The Plight of Minerva

January 30, 2011

Years ago, when I was studying for the GREs and trying my best to get into one of the country’s finest continental philosophy programs, I drove to Davis two times a week. I’d study at Kaplan like a diligent little scholar, and instead of driving 115 miles back to Chico, I’d putter my old white Toyota truck down the back roads of Davis, its tree-lined streets, and nudge its nose into a local Newman Center. On the backside of the property, concealed from the street front, I’d make camp for the night, cooking and sleeping in the back of my truck. Weeks earlier, I had made arrangements with the pastor. He was amused by my jolly good initiative.

Every night at 9:40, a great horned owl, with its tufted ears and broadly shaped face, would perch itself like a gargoyle on a limb 50 feet or so above me. At 9:50, he’d alight from that branch with fearsome silence, disappearing for the night. He did this every night save one during my two-month pilgrimage. I thought him a very good omen.

One night, well after the owl had taken flight, I was startled awake by a sound or something like a sound. My heart raced, my nostrils flared. Slowly, I peered up over the bed of my truck and scanned the grounds without moving my head. Between a fence and an old, dilapidated shed, I saw the silhouette of a man pass. He disappeared behind the shed. Then he re-emerged at the other end. He drifted into a swale, where I lost sight of him.

I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking. My uninvited guest troubled me. His presence disturbed me bodily. I grabbed a black, heavy-duty Maglite and slipped out of my sleeping bag, quietly stealing over the bed of my truck. I floated toward the depression in the ground, atingle with the need for answers. A large body was curled like a cat on the grass under a blanket. There were snuffling noises, too. Like a weapon resting on my shoulder, I blasted the body with the Maglite and shouted with rising panic, “Who are you! Who are you!” Suffused with light, a sullen, dirty face shouted back, “Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me! I’m just looking for a place to crash.” Utterly relieved and not a little bit ashamed, I turned the light off and reassured this other pilgrim that I wasn’t a cop or a groundskeeper or a violent misfit. This took some persuading.

We walked back to my truck. I fired up the stove and cooked noodles and heated water for hot chocolate. He ate and drank slowly, and with great care. He sighed through his nose. We spoke infrequently. I told him where I was from and why I was there, and that I was trying to get into grad school. He asked what I wanted to study. I told him. He froze with the mug of chocolate at his lips. His eyes crinkled and he smiled in disbelief, “Weird, I got my BA in philosophy.”

Of course he did. My heart sank.

I hadn’t thought of this experience in a long time, the owl, the Maglite, and the homeless man, there in the backyard of the Newman Center. Yesterday, as I read O’Connor, it came back to me in a terrific flood. The connection seems terribly slight to me. But that’s probably the way most associative leaps go. Here’s the passage, from Good Country People, about the unforgettable, one-legged Hulga.

The girl had taken a Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a schoolteacher,” or even, “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that ended with the Greeks and Romans.

To this day, I still don’t know if that owl was a good omen, or not.