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Grotto

by on March 10, 2016

Grotto

                                                     by Marco M. Pardi 

                                                All comments welcome

“There are no chaste minds. Minds copulate whenever they meet.” Eric Hoffer. (1902-1983) Reflections on the Human Condition. 1973

So you brought home a marvelous scratching and climbing post for your cat companion and he completely ignored it in favor of the box it came in.  Right there on the living room floor was a doorway into an alternate universe. Once inside, he could peek out occasionally just to be sure you still exist then duck back into a reality changing state. It was Cat turning the tables on Erwin Schrodinger.  Is the human in the room alive or dead?  The cat can know only by collapsing the wave function – looking.

One of my earliest memories is of playing in a box on the terrace of our penthouse in Rome.  As my nursemaid, Rosa, relaxed and absorbed the sunlight nearby I could seamlessly flit between the panorama of open blue sky, potted plants, other humans – with the confusing social matrix implicit in their presence and the black blankness of a canvas on which I was free to create.

Although I’m sure there were other such opportunities that followed, my next deeply memorable experience of this kind occurred on the 330 acre northern Ohio campus of the monastic military school I entered at age 5.  Only a handful of those acres had buildings, the rest being a farm and surrounding forest.  A path led down from our main building to a creek, my greatest friend.  A footbridge over the creek brought one into the edge of the forest and there, just a few yards in, was a large grotto.  Made entirely of local fieldstone, with no obvious evidence of mortar and a simple dirt floor,  it had two widely separated entrances.  No doors, just arched entries.  No windows or other openings.  The school being Catholic, I dimly remember some rites being conducted there.  But even at that age I sensed this as an intrusion; people carrying in their trappings, their book, their candlesticks. People playing grab ass in the dark corners. People chanting, speaking, thinking of make believe places and stories far from this place.  Bodies were in the grotto; minds were not.  The character of the grotto completely changed during these gatherings, from a silent anteroom of the dimensionless Cosmos to a pile of stones materially measured by its capacity for assembled humans, its ability to respire the scents and the sounds of people who would forget their visit there within hours, even minutes of their hurried departure. When they left the scent of incense lingered for days.  Already far more attuned to the mysticism of the Cosmos than to the man made doctrines of some UberFather god, I doubted anyone experienced the grotto as I did, and I felt sad for the grotto having to endure the events.  And I silently spoke to the creek as we processed back to the main building.

Over the following years I did not have contacts with grottos as such.  But immersion into the Earth can take several forms.  The State of Florida is largely a limestone based extrusion, forming the east side of the Gulf of Mexico like a limp and ineffectual penis.  The north central part of the State is speckled with sink holes which often lead to subterranean caverns and natural tunnels.  As a teenager and beginning college student I learned to descend by rope into these tunnels and caverns, very quickly escaping the scorching surface heat and entering total blackness. Of course, the ultimate in such adventures is SCUBA diving through these caverns. But having seen what can go wrong, even with the use of a lifeline, I’ve always stayed close enough to the entrance that stirred up silt does not enclose me in a brown fog. The peace within these domains is without parallel.  No automobile or passing aircraft sounds, no people talking, no subliminal cues from fading sunlight.

I’ve written elsewhere of the strong likelihood the almost inaccessible cave paintings, within a cavern attained only through an excruciatingly narrow tunnel, were used in initiation rites. Symbolically, the slithering through the tunnel to emerge into a new reality as portrayed in the art was a return through the birth canal to the womb, formative in our being as a person.

The Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri would be grotto-like were it not for the elaborate reliefs of household furnishings inside the dome-like tombs.  Stepping inside one feels almost like an intruder into someone’s home. Just not the same feeling as a grotto. And, you had to be dead to live there.

However, I spent some time in Bari, on the “heel of the Boot” of Italy.  In the ’70’s Bari was an industrial port with a seamless cultural mix of Southern Italian, Greek, and North African.  Except for the stifling heat in summer, it was one of my favorite places since one could easily lose a sense of what century one was in, even where one was. That particular effect served to suspend me in time, an open air grotto experience.  Leaving Bari, meandering through the Itria Valley I saw the famous Trulli in Alberbello – the Apulia region. Built as storehouses for grain and other harvests, they are circular fieldstone buildings with a single front door and a conical roof.  I thought they would be marvelous little homes for one person, maybe two.  I was ahead of my time.  On a subsequent trip some years later they had all been bought up and converted into upscale cottages for uber rich wanting a secluded place reasonably hear the beaches.  Air conditioned grottos.  Who would have thought it?       

Some of the most deeply moving experiences I’ve had occurred on early morning visits to Notre Dame Cathedral, before the sun burst through the Rose Window, before the tourists filed in to check another “sight” off their list. Mindful of the Paleolithic cave art I noticed what appeared to be the symbolism of the building itself: The main door is arched and recessed into a series of faux arches clearly presenting the labia majora of female genitalia; atop the doorway arch is a small folded figure exactly where the clitoris would be; walking down the main central aisle one comes to the bilateral offshoots of small chapels, representing the fallopian tubes and the ovaries; and, the ultimate transformative epicenter of the structure, the altar and its surrounds, is a stylized placement of the womb.  That the designers of this Gothic masterpiece had in mind anything other than the Divine Feminine seems inconceivable – to use a loaded pun.  Of course the Catholic Church has fought this analysis for centuries. Nonetheless, it is plainly there.

