Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dancing with a Wolf

Flannery O'Connor had lupus. She called it her wolf. As a writer, she made an extended metaphor of the illness that might otherwise have consumed her. Becoming a cancer patient or a cancer survivor or a person with an illness that cannot be cured with a course of antibiotics can consume us: our name, our career, our family or friends can all be lost within that label if we let it.

Instead, when we find ourselves living with a wolf, we and our wolf, and the people who live with and love us, can make room in our lives for the wolf. A wolf requires attention, vigilance, but it can be subordinated for periods of time even if in the end it will consume us. Flannery O'Connor was a good writer, so she picked a good metaphor. There is a whole body of literature about the metaphors of illness or a particular illness. That literature is part of one of my previous lives. I stumbled across one of those journals the other day as I was cleaning up some corner of this house. I set it aside. It still interests me, but today I want to talk about a few of the wolves that have settled into my life lately.

These are not my own personal wolves. These are the wolves of friends of mine, so like spouses or pets or houses or clothes, their choice is not necessarily mine. If the actual choice is not theirs either, at least how they care for it is. Getting a wolf is more like getting a stray cat or dog than going to the pet store or the rescue shelter and picking an animal. The choosing is the doing of the wolf or cat or dog; our response is our only choice. That may not seem much choice at all, but this post is not an existential exploration either.

This post is a celebration of the things I have learned from my friend's wolves. Celebration may seem an odd word for anything associated with illness and the travail of my friends, but I am schooling myself to watch things more closely and to remember better. One of the best dances I ever had was with a man whose name I never knew. He was a dancer. I don't mean that he looked like Fred Astaire on the dance floor or that he knew the requisite steps for a given piece of music or even that he danced well in the conventional sense. I mean that he danced for the joyfulness in his spirit. I noticed him dancing alone on the floor because people who could not see past his awkward halting movements on the dance floor began to cluck among themselves and to get that social distancing look on their faces that I have never much liked. Before I had even thought what I was doing, I was on the floor dancing with him. We had a good time. He smiled and at the end of the dance he leaned over and told me that he had Huntington's chorea and he was in remission. The wolf was away for awhile. He would dance til his wolf came back.

As too often happens with me, that spiritual lesson was nearly forgotten. One of my friends reminded me of it the other day. Her wolf had curled first around her eyes, nearly blinding her, and entwined itself around her feet and legs making it hard to walk. I won't tell you how brave I think she is. I am not that good a writer yet. With the help of some medicine which in itself contained a bit of wolfishness, she persuaded her wolf to get off her feet. As we sat in the kitchen of another friend whose wolf is never far away, she kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes for us. I hope never to forget the joy of watching her celebrate the re-discovery of the muscles-nerves-joints that infinite complexity that makes us able to wriggle our toes for walking, dancing, or for the sheer joy of it.

Another friend has been living quietly with her wolf for years. Perhaps too quietly. In the early days with her wolf, people who could have or should have known better were instead like the clucking audience around the man dancing his remission. They could not see past her wolf and they were afraid of the wolf and set her aside with it. She kept her wolf hidden out of necessity so that she could go among people, but she was always painfully aware both of that wolf and of the urgency to keep it hidden. She has grown wary of people.

Now she has another wolf to contend with. This one is more acceptable in public but it means that her other, secret wolf may also peek out. This first, secret wolf frightens her even more than the one we see and know. She has come to grips with her wolf but not with letting him out. I think my job is to help her bring this wolf out into the open, but I could be mistaken. It is not my choice how she lives with either wolf. I must take my cues from her. After all, it is her wolf.

We all have wolves--not as profound or as straightforward as lupus or other chronic illness--but we can take lessons from those whose wolves make our own pale by comparison and be grateful and dance.


At 8:17 PM, Blogger TerriRainer said...

Very profound!

You are a wise woman, I learned things about human nature from this post alone that I had never considered.

Thank you for your insightful way of looking at life, and for your eloquent way of sharing that insight!

:) Terri

At 10:31 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Thanks, Terri. I wrote this to help me make sense of what was happening to me and my friends. I hoped it would be helpful to others as well.


Post a Comment

<< Home