Be-pistemology by Marcia Mount Shoop


Marcia headshotEpistemology—the study or theory of the nature and the ground of knowledge, particularly with respect to the limits and validity of knowledges and the sources of knowledge.

Beingthe qualities and characteristics that constitute conscious existence; a living thing. 

I look outside the open window of my temporary apartment and read and re-read the sign that beckons drivers to notice this unspectacular place.   “Welcome Home” it says in black Times New Roman font on a plain white background.  As if saying it so simply, makes it true.

It doesn’t feel much like home to me right now.  And thankfully it doesn’t really need to.  Soon I will move into a new house.  Then I will take the next step in working to make a home in this new place where my family and I have moved.  For my husband, kids, and me, the knowledge that the apartment is temporary helps us deal with the strangeness of it.  We know it’s not for long.  And knowing that helps us behave in certain ways and cultivate particular expectations.   This mode of operations allows us to bide our time.  We have done just enough settling in to feel ok here—unpacked a suitcase, stocked the refrigerator.  But we won’t hang pictures; we won’t be too intentional about meeting the neighbors.  Being cordial is enough.  After all, this isn’t really home.  My nine-year-old daughter has actually made a rule that no one is allowed to call this apartment “home.”

But these first few hours and days here, it is not my own home-welcoming that takes most of my time and energy.  It is the care and feeding of the several other sentient beings who are wondering what just happened to the life they had in North Carolina.  I am referring to the three dogs, the cat, the horse, and the snake who are also now supposed to figure out a way to feel at home here in Indiana.

The sixteen-hour car ride was their first clue that something is changing.

The snake came here with a complete habitat of his own.  So, in a way, for him the least has changed.  But, we’ve had to give him the space to just hide for a while, to ease himself into activity, to fast a little longer than he normally does.  He needed to hide until he felt like it was safe to come out and eat.  He ate a few nights ago for the first time since he got here.  He was ready to trust this place and the food here, ready to be here with a desire to live in a way that is proper to his nature, his anatomy, and his instincts.

For our dogs and cat who were use to getting let outside and having over two acres to patrol and to hunt, being in this small apartment is a strange predicament.  Our cat is finding ways to rehearse his daily habits in this constrained space.  At night what he wants is an open window.  And he sits for hours smelling the air, swishing his tail or just being still, like he did outside in the North Carolina woods, waiting for a little night creature to come into our yard.  He watches; he waits.  To satisfy his need to pounce, to claw, to chase, he has found the space under our bed to be his best bet—and the early morning hours are his preferred time to make his move and catch his imaginary prey.  As I lie awake listening to him, I think about how much his world has changed.  And I honor his capacity to be himself and to make himself known here. I honor him with my silence, with my own stillness, with letting him do what he needs to do.

I long for ways to compliment his knowledge with the gift of biding his time, knowing what’s ahead, realizing that it won’t always be this way.  I try to tell him that it won’t always be this way, that soon, he will have new grass and trees, new space to sit and watch and wait in his feline way of being alert, at the ready, and resting comfortably all at the same time.  But this is not how these creatures work.  They are always in the now—they are forever about the work of being and knowing what is happening right now as received through all of who they are.  Through the scents of being, through the tastes of provision, through the sounds of surroundings, and through the cues of community and territory they situate themselves and perform their purpose.

For our dogs, it is really more about their job and how they establish their parameters for that job.  It’s about sniffing their surroundings, urinating on them, and sorting out when they should be barking and when there is no need.  This is deeply vexing for our youngest dog—still a pup, whose breed instills in him a profound sense of responsibility and duty.  He is always at the ready to do what it is he needs to do.

In their previous universe, our three dogs watched the house, kept the yard free of deer, squirrels, and other dogs, alerted the family to any approaching vehicles or people, came in and out to check on things at regular intervals.  They got a daily hike on trails where they knew the twists and turns and smells.  They knew when something unusual had been that way.  They knew the smells and feel of familiar.

And now, everything is new.  And apartment living presents a whole host of sounds to which they are not sure how to react.  Should they bark when they hear footsteps above us, when they hear voices in the hallway, when they hear another dog somehow very close but not in the room with them?  What about when they walk out the door on leashes only to see a strange dog in the new “yard” that they are assuming is now our space?  These are stressful times.

I watch my youngest dog especially sit at alert with his ears up listening.  He frequently considers the possibility of barking with a muffled half bark.   At regular intervals he makes a circuit through the apartment to see if the things making sounds can be located and addressed.  He will check in with us with a “what exactly should I be doing right now” kind of look on his face.  And I feel for him as he sorts out why what was good and dutiful in one place, is now not good and not dutiful in another.  Just being here is not something he can settle into quite yet, but he is trying his hardest.

And then, for my horse, who arrived yesterday after two days of traveling in a trailer with people and horses he didn’t know, it not about prey (since horses are prey animals, not predators), its not about duty (he loves to work, but it’s not his reason for being), it is about the other horses.  I see him enter into this situation with utter immediacy.  He instantly began to work to connect with the other horses with all the things he knows to do to enter a new herd—he istock paint stallionwhinnies, he prances, his tosses his head and raises his tail, he sniffs the other geldings over the fence.  I knew he was starting to feel at home when he pawed at the ground a few times and got down and rolled.  These postures and gestures are all horse-speak for “I am here” “I am a male” “I see you” and “I am ok here.”

When he couldn’t see another horse from his stall in the barn, he paced and whinnied, and strained his head to find someone, anyone.  He was frantic to connect.  The fact that I was standing there was not what he needed.  He needed to find his herd; he needed the comfort of other horses.  When his trailer mate drove away I heard him whinny from inside his moving stall.  And my horse raised his head and did the same as the trailer drove out of sight.

