Chihuahuas and Wolves

(A Belabored Metaphor)

Fear of the unknown nipped at my heels until the instant I heard the wild, joyful howl of the new. Then it slunk away to the shadows.

I looked back in amazement. I’d been afraid of that? That pestering bundle of noise and fury was just a pack of poorly trained, tempest-in-a-teacup chihuahuas. And all along, all around me the whole living clan of wolfkind had been singing to the moon, calling me to join them.

My first venture into truly new territory: White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Image shows dunes of snow-white sand in the foreground giving way to hazy blue mountains in the center. In the background is a gargantuan sky of pure, deep, glowing cobalt blue.

I had mistaken chihuahuas for wolves. Chihuahuas. For wolves.

In October I spent a couple of weeks back in Albuquerque at my old house. Summoning up the courage to start off again was surprisingly hard. The familiar was just so… familiar, and driving off into the unknown for a second time… It wasn’t that I wanted to stay put; I just didn’t want to have to be brave.

Now that I have the leisure, though, it’s time to take a long, hard look at those chihuahuas, to see what made them so scary. (Note: I have known some charming chihuahuas. These weren’t them.)

Here is what daunted me:

  • Where to get water
  • Where to do laundry
  • Where to dump gray water
  • Where to dump trash
  • Where to refill propane

(I have apps that pinpoint all these services, but still. Knowing others have accessed them doesn’t mean I’ll be able to. Does it?) (But back to our chihuahuas.)

  • Refilling prescriptions
  • Getting stuck on back roads
  • Mechanical breakdowns
  • Awkward social encounters
  • Unpleasant social encounters
  • Social encounters
  • Having no social encounters
  • Parking a large vehicle
  • Managing energy-limiting chronic illnesses
  • Being too cold
  • Being too hot
  • Having my solar-powered battery system break down
  • Running out of propane before I’ve had my morning tea

Well. You’re getting tired of chihuahuas, and they’re not even yours. But trust me, there are more.

Oddly, I had not been daunted by:

  • Mountain lions
  • Bears
  • Serial killers

I just couldn’t see how dauntedness would help.

In six months, though, the biggest problems I’ve actually encountered are:

  • Pack rats
  • House flies
  • A leaky window
  • Refilling prescriptions

Just one little chihuahua made it from the yappy list to the biting one, and it didn’t really draw blood. Unexpected chihuahuas appeared—as they do—but I lived to tell the tale—as one does, with chihuahuas.

I’m not sure why, from the safety of my house, they looked like wolves. Maybe I was seeing their shadow cast into the future. When evening draws in, shadows look huge. Focusing on shadows, I feared for my future self.

But when the future becomes now, under bright midday sun, shadows shrink. You look down—way down—to your ankles to see fuzzy Napoleon complexes in collars jingling with rabies tags.

Meanwhile, all around you, another song sounds—eerie, hair-raising, terrifying at times. Your heart leaps at the gobsmacking, glorious, wild, spine-tingling, yowling surprise of the New.

Image shows a single dune, as tall as a wall. It is striped by dozens of vertical rivulets of sand. At the very top of the photo is a horizontal strip of that ultra-vibrant blue sky.

Some of you may have realized earlier in life that one cannot encounter the new without also encountering the unknown. My brain understood that, but the reality didn’t sink into my bones until I disinterred them from familiar ground.

In this image the sky glories over softly rounded dunes and their equally soft shadows. The blue and white are so intense you almost feel like you’re looking at pure light.

The tame and the wild, the unknown and the new, the future and the now. What-ifs vs. lived experience. I’ll probably come back to these ideas in future posts—in fact, I know I will. Stories tend to replay in our lives. Their themes come around again and again, like ever-larger tree rings wrapping around our heartwood. When I penned this a month ago, I had just cast anchor again and was riding an exhilarating wave of discovery. Since then, I’ve encountered more anxiety and some genuine fear.

Just because you’ve heard the wolves, that doesn’t mean chihuahuas no longer exist. Surprise can hush them for a time.

