life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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The wolf that lives within

This past Tuesday, August 15, was the two-year anniversary of the passing of my beloved wolf dog, Okami. Since he left this reality, I have been searching for him. Every few months, I go through an obsessive online search, combing through rescues to see if I can find a dog like him. Though I know full well that there is little chance that his spirit will return to this life in a similar form as the one I knew, I somehow cannot stop myself from looking nonetheless.

 

I feel this deep longing, a kind of craving of the heart, to experience the bond of wolf and woman once more. I seem to find evidence of wolves everywhere I go, in the eyes of passing dogs, graffiti, and even stickers posted on lampposts.

In my online searches, I find many dogs in need of homes. There are wolf like dogs a plenty as well, and yet somehow I cannot bring myself to go beyond the search. Is it because I know deep down that there is no way to replace my beloved? Is it because my husband will only allow me one dog, and I worry about what will happen if that one does not fill the void in my heart?

 

It’s not like buying a pair of boots, I joked to my husband the other day (I have a propensity for buying shoes, and since my feet haven’t grown since I was 12 I have many pairs in my possession.

 

That’s right, he laughed. You better find the right size and color because you won’t be able to exchange them.

 

I know, I responded. I only get one chance.

 

It has only just occurred to me, however, that it’s possible I have been thinking about this whole wolf search from the wrong vantage point. This afternoon, after writing and reflecting on the idea of the Wild Woman Archetype written about by Clarissa Pincola Éstes in Women who run with the wolves, I experienced a moment of clarity where I wondered if perhaps all of the searching was really for my own inner wolf, the spirit of wildness that lives within me and is always present but can be difficult to find and even more challenging (and not a bit terrifying) to set free.

 

Discovering my own inner voice of Self and learning to listen and embody that voice has been many years in the making. In the process, I have found many inner voices who often wage war upon one another.

 

Since Okami’s passing, I have convinced myself that I need a wolf companion to feel complete; however, I wonder if what I need is to engage more closely with the wolf within; my own wild spirit that still lives largely contained despite momentary outbursts when the wolf breaks free and makes itself known.

 

What is an inner wolf? Is it a voice, and if so, what does it sound like and what does it say? What does it feel like to listen to it? What does it feel like to set it free? What would/could life be like if I set it loose all of the time?

 

Is it less a voice than it is a kind of familiar like the ones you read about in fantasy witch stories?

 

Searching for a wolf may not be the answer I seek. It could hold part of the answer, but it could also be somewhat of an illusion. I know that true happiness can only be found within and not without. Tolle has written about the idea that unless we learn to be fully present in the what he refers to as the Now, then no matter what we attain in the future or what problems are resolved, we will create a new set to replace them and recreate our pattern of suffering over and over again. With this idea in mind, I begin wondering if part of what caused me to feel whole when I found Okami was his ability to fill a void that I had not found a way to fill with my own spirit. When we were together, I felt like an absent half had completed my whole being. Is it possible that I could once again find a way to fill this void even in the absence of a live wolf spirit by my physical side?

 

It is possible that I need only to let loose my own inner wolf, to embrace a spirit that may already be present within me and may be the key to becoming whole. If this is true, how do I go about accomplishing this seemingly Sisyphean task?

 

As with most of the self-work I have tackled over the years, awareness seems to be the first step. Awareness of what is or what might be missing and also of what is possible. Next, it’s time to imagine what fullness feels like. Then, I will need to really reflect on what changes I can make in my life to attain that fullness from within, to embody and be whole without grasping for something external to fill a void that I fear can only be filled from within.

 

I will keep you posted on my progress.

 

I invite you to spend a few minutes reflecting on your inner ‘scape and consider the following questions:

 

Do I have an empty place inside?

Do I wish to fill this place?

 

What does my own inner wolf look and sound like?


