January 09, 2005

Requiem for Dot

Three fish live in my saltwater aquarium. My son Ethan has named them all. The clownfish he named "Nemo." I asked him, how do you know that's a boy clownfish?" He rolled his eyes at me and said in a somewhat disgusted voice, "because his name's Nemo." Of course. How silly of me. The dark blue damselfish with the yellow tail he named (you'll never guess) Dory. And the light blue fish is Seaweed.

Each fish has its own territory. Nemo likes to hang out inside the colorful fake plastic cave. He likes to swim back and forth, popping in and out, playing hide-and-seek with the other fish. Dory likes to hide under and behind the rocks at the back of the aquarium. She's the interior decorator of the tank, and actually moves the sand around, one grain at a time, to create little holes on the ocean floor, little rooms that she can call her own. And Seaweed often hangs out near the top, because when it's feeding time, he wants to be the first one in line.

Several times we've tried adding a fourth fish, but it never works.

Adding a fish is a complicated process. Fish are sensitive creatures, and putting them into a new environment is a major stress for them.... Come to think of it, if a giant net came down out of the sky, scooped me up, put me in a plastic bag, transported me to Tibet and dropped me smack dab in the middle of a Hindu or Buddhist prayer service --- something that, it seems to me, is more or less comparable to what a transported fish goes through --- I'd probably be a little stressed, too. The most I could hope for in such a circumstance would be for some kind person to take me by the hand, show me around, and fill me in on the practices and customs of the region; someone to help make me feel "at home."

The saltwater aquarium how-to books suggest that you do just that, that you do what you can to help the newcomer feel "at home" in his or her new environment. One of the things that the how-to books suggest is "rearranging the furniture," which in my case meant cleaning the tank, moving the rocks around, and puting the plastic cave and the plastic pirate ship in new locations. The reason for this is that the old-timers, the fish who have been living in the aquarium for the past several months, have their "territories" all staked out, and will vigorously defend their territories against any and all newcomers, not unlike the old ladies I saw at my hometown church when I was growing up, who sat in the same pew every week, defending it against hapless visitors who might "accidentally" sit in their seats.

So before our most recent attempt to add a fourth piscine member to our household, I rearranged everything, and even took out some old plastic plants that were covered in slime and falling apart, and added some new live rock, positioning it on top of another rock to make a new little cave. All this rearranging, I hoped, would erase all the old territories and put everyone, new and old alike, on common ground. Supposedly, it would make it easier for the newcomer to adjust.

And then, the moment came. A tiny little black fish with one white dot was added to the tank. Ethan quickly named her --- what else? --- Dot.

Nemo, Dory, and Seaweed made it clear to me that they did not like either the new arrangements or their new tankmate. Nemo in particular stared at me through the aquarium glass with a grumpy face and angry eyes. "You're messin' with us," he said with his small, pouty fish lips. "We've never had it this way before. We liked our tank the way it was, we liked the old plastic plants covered in slime, we liked the rocks and caves where they were, and we liked it just the three of us, so don't think that just because you've changed everything around, that we're going to throw a welcome party for this newcomer." Meanwhile, Seaweed and Dory had chased Dot into the new cave, all the way to the back where only she could fit. Nemo would turn and join them for a moment, but then would come back to the glass to stare at me with his angry eyes. After all, if it weren't for Dot, they'd still have their "old" tank.

And there in her cave Dot stayed, even at feeding time. No one took Dot by the fin to show her around. No one filled her in on the practices and customs of tank life. No one offered to show her where the food was. Not even Seaweed, who received a similar "welcome" when he arrived a few months ago. He, Nemo and Dory had become so accustomed to their routines, their habits, their patterns of eating --- all those things which make up the liturgy and the rituals of aquarium life --- that they could not bring themselves to changing for the sake of this new member of their community.

If Dot could have left this particular aquarium community, no doubt she would have. But she couldn't, so she just remained in the back of her cave, in a tiny spot where only she could fit. And the longer she stayed there, and the longer she was unwelcome by the others, the more her life was drained out of her. Within 24 hours, she was dead.

Human emotion is a strange thing. It's strange that I, a grown man, could feel just a touch of sadness as I scooped Dot out of the tank. It's a grim task that almost always falls to the man of the house --- disposing of dead animals --- one of the few tasks still reserved for us men in this day of equal rights. It's strange that I think nothing of swatting a fly, stepping on a spider, or wiping out entire populations of ants. Even hitting a small mammal with my car, such as a o'possum or a rabbit, is not something that lingers in my mind for too long. And of course, as an omnivore, I not only approve of the killing of animals such as cows and chickens and yes, even fish, I eat them, and don't give it a moment's thought.

What's even stranger, though, is that after I disposed of Dot's lifeless corpse, I found myself identifying not with poor Dot, but with the other fish. I understood all too well their reluctance to welcome this newcomer. I, also, like the things I'm familiar with, my rituals and routines, my community, my church, and find myself tensing up every time one of these things is changed or altered by some outside force.

No wonder Jesus talked so much about hospitality. It sounds easy, but it's not. No wonder churches that say they want to grow actually have a very hard time of doing it. We want the newcomers to join us, but not if we're going to have to rearrange the furniture and change our way of doing things in order to make them feel welcome. And when those changes do come, we may not say much, but our angry eyes and our pouty fish-liips give us away, and the newcomers are chased away, or worse yet, forced into hiding while their life drains out from them.

I don't know if there's any hope for Nemo, Dory, or Seaweed. Despite my conversation with Nemo, my ability to communicate with fish is really quite limited, and my own fish seem pretty set in their ways.

But maybe there is hope for me. Maybe I will remember, at least some of the time, and perhaps even when it's most important, that it's not all about me. My church, my community, my family, my house --- these things don't belong to me. In fact, I don't even belong to myself. I gave that up a long time ago, on the day I was baptized. Now, I belong to Jesus. I was baptized in his name, and so now I belong to him, just as he, on the day he was baptized, gave his life over to God; became, in a sense, God's property, committed to carrying out not his own will, but that of his Father in heaven. Because through my own baptism I belong to him and not to myself, it is my job to welcome all those who claim the same belonging, to show hospitality, to make them feel welcome, to take especially those who are new by the hand and show them around, so that they may feel comfortable enough to venture out of their cave and join the community.

It's not easy. It takes me out of my comfort zone. But maybe, with God's help, I'll remember that, by virtue of our baptism, we all belong to Jesus, and therefore I'l commit myself to practicing even greater hospitality. Even if it means rearranging the furniture.

1 comment:

B1 said...

This is wonderful! Thank you!