But only for a time.

Meeting

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The light on a Sunday morning is always cool and soft. Indirect, from the north and west windows of the Meetinghouse.

It bathed the circle of chairs: Howard, his walker planted squarely in front of him. Gina, chic and trim and tan. Rose, her thin cardigan showing vertebrae beneath her shoulder blade, the S of scoliosis stamped on her spine. Rick, jiggling one leg—a runner’s body protesting inaction. Dozens of Friends more.

This meeting was a quiet one. No ministry was offered. Just chairs creaking, a sigh, a few snores, a phone hastily shushed. And then, after most of the hour had passed, the hush of real stillness: a “gathered” meeting resting in communion. A few minutes later, hands were held, greetings given. Eyes shone with soft light before the circle broke. I left before pot luck in a bubble of peace and love.

Outdoors: the glare of noon on concrete, asphalt, stucco. Broken glass in the alley behind the diner. Drifts of dirt and October leaves in the gutters, a Budweiser bottle, some dingy rags. This isn’t exactly a skanky part of town, but that’s the faintest praise I can damn it with. In Chicago the scene might have passed for noir. Under bright desert sun it was just faded—a B-movie western. Sunglasses on, window open, I eased around potholes in the alley to the street.

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Across the way an SUV with Kansas plates was parked with its side and rear doors open. Two men sat inside. A third was outside rummaging through suitcases and coolers in the back, while a fourth looked on from the shadows. A gallon jug, a backpack or two, and a gas can sat on the sidewalk.

A gas can. To be out of gas and stranded on a Sunday, even in the era of cell phones—that’s no fun. I spared a sympathetic thought as I prepared to drive past. Then I heard the voice in my head:

“So, kid, what do you think all that peace and love are for?”

To be honest, I don’t normally think they’re for helping four strange men when I’m on my own. But the nudge was there. It poked me in my complacency, hard. What are all that peace and love for? I took a deep breath, stopped, and got out of the car.

“Can I help you with anything? I hate being stranded.”

After a surprised minute, one of the passengers said, “Hey, thanks, but we’re OK. This guy could use a ride, though.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Ride? We’d gone from a wink to a wedding in 5 seconds flat. I hadn’t planned on giving anyone a ride. I’m not sure what I had planned on. Filling the gas can, maybe, or picking up sandwiches and sodas while they waited for Triple A. Disembodied, feel-good help. Not help in close proximity to an actual stranger in my actual car.

“We’re getting out our extra water and some clothes for him, and we’ve given him some cash.”

The man in the shadows stepped into the light. I don’t remember details of his appearance—not the color of his clothes or his hair; his age. Just the dingy gray aura of the streets, as if dust and rags had come to life. He was smaller than me, bent, trembling. He looked at me with pale eyes that faced different directions.

“He needs to go to Fourth and Menaul. We’d give him a ride, but we’re headed the other way.”

This wasn’t what I’d bargained for. But the man didn’t seem drunk or drugged, just weak and shaky, perhaps ill. If he did threaten me, I could mosey away to safety.

“Would you mind putting out your cigarette?” I asked. It was a test question: was he aggressive? willing to accommodate?

“No problem,” he said. I offered him a ride.

The men in the SUV stowed their gear, shut their doors, and took off. “Have a blessed day,” they called, waving, as they turned up Fourth Street—toward Menaul.

I turned extra-polite, distant, in the ridiculous way of “good girls” who trust their manners to protect them. I opened the passenger door and rolled down the manual window while the man stubbed out his cigarette. He eased slowly (painfully?) into the seat.

As I opened my own door a cop car pulled up. Another uncertainty. Would this be a cop who thinks anyone not sitting with both hands flat on a table is committing a crime? Or a cop who wants to ensure everyone is safe and well? He got out of his car: a Safe and Well cop, the cavalry. Officer Friendly, with an easy bearing, easy voice, easy smile.