The mystical experience within this darkened domain had nothing at all to do with whether there was a god.  It had everything to do with a simultaneous suspension and ultimate expansion of “time”; a rendering of time as we know it irrelevant.  I was, before my birth; I am, as sitting enthralled in the moment; and I will be, as the unknowns of my future spread infinitely ahead.  All in mutual context: AtOnceness.  

Emerging into the daylight once again, the crowds, the traffic, the vendors, the hookers, I was peering through the membrane which might have covered me at birth; I was blinking my eyes and forcefully attuning to time as measured by my wristwatch. But I was not who I had been upon entering. Unlike the intrusive memories which come unbidden through the day, which make sleep intimidating, I experienced what has come to be called my “comfort zone”.  I was walking within a grotto only I could see.

Daily life provides amusing reminders.  I’ve stayed at motel chains called La Quinta and Ramada.  In Spanish, a quinta is usually construed as a one night “hidey-hole” made of on site materials and blending into the surroundings.  A well known entity among survivalist campers and solo operators on long range missions.  The Spanish meaning of ramada is more a seasonal hunting lodge, what some would call rustic but lasting nonetheless.

But unlike those structures, and the Cone of Silence invoked in the television series, Get Smart, my comfort zone is always available, if sometimes difficult to call into place. It serves me in mandatory social settings requiring my “presence”, it insulates me from the now daily bombardment from a particular political party, it helps me find context for the deep concerns that political party spawns.

Of course, that engenders accusations of being “detached”, even self-centered.  I suppose I am detached to a great degree. But I also think each of us has a personal grotto, a comfort zone which sometimes others fail to perceive or perceive inaccurately. More’s the pity when someone fails to realize their own grotto, their own comfort zone. I’ve always felt strongly about doing my best to ensure a person, even an argumentative person, does not lose face. It’s too much like seeing someone naked.     

Some 50 years after leaving that grotto in Ohio I returned. The school had been sold and until recently used as a State drug/alcohol rehab center.  Having just changed ownership again, it was being completely remade into a grand reception center for weddings and other high profile occasions.  These new owners were exceptionally kind to me and after a long conversation gave me free run of the place.  I returned to my creek, and crossed the bridge to the grotto.  Seemingly untouched from the outside, the inside still reeked of human urine from the rehab patients.

Things do change, but my peace remains the same.

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11 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    But what about the cat – misunderstood and misunderstanding of its place in the world you made for it. And what was your scratching post, that you also ignored?

    • Thanks, Ray. Great to see you back. My cat, Rommel, was very adept at navigating the world we made around him. As for the scratching post, he seemed to take that as an insult.

  2. I finished reading this offering with a sigh; it took me back to my young adulthood in Italy. Even though I only lived there for two years, it holds so many memories. We’ve spoken before of the trullo I lived in during that first year; it had two “cones” which had at some time been connected. The hot air in the summer rose into the cones, keeping the house cool. In the winter, we used a wood burning fireplace. I would go back to Martina Franca, and that house, in a heartbeat.

    I envy you your grotto; even in memory, it must be such a special place. I crave silence and solitude; I am no hermit, but the absence of other people is such a rare and treasured commodity in my life. My “grotto” is contained within the dark hours of the night when everyone else is asleep.

    • Thank you, Rose. I expected the mention of the trullo would be evocative for you. Yes, those of us who are aware of it carry our own grotto with us. I’m glad you are able to access yours. As I’ve said before, my first declared vocation was to be a hermit. But I soon cam to realize the vital importance of being with other thinking, feeling people, even if only through these pages.

  3. Robyn Catledge permalink

    Were you a professor at Polk Junior college?

  4. Marco. I want to write more, but at the moment I am reminiscing about my own beloved childhood Saskatchewan creek. It isn’t a memory I permit very often, for the circumstances of my life at the time were pretty treacherous. I am grateful I had my creek as an escape, however.

    • Dana. Although there is sadness in memories, I’m glad you have this opportunity, and the wisdom to appreciate it.

  5. I’ve been lucky to have a couple of my own grottos. Remembering my time in Alaska always takes me back to a happy place, and there was a little cemetery near our house in Lawrenceville that was the most amazing place to sit and read.

    • My trips to Alaska were kind of spooky, but those were the circumstances. But cemeteries. Ah, peaceful transcendence. Some are far better than others. I’ll have to think on that a while.

      • It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Even though I was born in Hattiesburg and grew up just outside New Orleans for the first few years, when people ask, “where are you from?” I always say “Soldotna, Alaska.” Cemeteries are lovely. As Shakespeare said, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

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