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From homes and perches to the cosmos, and back again

Paul Grobstein's picture

Alice and Paul work together in several venues, including the Evolving Systems project and a manuscript in progress integrating biological and social perspectives on education.   

Over lunch one day, Alice offered  that she (and other human beings?) appreciates, even needs,  "perches" in addition to "homes" as resources for living the way she likes/hopes to live.  The suggestion led to an exchange of emails, partially excerpted below, that take off from this starting suggestion to explore a number of related issues having to do with life, education, conflict, freedom, the cosmos, and the relation of human beings to all these things. Thoughts/ideas/extensions  are warmly welcome in the on-line forum below. 

From Alice, July 9, 2009

I'm revisiting our perch discussion in relation to ideas about conflict, complaint, and what motivates change. 

The thing about a perch to my way of thinking is that it's relatively stable (though people, like animals, likely have more than one and they can be easily recreated -- does this have something to do with evolution?), withstands weather, takes minimal maintenance, and is easy to land on and take off from.  It's also got a decent view.  When I think of one, I imagine a bird on it.  In the human realm, a perch is a spot with personal, social, and likely non-human parts, from which one can move (in welcome and needed ways), and to which one can return/repair/alight for rest, planning, reflection, and fancy.  It's not the same as a home.  It's more singular than that, though other people have to do with it.  

I was struck in the Stallybrass by the connection between invention and inventory.  He emphasized inventory as memory, but I think of inventory equally as materials, stuff of and for creation.  A perch isn't the warehouse, but a perch is in flying distance of the warehouse.  And on a perch one is more open to broad inputs (and more agile in responding to them) than perhaps from within a home or a warehouse. 

What do you think?

From Paul, 11 July 2009

Interesting set of issues, indeed.  In light of both the evolsys group meeting and some discussions in the summer institute.  See /exchange/bbi09/10#comment-107398.  I think I make less of a distinction than you're suggesting between a "perch" and a "home."  Perhaps less distinction than most people do, perhaps less than is good for me.  For me, a perch/home is indeed a place for "rest, planning, reflection, and fancy," and "relatively" stable," but, even more importantly to me, it has a view, is "open to broad inputs."  And I'd say, in contrast to you, that it has "non-human parts" for sure and "likely" social ones.  I'd also put more stress on the"relatively stable," as per the illustration in /exchange/evolsys/mayjune09#comment-106870.  A home/perch can frequently be made "less wrong" by entertaining the possibility of challenging some of its foundations.

So, what do you think?  Would I be better off making more of a distinction between a home and a perch?

From Alice, 13 July
, 2009

I'm thinking that in order to answer your question about whether it would be useful for you to make a sharper distinction between perch and home, I need to know more about what you mean when you wonder whether the overlap you experience/conceive between them is good for you or something to reconsider/change (as in one of the planks of the houseboat).  So this is a marker for that inquiry -- and also for a start on sharing thoughts I've had about the distinction I draw.  

To me, "home" is about safety and protection (of self and others, resident and visiting).  It is also about being found/findable -- by letters, say, or neighbors or family members (as in "Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in"). It's about embodiment -- the place where one sleeps and awakens most often, most consistently. It's closer to family, and in a way to childhood/dependence/vulnerability, than "perch," which is more about freedom and flight, having a place (or places) to do that from.  A launch place for (one of) one's grown-up self/ves, but not the one that is committed, responsible to others, depended on, and also bodily vulnerable.  

To me, "perch" is about fancy, vista, and self-chosen engagement done *not* chiefly for livelihood (though quite possibly enabling or enhancing livelihood) or for fidelity, but for connecting self and world in open-ended ways.  

Of course, both can be located in many kinds of places, or in the same place, depending on one's state of mind. (For one person, the kitchen might be a perch (even though she also prepares family meals there); for another, the study, or both. ) And I don't think my definition of home is exclusive to people who literally share home with family members, or to people at all.   

Quine’s  houseboat metaphor for living is interesting in that a houseboat  is a non-traditional, relatively rare and impermanent home -- as in, how many people raise their young on one?  It's also a high stakes one, because it is in a potently threatening medium.  It doesn't have such accessible neighbors as some homes. 

