I live in a gerbil-cage. Well, a habitrail, really.
Typically, when I walk into my building, I enter directly into a hallway that is narrow and white. The floor ramps down quickly and steeply, so that I nearly always “run” down as it feels like I’m being shot down a chute into the constricted bare white tunnel that constitutes the institutional hallway. I stop at the elevator and turn my key to call the box down to me so that I can ride up a few flights to my floor. I get off the elevator into a hallway that turns this-way-and-that. I arrive at my door and walk into my cozy little 9×14 room that has many of my favorite things waiting for me… my nest. If I’ve been gone for a while, there’s a good chance that my room will be stuffy upon my entrance since there is no airflow when the door is closed. I often keep my door slightly ajar so that I can maintain this airflow, even when I’m down the hall attending to other needs.
My window looks out over a lovely little garden where there is a fountain and around this garden, the habitrail continues on several levels. The sidewalks I can see from my window wind from one entrance to another, up short flights of stairs and around corners… to the chapel, the administrative building, the dorm, the parking lot, the refectory. I see people coming and going all the time, navigating their way to a class or a meeting. I watch fellow students on their way to chapel and teachers on their way to classes, staff members on their way to meetings. From my window, I can also see the entrances to the two most heavily used classrooms in our school and even into the windows of one of them. I hear the classes getting out or going on break as the chatter and door noise increase.At night, things are much less active though. The only thing that interrupts the pleasant noise of the fountain is when the security guard checks the classrooms, that is, unless a stray drunken undergraduate wanders into our little world.
I don’t really have to leave this gerbil habitrail, this seeming paradise of tunnels. The refectory serves all necessary meals during the week and on the weekend, I could just saunter a few steps off this city block, on one of those extended gerbil tunnels that has a dead end, to get a burrito or grab a few grocery items. The wonderful library is directly across the street. The biggest problem is that the coffee in the refectory is really bad and the places a few steps away aren’t much better. So either I suffer (which I do much of the time for the sake of convenience) or I leave my little habitrail and venture to the Starbucks down the hill. It would obviously be easier if they had Peet’s coffee in one of those gerbil water bottles for us.
This is a small world I’m in. I nearly always laugh when people ask me how I like living in Berkeley. I want to say, “I wouldn’t know. I live in a gerbil cage.” But I realize that this question is usually a cursory one that is meant to be a social tool of surface-level engagement. It’s kind of like asking “How ya doin?”… they usually don’t really want to hear the actual answer.
Yes, this is a small world I’m in. I’ve heard it referred to by some in our community as a fishbowl or a petrie dish… depending on how deprecating one is trying to be of the situation. We live, eat, work, relax and get sick together (as you can imagine, the germs fly pretty fast in this community). The only thing we don’t do is sleep together… well, most of us anyway. If this weren’t a seminary, I have a feeling that would be happening a lot more than it is.
Once in a while, though, I get a glimpse. I walk by a certain window or along a certain gerbil path and see beyond. Since we’re on a hill (referred to as Holy Hill, by the way) we can see quite literally for miles from the right places. Most of Berkeley is relatively flat and when the hills start, they are pretty steep. From certain points on the campus, I can see all the way across the bay to San Francisco. On a clear day, I can see forever… well, at least to the Golden Gate Bridge.
So, tonight, as I was headed along one of the gerbil tunnels to continue studying in my cozy little nest of a room, I heard Rumi being recited on my ipod… and I had this desire to see the view. I walked to where the view of the bay is most prominent and just stood there for a few moments. The sky was clear and I could see the city lights twinkling. Now, I haven’t had a particularly stressful day. As a matter of fact, it’s been rather enjoyable… even though much of it was full of schoolwork. But as I stood there, I felt this calm come over me that made me smile.
Things get so tight in our own little worlds sometimes. We dig tunnels and caves all the time. We stay close to what is familiar. We substitute busyness for a sense of purpose. We find ourselves in a gerbil tunnel, being directed this-way-and-that. Many of our needs are taken care of in this habitrail and that’s, perhaps why we like it so much. Most of the time, these weird little worlds are our own making. Other times, we’ve decided to accompany someone else into theirs. Sometimes we pay a lot of money for it… like one does for grad school.
But the view… that is important. For some people, the view can be scary… it’s big, confusing, unfamiliar. For other people, the view is distracting… needing to be mapped out or conquered in some way. For me, I have to say, the view sometimes seems inconvenient… it requires effort to remember that it’s there and then a conscious decision to participate in it and put aside, for just a moment, the 100 pages of family systems theory I have to read by Monday, the religious dialogue paper I have due this week, the mid-term I have to turn in for New Testament… yadda yadda yadda.
That’s why the glimpses help… when I pass by the right window or am on the right sidewalk… or hear Rumi in my ear. It’s a tantalizing reminder of the grand scheme and our precious place in it. And I am called to respond. Thank God I am called to respond.
Like the human tapping on the gerbil tunnel… like God tapping on my soul.