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We are each on our own path

I was meant to be a helper. The times I feel most alive and present, I am doing something that to help make the world a happier, more beautiful place. Since I was a child, I have been drawn to help creatures beyond the human realm. Bless my parents for opening our home to all kinds of animals, including the rabbit whose owner couldn’t keep it anymore, fish, gerbils, etc. I recently scooped up a magpie who had been attacked by other magpies and carried him to the forest to give him a chance to recover in a quiet spot.

I don’t know if I would call myself an animal whisperer, but I am drawn to help and there are many animals who either chosen to cross paths with my own or have at least humored me in my attempts to assist them. When I lived in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state, I rescued all kinds of animals: a racing pigeon with a broken wing, baby mice whose mom had been eaten or killed in a trap, birds that had flown into windows, the list goes on. A young squirrel sought me out when I was living in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. I really wanted to bring him home, but he was young and healthy, a state that would not last if I introduced him to my two cats. [As an aside, my husband tells me I am part squirrel because I seem to create little nests of things. He refers to my collection of earplugs and Kleenex underneath my pillow on our bed as my squirrel cache. I recently scooped up a magpie who had been attacked by other magpies and carried him to the forest to give him a chance to recover in a quiet spot.My mom has also informed me that when I was baby, she would have to stick her finger in my mouth and do a sweep in my cheeks for hidden grapes and other items that I apparently stashed there, perhaps for a midnight snack? I can only wonder.]

My desire to help creatures in need is not completely selfless. I experience great benefit from this act. My heart practically bursts open from the love that comes pouring out. I feel alive and present. I think I also benefit from feeling needed by another being.

There is so much suffering in the world, and I often feel helpless to make a difference. On our recent visit to Rome, I witnessed animals in need of medical attention and food, but I knew that I could not help them all. When I bemoan my inability to save all creatures, my husband tells me that each animal is on its own path. We can help them along their way, but we cannot make their own choices for them. I have come to believe that this may indeed be true. We cannot know what goes on for each being, so I do my best to help keep them help them as I am able and as much as they will allow me in to their hidden lives.

The greatest gift I have ever received came in the form of a wolf dog named Okami. My husband and I adopted him from a rescue near our home in Prescott, Arizona. He was with us for only a very short while, but he imprinted deeply and permanently on my heart. We were inseparable. We went everywhere together. He followed me and became my shadow. My husband described him as a wise, Zen creature. Perhaps, he had experienced great suffering or trauma in his short life before our paths crossed. We couldn’t know, but his gentle, grounded demeanor was the most soothing influence on my own anxiety-riddled spirit, second only to my husband.

Okami shared five months of his life with us and then I made the difficult decision to put him down. He had been struggling for a month while our vet tried to figure out what was causing him to waste away. It wasn’t until I researched his symptoms online and suggested a tick-borne disease that we were able to determine the culprit. The vet admitted that testing for tick-borne disease was one of the first round of testing he normally did, but he had forgotten. The test came out positive, and we began treating Okami right away, but it was too late.

For a month, I had provided around the clock care for my beloved wolf dog. Even that fateful afternoon when I brought him to the vet because he could hardly stand up I would not have believed I would be leaving without him. When the vet assistant came to the exam room to tell me he was having difficulty breathing even with an oxygen machine to help him, I made the decision to put him down.

I left with his body in a box and the emptiest feeling my heart has ever known. Without Okami to care for, I felt adrift. I convinced my husband to let me bring home a baby husky the woman from the same rescue had told me about. I needed to be needed again. Our baby husky was full of joy and life, and she made me laugh every day. But she didn’t need me. When we made the decision to move to Brussels less than a year later, my parents generously offered to look after her while we were overseas. It occurred to me that her presence in our life may also have been meant to be only temporary. She helped my heart to heal in absence of Okami, and now she was going to my parents to do the same. We sent her to my parents not 48 hours after they had put their own dog down. They had been heartbroken, and my dad had sent me texts that read: Without Kota, there is no need to leave the house.