From Alice, July 14, 2009

It struck me today that in my earlier message to you about home and perch, I basically reproduced the motivating problem of our paper.  Hmmm . . . Home=integration, perch=fredom, or both=both and beyond both?  So does this mean I haven't learned anything (at least as far as my unconscious goes)?

Paul, July 15, 2009

Thinking a lot about this too, in and amongst various thoughts about emergent pedagogy and the brain.  Yes, does have to do with, among other things, the "motivating problem of our paper."  And encouraging some new thinking, in both of us.

From Alice, July 15, 2009

What I wrote before characterized perch in terms of maturity/independence and home in terms of childhood/dependence.  Both have social and individual and non-human elements, but in different strengths and on different trajectories.  I wonder whether children in fact have, or can have/develop, perches, or if what I mean by perch has something to do with the achievement of self, which is a matter of personal evolution over quite a bit of time. Of course, I see problems with these binaries, but at the same time I think there's something to them in this case.  (And I suspect you do, too, which is in part why the distinction is useful to you.)

From Alice, Wednesday, July 22
, 2009

Some questions for further exploration:

What is the relation between perch and agency?  Between perch and community (to use a term from today's discussion)?  I think of relationships between impact, reciprocity, independence and being left alone (not harrassed all the way to just short of neglected/forgotten).

What is the developmental significance of agency (in relation to my earlier developmental question re: perch development/use)?

What have you been thinking about your own conceptions of perch and home, their sources, foci, limits, and about possible ways to reimagine/change them?

From Paul, 29 July,  2009

For ease of access, I've compiled our conversation to date (at least the written part of it). Compiling it helped me think about your irritation with me over gaps in the conversation, and that in turn relates, I think, to the issue of whether I would be better off making a sharper distinction between perch and home.  My guess is that it is not just gaps, but a particular kind of gap, that disturbed you.  In particular, I opened a "personal" issue (whether I myself would be better off if ...) and then didn't follow up on that, while inviting "personal" exposure on your part.  Ergo, Alice vulnerable, Paul protected, a power imbalance.  Something like that?

If so, let's expand the conversation to talk about not only the perch/home issue but also the personal/public issue that we started on years ago.  Just as I tend not to make a sharp perch/home distinction, I also tend to not make a sharp personal/public distinction.  As I said when we talked yesterday, the essay I was working on when I was not home/on my perch was actually, for me, not only about what we'd been working on, but was also, for me, both private and public, ie it was a public sharing of some quite personal thoughts/ideas and, as such, makes me quite vulnerable.   My actions are prone to be seen/heard in the interpersonal arena as messages of indifference or disrespect, when in fact no such message is intended.  In fact, the intention of my actions (insofar as I can be aware of those) is almost invariably the opposite, to acknowledge/honor the interpersonal perch/home, personal/public exchanges that contribute so importantly to what I do and enjoy doing.  

Hmmmm.  Maybe we should add another item to the list of distinctions I tend not to make as sharply as I perhaps should, a distinction between action and message?  I tend to read people more by what they do than by what they say they want to do, and in turn to expect to be heard as fully from my actions as by my expressions of interest in/concern about others. For me, the action IS the message, perhaps more so than for other people. And maybe then what's at issue in all three contexts, the perch/home, personal/public, and action/message is that I tend to blur the distinction between what is going on and interpersonal relations.  I pay less attention to the latter as a category independent of the former than many people do and so may seem to many to neglect the significance of interpersonal relations themselves.  Perhaps I would get along better in the world if I learned to pay more explicit attention to them as something important in their own right?

Could we both learn something from the other?  Yes, of course.  I could usefully learn to pay more attention to interpersonal relationships qua interpersonal relationships, and you could probably usefully learn to pay less attention to them.  I would do better to acknowledge the unusual importance of interpersonal relationships in human affairs, and you might do better to recognize how big a world there is outside of interpersonal relationships and the significant role that plays in human interactions, society, and culture.  More generally, I think the conversation between us helps to clarify some of the issues involved in thinking about Truth/Reality/God (as per "group" stories in /exchange/node/4678) and about education and classroom dynamics, as per our upcoming session tomorrow.  Could we get both classrooms and cultures to value human interrelationships without the jockeying that goes along with their seeming to be the end and be all of human existence? 