“Hey, Ben, how’s it going?”

(Ben. I hadn’t asked his name. I hadn’t offered him mine.)

“Are you headed home from work? Can I give you a ride? We could let this lady go about her day.”

After a minute Ben sighed and struggled out of my car again, with the deep patience of someone used to being other people’s parcel. I knew then that I had not done this well.

“How was work this morning?”

“Waste of time,” said Ben.

The cop laughed as they drove off, and I, the would-be rescuer, had been rescued.

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Five minutes of my life—not much time, but they coughed up a heap of perplexity. I drove home unsettled, wondering, analyzing, exploring. What risk had I just taken? What risk had I not?

Nothing had actually pushed my fear buttons. I had assessed the situation as well as I could and had not sensed a particular danger—just the general, potential danger of the unknown. Surprise had led me to treat Ben in a way I wish I hadn’t—as an object of mixed fear and charity. When surprise ebbed I would no doubt have seen his humanity and been human to him in return. My history tells me that, so while I regret my slowness I don’t castigate myself for it. I can even tell myself that the cop was better able to see to Ben’s needs.

What unsettled me was the nature of the surprise: the visceral realization that peace and love are not feelings. They are actions that bring risks and have consequences. They may germinate in soft, indirect light, but they do not grow up to matter in niceness. They mature in noonday glare, on concrete and pavement, where the rubber meets the road. They exist physically, body to body, face to face, between people with curved spines and runners’ calves and chronic illnesses and misaligned eyes. They are enacted amid uncertainty, confusion, and mess. And I’ve never been good at those.

I wish I had taken the risk well: that I had counted the cost before offering help and then offered it with a whole heart.

“So, kid, what do you think all that peace and love are for?”

What good is it, to run a risk halfway? Is safety always the most important thing?

What risks am I willing to run for kindness?

_____________________

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

Out of Reach

Album Leaf No. 1

IMG_0881.2aEvening on the patio.  The garden walls and house walls stretch up to a troubled sky.  “Rain,” whispers the wind.  But heat says, “Not here.  Not yet.”  In the desert that means, “Maybe not at all.”  The scent of moisture in the air is tantalizing.

From across the wall I can hear traditional New Mexican music — a tease of high trumpet, just on the edge of earshot.  A live band, maybe in Old Town Plaza or at the museum.  I used to keep track of the concerts, even knowing I couldn’t attend, but I haven’t lately.  Still, it’s lovely to picture the crowds wandering around the plaza with their ice cream cones, enjoying the music in Friday night ease.

The dog behind the walls next door has a new squeaky toy and is working hard to find the squeak.  Luther was the same with his toys — intense, puzzled.  Excited over the Great Mystery of Squeakiness.  Let down once it was solved.

The breeze carries the trumpet to me again.  It’s been joined by a couple of tenors, a little bit of cowbell.

Cowbell.  I snort into my iced tea.  Because what we really need is a little more cowbell:

https://vimeo.com/121869713

Is the schtick all that funny any more?  I can’t tell.  But with that brief moment’s laughter I’m engulfed in a paradox:  that you can both be walled off alone from the world and joined to it by the things you share.  The cultural references, the memories.  Small things:  “I, too, had a dog who loved squeaky toys.” By the empathy of Friday night enjoyment, the communion of fellow-feeling, even if you’re not present with the others feeling it.  Maybe even if you’re the only one feeling it.

Metaphysics.  It’s fine in its way, but is it enough to overcome the physical barriers of walls and illness?  (Walls and illness: forever linked in my mind.)  I don’t know.  Tonight it is.  Maybe that’s all we need to ask.

IMG_0879.3aAs dusk gathers, the tip of one cloud catches fire in the last light, just out of reach of darkness.  The dog has conquered the squeak in its toy and is pawing at the door to go inside; the Great Mystery of Peace and Quiet isn’t really its thing.  I settle into the cushions on the Adirondack chair, listening hard past the crickets, hoping to hear just a little more cowbell.