I can only try and steward along his need to connect to his new herd in ways that are safe and that give him the time and space he needs to acclimate to the equine politics here.  He has to sort out the ways all those other horses fit—who is the alpha male, and how do the others orient themselves to him, to the daily routine, to new sounds or smells?  Is this a calm herd or jittery?  Is there kicking and biting, or just a little pushing around?  By the end of the afternoon the four geldings were mutually grazing—a sure sign that they were settling in and some of the politics were settled.  My horse was calm and peacefully enjoying the taste of new grass in a place he was starting to belong.

For my animals acquiring knowledge is not a task that involves compartmentalizing or a series of mental gymnastics to explain to themselves the ‘oughts’ and the ‘shoulds’.  Their knowledge is embodied, integrated, relational, cellular, and contextual.  They make their way into new worlds with particular habits, skills, and dispositions and they sort out how they fit into their new space with those embodied habits.

They feel stress and they look for ways to release it.  They find solace and want to be proximate to sources of it.  And they drink in the new universe of home; and, in their own time they digest it.  Their knowing is their being—be-pistemology is what I will call it.  They are immediate to their created nature; and they live out of that intricate and plugged-in reality.  It is an existence that is completely here, engaged, and connected.  And may it be so with us human beings as we find our way in this new space.  And may we be wise enough to let our knowledge and our being weave themselves together into a gracious welcome home.

Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who now lives in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond.  She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  At www.marciamountshoop.com  Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.  

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Categories: animals, Body, Embodiment, Epistemology, General, Relationality

Tags: , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Be-autiful post. Timely for me as I prepare to leave a place I’ve lived on and off most of my life for a new home–with my cats. Bepistemology is a good way to say goodbye as well as hello.

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    • Thank you, Elizabeth, for reading and for commenting. You are right that it is a good way to be present to the goodbyes, too. It is interesting to think about how my animals’ immediacy to things means that they did not have the same way of knowing that we were leaving our other home for good. However, I felt like my oldest dog (15 years old) somehow knew that she would not be back there. When it was time to get in the car I couldn’t find her and finally found here in the back near the woods lying down with her nose to the breeze. It was an emotional moment for me knowing what I knew. For her, it seemed so serene.
      Blessings in your transition and in your home-making. May you find peace in your gratitude for the place you have known for so long. May you find peace in your willingness to venture into a new space and see what unfolds.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  2. Thank you for this poetic and eloquent post. I think it would be helpful reading for young adults leaving for college.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Peg. I hope it will be a blessing to all who are in transition, and young adult leaving for college are certainly in the space this time of year.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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    • Another good read for young adults leaving for college would be _Transitions_ . I think it’s by William Bridges, but I can’t find my copy of it on my shelves. What I remember about it was the fact that all transitions begin with a phase of grief, even positive changes. That seems to be an important understanding for kids going off to school.

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  3. Thanks for sharing. Transitions are difficult for all creatures. I hope everyone finds peace with their transition and the adventure leads to a settled heart for all.

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  4. Beloved Rev. Sister Marcia, We’re so grateful for your mindfulness and reverence and bright peacefulness and how you articulated it. So many blessings being sent your way.

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  5. What a gorgeous post! Thank you, Marcia, for bringing your animals’ “ways of being” alive with your prose.

    I, too, have a cat. She brings wildness into my life, because — as you know — cats are only semi-domesticated (I believe they just wheedled their way into our lives because they were good mousers, so we let them stay). But I made the decision when she came to live with us that she would be a house cat. This is because of my love for birds. According to the most recent studies, cats in the U.S. kill 1.4 to 3.4 BILLION wild birds a year. This shocked even me, because the last estimate I had read was 500 million.

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    • Thank you, Nancy. I appreciate your comments. I, too, have heard those stats about house cats and birds. Our cat is a rodent kind of guy and that is his job. Here he will have a whole barn to keep free of mice and rats. In North Carolina he was partial to lizards and snakes. I never grew up with cats, only dogs. So, I am thankful to have them in my life now. He adds so very much to our house and our lives. He even goes on 3 mile hikes with us in the woods.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  6. This is really great. I’ve moved a lot–too many times–since I’ve been in California, and my cats have moved with me. Maine coons are very adaptable, but I’ve watched them investigate and adjust to their new homes. They’re rescued cats, so they never go outdoors, but they sure enjoy the view. Having lived with cats since 1962, I have come to understand that cats are the smartest creatures on the planet. Look how well they’ve trained us.

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    • Thank you, Barbara. Yes, so true. Our cat has us all trained, including the dogs. He happens to be part Maine coon and has so much personality. This is my first exposure to Maine coons. They are amazingly plugged in and social. As I mentioned above, in NC he went on 3 miles hikes with us in the woods with our dogs.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  7. Thank you for the update, I was wondering when you moved and how it went. We will keep you all in our prayers as Michael also experiences a new school in a new area of the country.

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  8. I read this as someone currently living in Indiana who will be moving to North Carolina in a few months, and it reassured me of all the goodness that such a transition can bring if one has open eyes and an open heart. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and observations.

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  9. Even after all these years, I look for a mention of ‘your horse’ and when I saw your post just this evening, I read eagerly to see if T was still with you and had settled in. I even wondered how he would make the trip. I still miss him. I have, just in the past month been given a sweet gelding that a boarder left with us which Buster says is mine. I haven’t ridden at all since T left. My new friend is urging me to get outside and try again.

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