own person? When you move, can you say you left the place better than you found it? If you are a homeowner, do you consider the building’s character when making changes to it? Do you ask the house what will best reflect its true nature? There can be no harm in taking a moment to kindly ask a structure for its input. Perhaps you will find yourself pleasantly surprised by the response.
Structures are our partners and like any other partner, living with kindness and respect is important to honoring them. But buildings are special in that living with kindness towards all the other persons who inhabit their space is also important. How do we live within their walls? Is there an echo of laughter in the halls and an abundance of love throughout? Or are worry and anger literally darkening the doorstep? Our character, how we conduct ourselves in their space must be considered as part of our relationship with our structures.
If these walls could speak… oh, but they do! Here is an opportunity for a deeply gratifying relationship. Talk to them. Care for them. Like gardens, our dwelling places and other structures tend to return our investments and reflect our commitments. They have companionship and refuge to offer, chronicles and tales to tell. In cultivating these relationships, we awaken spirits — theirs and ours.
Postscript: This piece was something of a last-ditch, desperate entreaty to the universe/anyone who might listen. As I wrote and re-wrote, I worked it over and over, like a chant, a prayer. All my will and last vestiges of hope were released when I sent the draft away for editing. The following week, after a two-year hiatus, our contractor reappeared and positioned the most critical supports — just in time for the windstorm that very well may have been the end of her. This barn, lifelong companion to the house in my story, now has a future. I offer my deepest gratitude to Those who were listening.
Justine Riekena is a mother, mycophile and unabashed animist. She affectionately calls her very personal permutation of animism “Sciento-Paganism.” She is eternally thankful to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for her initiation into the Pagan community as well as her degrees in Physical Anthropology and Wildlife and Fisheries Biology. All three have served her well, in unconventional ways. It is her good fortune to live two unconventional lives: half the year, wandering the boreal forests of Alaska as forager & mycophile and the other half rambling across the high deserts of Utah, relishing places with bones, stones & other treasures. Being faintly feral, she has a proclivity for the Moon & anyone with hooves, while most of her muses shed spores. She sometimes uses the name Moma Fauna, not because she is into magickal pseudonyms, but because it is a reminder of the mother & creature she aspires to be. Her frequently tangential writings can be found here: Pray to the Moon