An Italian-American who immigrated to the U.S. when she was twelve recently returned from visiting long-time friends in Rome, Milan, Parma, and Bologna. “They don’t remarry,” she said, “because they don’t divorce. They find ‘un companio’ and have children together.”
Though Catholic observance in Italy strikes me as far more relaxed that it is in the U.S., I’m probably seeing only the surface. With the Pope residing in the capitol city (though the Vatican is a realm apart from the modern Italian state), it’s hard to avoid Catholic strictures against divorce.

Companion from the Latin, means “with bread,” pane being bread in modern Italian too. We want some living creature sitting down with us, in that quasi religious way, to break bread, to eat together. Stretching all the way back into Christian/Catholic ritual, the bread and wine of Christ’s “last supper” was transformed into taking belief and practice into our bodies, embodying a companionship of the heart.

In my mother’s last fifteen years, eating at one end of her long dining room table, in her huge house in Charleston, she didn’t exactly break bread with her dog Cindy. But Cindy sat on the floor beside her chair, raising soulful, entreating eyes, reminding my mother that another life depended on hers, urging her to share.

Over the last nine months or so, I’ve felt compelled to do the same. First it was the grim spectacle of financial collapse; then even more powerfully, the oil disaster in the Gulf with its filthy coating of pelicans (a symbol of Christian giving–more in a moment). With marshes, seabirds, and dolphins begrimed, I couldn’t escape the disgusting slick of our inability to take care, use caution, reduce consumption.

It’s been a while that I’ve known about the Christian association of the pelican with the Saviour’s care. The first hint came from a stained glass window in Florence’s Episcopal church, which showed a pelican plucking its breast feathers to line a nest. This image is extended in Christian iconography to link Christ with the pelican feeding its young with its own blood. St. Thomas Acquinas’ hymn “Adoro Te,” calls out to the Savior as the “Pelican of Mercy,” as does Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, who promises to “repast” his friend like a “kind, life-rending pelican.”

To me, who am neither Catholic (though a few generations removed) nor a regularly practicing Protestant, the pelican represents a different kind of companionship. It calls up from my childhood the sea smells, beach sounds, and wide wide water of early memory.

Very few of us have infinite resources. Lately I’ve had to cut back drastically on my donations to human and nature-helping organizations. The financial downturn has sent graduate students from my door; I simply don’t have as much work as before. Though I won’t starve, or even have to sell my car, I won’t have as much disposable income as last year. What a nasty word “disposable” which suggests much about the throw-away culture I detest. Let’s say, I simply can’t give as much.

I’m thinking of volunteering in exchange. Governor Mark Dayton has my support in many ways, recently for recommending that every able-bodied Minnesotan donate one afternoon a week to helping organizations. A while ago my daughter lured me to the Wildlife Rehab Center on north Dale. She fed injured birds, cleaned cages. Her favorites were a few trumpeter swans who’d ingested lead pellets and were being treated to leach the lead from their systems and build up their stamina. These are huge birds; wing-spans seven feet. Though I’d written about them (Minnesota Monthly) years before when the DNR first brought eggs from Canada to reintroduce the bird, I simply couldn’t approach the birds at the Rehab Center. My heart pounded. I was afraid. Ditto with cardinals and mourning doves.

I think I’ll stick with people. I’ll join a local organization working on transitioning as a neighborhood, as a species from heavy carbon use to less damaging ways of making light and staying warm. My favorite notion, proposed by some solar engineers last summer as we sat on my porch: to gather families who share an alley; put up a joint solar collector in the alley and let the families all benefit. I’ve seem some of these solar collectors in the hinterlands. They’re big disks. Not ugly or even ungainly, but they do need space than a narrow city lot can provide.

Companions in hope and effort. Just as we humans need our own kind around our tables; we also need each other for joint efforts of change. It sounds grand. I know it will be hard work. I hope I’m ready.

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