By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published August 7, 2014
For years I cherished a sparkling dream of having a hideaway by the sea. I pictured my husband and myself watching the sun rise while we sipped coffee on our own private porch. I saw us savoring the sight of pelicans roosting nearby while we fried fish in our very own seaside kitchen.
That dream did eventually become a reality, I’m happy to say—but it wasn’t long before we encountered the peculiar perils that often accompany ownership.
It all began when we became smitten with a tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico. Swimming is dicey since the water there is muddy, but it’s a fine place for boating, fishing and encountering all kinds of birds and beasts.
On our first boat trip we were surrounded by a school of dolphins, swimming so close we could hear their explosive exhalations. Another time we were having lunch in a serene spot when two curious manatees poked out their heads and peered at us.
At first we were quite happy to rent a condo with a porch overlooking the Gulf, but after a few visits, we started itching for a chunk of this paradise to call our own. A realtor showed us land in the marshes complete with a dock, and we jumped. On our next trip we talked with a builder about constructing a stilt house for our weekend getaways.
It took a year before the Marsh Nest, as we called it, was built, and oh how we basked in the bliss of our vacation home! Pelicans and ibis flew by our porch every day. Black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets fished lazily in the canal, while turtles lumbered through the tall grasses in the yard.
And then, once the initial infatuation ceased, we began detecting serpents in our little paradise. One particularly annoying one was the seemingly endless to-do list that hounded us on every visit. The yard cried out for mowing, trees wanted trimming and screens begged for repairs. We also grappled with the heavy financial burden of paying mortgages and taxes on two homes.
One day on a walk, we spotted an osprey’s nest perched high upon a telephone pole. These huge birds are renowned for their roomy and dramatic nests, which are imaginatively crafted from whatever materials the birds can scavenge from yards. This particular home sported twigs, twine, bits of fishing nets and gaudy strips of cast-off clothing.
Looking closely, we saw swallows nesting at the bottom of this gigantic structure. And then suddenly it hit us. The swallows were renters! They were enjoying all the privileges afforded by the big bird’s hard work but didn’t have to lift a wing. They were living worry free, just as we once had in our little condo by the sea.
That day we began pondering the idea of selling our dream home. We both did quite a bit of praying to figure out if this was the right decision. And it soon became clear to us that Jesus’ words, “No one can serve two masters” were richly relevant to our situation. In truth, the house had become a master of sorts, gobbling up a great deal of time and all our extra cash.
Sadly, we were left with very little money to help the poor people Jesus talked about. The ones who couldn’t afford one home, let alone two.
We eventually sold the stilt house and resumed our former status as renters. On our vacations we still watch the sun making its glorious morning debut as we sip our coffee. We still fry fish in a steamy kitchen while pelicans clamor for tidbits near our porch.
Now, however, we don’t care if the paint is peeling or the carpet looks thin. And here’s the best part of all: When the collection basket for the poor comes around at Mass, we don’t have to look the other way.
We’ve discovered there’s no need to own a chunk of a place to enjoy it. As Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings put it so beautifully in “Cross Creek”: “We are tenants, and not possessors of the land. The earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned.”
This idyllic island belongs to the sea otters, the turtles and the whippoorwills. To the fiddler crabs scurrying surreptitiously along the shore. And, of course, to the swallows living quite happily as they hitch a ride on an osprey’s nest.
Lorraine Murray’s latest book is “Death Dons a Mask,” a mystery set at a small parish in Decatur, where a handsome seminarian unleashes chaos. Artwork is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Readers may email the Murrays at firstname.lastname@example.org.