We were a little worried about sending them another dog so soon after the loss of their beloved Labrador, but it quickly became clear that Naih the bundle of husky joy was just what they needed. She gave my dad a reason to continue his walks through the woods. She gave my mom a grand puppy, which helped alleviate some of my own guilt at not having provided her with the human kind.

We miss her every day and hope to be reunited in the future, but we sense that her purpose in this life is to bring joy to as many creatures as possible. She is able to do this with my parents very well. In the short time she has been with them, she has helped a young boy overcome his fear of dogs and gained many friends—human and canine—at every dog park she visits. My husband and I joke that one day we will receive a letter from her, thanking us for giving her a home for the first year of her life and kindly requesting to stay with my parents forever more, where she has free reign of a 2400 square foot house, a huge yard, daily walks and visits to dogs parks, a canine best friend who lives around the corner, my mom to bring home toys and treats for her, my dad to wind around her little princess paw, and better healthcare than many people living in the United States and around the world will ever receive.

The spirit of the wolf continues to haunt my heart, and every time I go for a walk in the woods near our home I make a silent (and sometimes not so silent) wish that I will find a baby wolf who will fill the void in my heart and become my constant companion and shadow.

This afternoon when my husband and I went for a walk through the woods, we happened upon a young cat. It became clear that this cat needed help. Its collar had become wrapped around its neck and front leg, so much so that the fur had been rubbed off completely. As we approached, the cat mewed but moved farther away from us and underneath a fence. My husband and I went in different directions to try to get nearer to him.

I found a spot where I could manage to climb over the fence, and I moved toward the cat very slowly, stopping periodically to crouch down, whisper, and rub my fingers together in an attempt to cajole it closer.

Amazingly, kitten did come closer. We did this back and forth dance until he was nuzzling into my hand and legs while I say cross-legged.

Can you take off your shirt and toss it over the fence to me? I asked my husband. My own tank top would not be enough to try to wrap around the cat in order to carry it without being scratched.

If I throw it, he will run away, my husband said.

It’s ok; he will come back. I felt sure that he would. He needed help.

Kitten did run away, but he did come back. We danced a little more until I was able to wrap him up in the t-shirt and draw him into my chest. I whispered and comforted him until he settled into me. I thought I would try to hand him off to my husband so I could get over the fence, but I was afraid he would escape, so my husband held the fence down while I sidled and slip over the top. Apart from my leggings getting temporarily caught on a loose fence end, I made it over with relative ease. Kitten stayed calm for most of the walk except for some panic at the large road crossing between the forest and our quiet corner of Boitsfort.

Once inside our house, my husband cut the collar off and closed the doors between the foyer and the front door. I sat with kitten while he went through two bowls of food. I didn’t try to pry the collar off because I wasn’t sure if it was embedded in his skin, but it eventually fell off of its own accord. Free from the collar, he was much happier. He purred while he ate and let me clean his wounds with a soapy washcloth and wet wipes. He even let me cover the wounds with Neosporin.

My husband came in to say hello, but kitten was not so sure about him. Our other cats were very curious, so we let kitten out for a chaperoned meet and greet. It was clear that kitten did not want to stay inside. He immediately went for the large glass doors that led to our terrace. It was only a few more minutes before he discovered the open kitchen window that my husband had opened to air out the house from the awful stench his collar had carried. I yelled out, No! and went running out the front door in an effort to scare him back into the house, but he was gone.

My husband had walked around the corner to see if this cat might fit the description of a poster we had seen on several windows and light posts around the neighborhood. He did meet the description, but he was also no longer in our care. We walked over to the house where he had once lived and spoke with the owner. She was over the moon that he was still alive. We all walked around the neighborhood, looking for him, but to no avail. Kitten was gone.

Back home, I felt the return of the void. We had been so close, and the lack of resolution was woefully uncomfortable.

I had been texting my dad questions about how to care for the cat in its current condition and then shared my remorse when he escaped. He responded, an animal used to the outdoors would probably not want to live inside. Don’t feel bad. You enabled to continue doing what it loves.