Looking forward to more thoughts


alesnick's picture

beyond inside and outside?

This gloss of chuppah reminds me of the Jewish holiday, Sukkhot, during which people build impermanent, outside enclosures near their homes or temples with open or latticed roofs (roof must be open to sky), decorate them, and eat, visit, and sometimes sleep in them for a few days.  I remember the rabbi at our old synagogue speaking about how Sukkhot teaches that it's not buildings that protect/shelter us, but communities. Okey dokey, but it's true, as you suggest, Anne, that communities, like individuals, houses, marriages, can also be trouble, or evil, or go wrong.

My current way of approaching this thicket is to try to orient myself to scale in such a way as to break down its mattering whether things come in from the outside or go out from the inside.  This is my post-tragic outlook!
I think it also is behind my interest in breaking, or what Bharath called rupture.

In connection with scale, I think of the ending of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence:"

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide
Above the world is stretched the sky
No higher than the soul is high

The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand
The soul can split the sky in two
And let the face of God shine through

But East and West will pinch the heart
That cannot keep them pushed apart
And he whose soul is flat, the sky
Will cave in on him by and by

I believe that world moves towards growth.  At the same time, I recognize that for many people life in the world is devastating and I have myself been burned by this devastation of other people, though not nearly as much as many others have been burned.  I guess what I am groping for is a way to think about this tension without pressure towards reconciliation in any familiar terms.

At the memorial service I wrote for my mother several years ago, I read Adrienne Rich's "Tattered Kaddish," which seems to be an attempt of Rich's to hold this tension:

Taurean reaper of the wild apple field
messenger from earthmire gleaning
transcripts of fog
in the nineteenth year and the eleventh month
speak your tattered Kaddish for all suicides:

Praise to life though it crumbled in like a tunnel
on ones we knew and loved

Praise to life though its windows blew shut
on the breathing room of ones we knew and loved

Praise to life though ones we knew and loved
loved it badly, too well, and not enough

Praise to life though it tightened like a knot
on the hearts of ones we thought we knew loved us

Praise to life giving room and reason
to ones we knew and loved who felt unpraisable

Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.


One more:

I am currently reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi, and so as not to spoil the story (which is amazing) for anyone who hasn't read it, I won't say what it is about, but there is this passage that connects without spilling the beans:

"For the first time I noticed -- as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next -- that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting.  I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still.  My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized.  And I could accept this.  It was all right.  (It was daylight that brought my protest: "No! No! No! My suffering does matter.  I want to live!  I can't help but mix my life with that of the universe.  Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness -- how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things?  This peephole is all I've got!) I mumbled words of Muslim prayer and went back to sleep" (p. 177).


Anne Dalke's picture

Like a tent

I'm really not quite sure what the role of a third (which I often seem to take) is in these Serendip conversations: not there for the original lunch or dinner party discussion, but intrigued by the report of its aftermath, pausing to listen in, just long enough (as Kenneth Burke once famously said) to put in my oar, then pass on by...

Passing by this time, I was caught by the distinction between "perch" and "home," in large part because it seemed curiously analogous to an image that grabbed me during a wedding I attended this weekend, an image that might help build a bridge between perches and homes.


Standing there under a chuppah made of fish net, the rabbi @ this wedding pointed out that "no one would mistake it for a home": it's full of holes, fragile, responsive to wind, held only temporarily by family members....the newly married couple will clearly need to supply their own support.

In the terms of the conversation here, the chuppah is the perch, a place to take off from, in that it is only the sketch for the real shelter. And the home is defined neither by the materials of which it is made, nor by the vista it offers, but rather but by the commitment of the people to it and one another. This would be perch as prelude to home, outline for the relationship that will be nurtured within it.

As Marge Piercy says in her Chuppah Poem, it is a tent
under which we work
not safe but no longer solitary
in the searing heat of our time....

[But, as importantly, it preserves this perch-like quality:]
...It is not a dead end.
Therefore the chuppah has no walls.
We have made a home together
open to the weather of our time.

This sounds so hopeful, but I've also been reading a darker version of this tale, about a home open not only to "the weather outside," but to what is troubling within us...



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