We live because we live: a taste of wolf-wisdom

Posted by on 07.29.08 | 11 Comments
Filed Under forgiveness, grief, look yet again, unexpected grace

…no hell below us… above us only sky…

The Painted Drum: A Novel (P.S.)
by Louise Erdrich

Read more about this book…

I’m preparing a non-linear collaborative look at what she/I might do if we really only had 37 days to live with a new-but-already-deep-in-it friend Karen Crone from my Everyday Memoir In the process, reading the beautiful passage quoted in this post provided both solace and challenge. Let us know what you think.

The July 2008 issue of the Sacred Fire Magazine reprinted a passage from The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich with permission from Harper Collins. In the SFM, the title of the passage was called ‘the wolves’. I don’t have permission to quote the passage from Harper Collins so I’m going to quote a lot and reflect a little. Italics are mine. Maybe that will keep me out of jail. If I do end up in jail, it will be a white-collar crime, so will someone fill up my iPod with some drumming music and my MP3 player with any/all/some of Louise’s many books? I also like ginger cookies (fresh, with chunks).

Selling Among Wolves

Here’s the excerpt from The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich:

There was an old man who once wanted to be with the wolves and know their thoughts. He went out into the ice and sang to them and asked them to sink their teeth into his heart. I guess the singing kept him warm enough so he lived out there for three days and nights. On the fourth day, the wolves finally came to him, or rather, he realized that all along he had been looking straight at them and only when they were ready had they let themselves be seen. I know about this man because I sat with him in the hospital just a few years ago and I talked to him while I was on night duty. I pulled a chair up next to his bed.

“Those wolves were curious,” he said, “just like anyone would be. What in the heck’s this young man I was young then sitting out here for? They came to find out if I was dangerous or crazy or good to eat. Even then I was tough and stringy, so I guess they decided ‘crazy’. They sat and watched me for several hours to see if I would do anything and after awhile they went away.”

I asked the old man if he’d learned what he needed to learn from them. If he’d found anything out at all.

“Oh sure, ” he said. “I found out they think like us. They were watching me, but I was watching them, too. I was hungrier than they were. They had just eaten. They were full. One yawned. Another started playing hockey with a piece of ice.”

I couldn’t believe that.

“It’s true,” he insisted. “They play with things. They like to play with those big black birds, those ravens. Sometimes the ravens get the wolves to hunt for them. I’ve seen it where the ravens come back and tell the wolves where there is something to kill and eat. I thought if the raven and the wolf can get along, perhaps the man and the wolf can get along, too. But I couldn’t stay out there long enough to test that out.”

“Their thoughts. Did you know their thoughts, ” I asked. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

The old man knew I was trying to pin him down and I could tell he wasn’t sure if he wanted to tell me something. He was silent, turning things over in his mind, but at last he must have decided to take a chance and tell me.

There was one wolf in particular, a gray wolf, he said, who came back several times and sat before him. Suddenly the wolf was staring at him with a human’s eyes in the face of a wolf. The old man did not know when it was he looked at the wolf and found he was staring back at it, but at some point he was aware that he and this particular wolf were holding each other’s gazes and had been doing so for some time. The wolf was asking him a question, he realized, and he knew after some more staring what the question was. The old man stopped.

“Well, what was it?” I was impatient to know.

“Oh.” His thoughts came back to me. ” A standard question. He was asking me, ‘Do you want to die?’* But that is just wolf practice, asking that. I wanted to get past that and into something else. So I formed a question of my own in my mind and without ceasing my direct stare I spoke to the wolf asking him my own question. ‘Wolf,’ I said, ‘your people are hunted from the air and poisoned from the earth and killed on sight and you are outbred and stuffed in cages and almost wiped out. How is it that you go on living with such sorrow? How do you go on without turning around and destroying yourselves, as so many of us Anishinaabeg have done under similar circumstances?’

“And the wolf answered, not in words, but with a continuation of that stare. ‘We live because we live.’ He did not ask questions. He did not give reasons. And I understood him then. The wolves accept the life they are given. They do not look around them and wish for a different life or shorten their lives resenting the humans, or even fear them more than is appropriate. They are efficient. They deal with what they encounter and then go on. Minute by minute. One day to the next. And so, my friend, I did learn what I had come there to find out.

“I’ll tell you now I wanted to know how not to kill myself. For that very thing was my intention and had been so for weeks. I could see no way around it. I knew what chaos and everlasting questions such a death brings down upon the living. But I was past caring about that. Since I was resigned to killing myself, you could say my life was nothing, my life was cheap. So before I went through with it, I decided I would sit with the wolves.”

“You never killed yourself, obviously,” I said, “but did you perhaps try?”

The old man didn’t answer directly. He sat up. “Open the tie on this bare-ass dress,” he said, “and look.”

When I opened the shirt I saw across his back and shoulders the regular, deep, violet-brown scars of a sundancer who pulled buffalo skulls.

“That’s what I did instead.”

*The apparent pact between the hunter and the hunted is photo-documented.

I want to comment, but I find no words to do so. ‘We live because we live.’ What might our lives look like if that is why we lived if our purpose was only, only, only to show up and be alive?

“Imagine there’s no heaven…it’s easy if you try… no hell below us… above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today…” John Lennon

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