My husband echoed my father’s words. You gave him a real chance to live, my husband told me in a reassuring voice. With the collar, he might have made it maybe three more weeks, but he would have died.

I know, but I’m worried that his wound will get infected. And he was so skinny. He needs to eat so much more food, I said.

When I started to cry, my husband wrapped his arms around me. I told him how I hadn’t felt needed since Okami had died and that I thought this was my wish for a wolf puppy come true.

I thought he would be my wolf cat, I sobbed into my husband’s chest.

You gave him a miracle; you gave him the ultimate wish to be free from a bonded trap that was killing him. His ultimate wish was not to be released from a trap only to be put into a larger cage, a house where he would live indoors.

I took a deep breath in and let out a slow exhale. I think you are right, I said. Maybe, he didn’t want to go back to live with that woman. He was meant to be a wild and free spirit. I hope he will be ok out there.

Even though I know kitten is now somewhere out there, roaming free, I left a bowl of food and an almost empty can of tuna in the windowsill, just in case.


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Ready. Set. Zen.

Every night, my husband and I sit down for a 20-minute sit before bed. I use an app to keep track of the timing. As we prepare to sit, I unlock my phone, open the app, and turn off the light.

 

Before I tap the start button to begin our sit, I say the words, Ready. Set. Zen.

 

The ritual began after I attended an initiation for Neelakantha, mantra-based meditation. We had driven up to Colorado for the event and spent the weekend at the Naropa Institute. I learned about meditation in the Tantric tradition, while my husband sat in the lobby, working on applications for doctoral programs in Europe.

 

I had been attempting meditation on and off for a year with minimal success. After our return from Colorado, I began sitting for 20 minutes every night and every morning. Eventually, I asked my husband if he wanted to sit with me.

 

I learned from a meditation teacher that it can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days of regular practice to create a new habit. While I can’t say that I ever feel like sitting for 20 minutes, I do it anyway. I don’t know that I am any more enlightened that I was a year ago, but I don’t think it can hurt me, either.

 

I know from experience that even after taking the time to create a habit, it only takes one day of not doing it to lose the practice altogether. Even if I know I will feel better, more balanced, and joyful if I commit to even five minutes of creative practice every day—be it music, yoga, or writing—I still find it incredibly difficult to actually do it. I might get seven days into creating a regular practice and then a visitor, illness, or excuse weasels its way in, and that is that for a while. I stopped sitting every morning when my dad came to visit us last summer, and I have only been able to intermittently work it back into my daily rhythm.

 

The idea of practice, particularly yoga and meditation, is to honor ourselves where we are and celebrate (rather than negate) our progress; however small it may seem, it is a step toward balance.

 

I wrote an entire dissertation on the subject of self-sustainability. I spent months immersed in my own story of four years in a doctoral program, reviewing every moment in excruciating detail, in order to gain insight into the steps I took to create a more balanced, healthy existence. I know firsthand what I need to create joy in my life, but I still struggle to engage in those practices on any kind of regular basis.

 

I find it much easier to fixate on things that I know will not bring me joy but that offer distraction. One week it might be trying to find the exact right jacket that will keep me warm and dry and also not make me feel like a frumpy hobbit while among around fashionable Europeans (seriously, were they born to look graceful and stylish, no matter what they do? I have tried tossing a scarf around my neck in a haphazard fashion, and I still feel American and unattractive).

 

But I digress.

My husband reminds me, time and again, that there is no way to find the exact perfect anything because once we get it, we will realize that there is something else even better. It’s never ending.

 

Even my big camera lens didn’t come anywhere near the expectations I had for it, he told me.

 

I hear what he is saying, and I clearly understand, but it is still difficult to curb my propensity for fixation.

 

 

I finally gave up on the jacket, practicing acceptance of the perfectly adequate jackets I already own and repeating my husband’s mantra: It’s good enough. It’s good enough.

 

I spent an entire day without obsessively looking for the perfect jacket. I knew it didn’t exist and that buying another jacket wouldn’t bring me happiness. I would just wind up with the karmic weight of another material possession and feel guilty for spending money needlessly.

 

Even knowing all of this, I didn’t like what happened as a result of ceasing my search. Without something to fixate on, I was left with the emptiness I had so desperately been grasping to fill.

 

A day later, I am back to feeling an aching emptiness in my heart, the loss of my beloved soul mate wolf dog still so close to surface that tears well in my eyes at the slightest thought of those amber gold eyes and the memory of his head snuggled into my lap, paws wrapped securely around my legs.

 

I have fixated plenty on all of the choices I could have made differently that might have kept him in my life. What if I had taken him to the vet the moment I noticed something was wrong? What if I had taken him to a different vet for a second opinion when I first sensed that the vet we had taken him to might not have a firm grasp on medical practice? What ifs and questions take me round and round in infinite circles. When I finally stop fixating, I don’t feel any better. He is still gone, and the darkness is ever present.

 

I’m not a super fan of the void, I have to say, and I have no idea how to fill it. I have friends that appear to live a life full of gratitude and joy. When I ask them how they did it, they tell me, I just decided to be happy.

 

Huh, I think to my self. Maybe I am too just jaded for this to work, figuratively scratching my head.

 

I know that my own suffering is quite minimal when compared with all the levels of suffering in the world, but I feel it acutely nonetheless. A meditation teacher once told my class, suffering is suffering. I think he was onto something.

 

I move through phases where I work hard to lift my spirits and practice my it’s good enough intention, and then something beyond my control will happen that throws my system so far out of whack I lose my tenuous hold.

 

This past weekend, I attended the second of a series of all weekend trainings for learning to teach Anusara yoga. I was relatively relaxed as I walked to the tram on my way home when I received a text from my husband.

 

I had sent him a message asking how he was doing.

 

Hanging in there. E just told me that our rugs and the trunks are gone from the loft area of the house.

 

I texted an expletive in response and then followed with, Those are all of my original childhood photos. They are irreplaceable.

 

I really don’t understand why someone would take photo albums…it doesn’t add up…they are so heavy and worthless…to whoever took them. Any yes, priceless to us.

 

I stepped onto the tram in a trance and stared through the window into the reflection of receding light.

 

I have experienced theft several times in the past few years, and each time it is like a punch in the gut. I feel the wind knocked out of me, disbelief that someone could violate sacred space and take things so precious to me—my grandmother’s jewelry, family photos.

 

I sat on the tram until it stopped, walked down the steps and through the darkness toward the next tram stop. Halfway through the second portion of the trip, the tram came to a halt. Everything was still for a long time before I realized we had sat through several light changes and still had not moved forward. I stood up and leaned into the windows on the right side of the car, straining to try to see what was going on outside. Blue and red lights shifted back and forth in blur. An accident. I guess it can always be worse.

 

We finally started moving and crawled between parked police cars and toward home.

 

Standing in the kitchen later that evening, a glass of whisky in my hand, I tried to make sense of what had happened.

 

It’s like the universe is slowly taking away everything that is important to me, I said to my husband. First Okami. Then, my grandmother’s ring. Now, my photos. My meditation teacher says there is a Buddhist who believes that everything bad that happens to us happens because of a seed we planted long ago. What kind of heinous act could I have done in this life to be experiencing such horrible karma?

 

Well, when you start going into this kind of stuff, you may be looking at regressive lives. It could have been from many lives ago, and you chose this life to process it all.

 

But I don’t want to process it in this life, I protested. I want it to stop. I want my photos and my Okami back!

 

I know, love.

 

As we sat down to sit before bed, I watched one of my cats saunter over to the scratching pad we had gotten for them. He lay down on the pad and started to dig into it with both feet. It looked pretty good to me.

 

Maybe, I don’t need meditation, I just need my own scratching post, I suggested to my husband.

 

Maybe.

 

I picked up my phone, opened the meditation app, and turned off the light.

 

Ready. Set. Zen.