It was early October last year in Montana and already there was a bite in the air even inside of our heated rental cabin. We busily gathered snacks and extra layers, getting ready to spend the day hiking in the old forests of Yellowstone with our son as a guide. Lewis had it in mind to find a petrified tree that he’d heard about, a cool adventure to share with his parents. But as he methodically packed up his gear, it was me who grew petrified when I saw him casually clip the aerosol can of bear spray onto his belt. BEAR spray – seriously?
He explained that is was merely a safety requirement in the park, the idea being that if a grizzly approached you would spray directly into the pupil of its eye. Thing is, you have to wait until the bear is close enough to hit the eyeball dead-on, so you really only get one shot. Spray too soon and you won’t get another chance but wait too long and – well you get the idea.
So I spent the better part of the hike staying right on Lewis’s flank because I sure as hell wanted protection against that grizzly. I’d worked it out that if the spray malfunctioned or if something went awry the bear would be busy with Lewis and not me. I know, I’m not proud of myself. All I can say is, you reach a certain age and the maternal instinct just doesn’t kick in anymore, the hormones, the whatever, it doesn’t work, I don’t know.
The hike was phenomenal though. We gaped at epic vistas of blue sky, wide open space I ‘d never experienced. We marveled at the scrapbook of the earth’s topographic timeline. We felt the sulfurous steam coming off of the hot springs and even witnessed a grizzly bear tearing into an elk carcass (from a safe distance). The mountains were truly breathtaking.
But what I really wanted was to spot a grey wolf. In the cabin I’d found a book about the extraordinary wildlife in Yellowstone and I’d read about the magnificent canine predators, how they had been hunted and stigmatized, driven out of existence, and how the park’s ecosystem had suffered as a result. I read about their re-introduction back in the 1990s and the vivid descriptions of their mythic ways,their sophisticated pack behavior and their supreme intelligence.
They seemed to be of a higher order, moving in packs where each member had an important role and each wolf communicated clearly to keep the social ties strong.They survived the lean times with purpose and efficiency. The wolf pack seemed an ideal society that looked after its own even in a threatened environment.
That evening after supper I bundled up in front of the fire and closed my eyes and visualized them up in the mountains, set apart, majestic and enigmatic.
Later that night I had a vivid nightmare. I dreamt that I woke from bed with a desperate feeling of panic and dread, I thought that something wild had broken into the cabin and taken my husband and my son. In the dream, I ran from room to room searching frantically but the beds were empty and I was all alone.
And then I awoke for real in a sweat and felt my husband’s leg on mine, relief flooding through me.
Slipping out of bed I padded to the screen door and stepped outside onto the wet grass and looked out at the river. It was shiny with moonlight and the air was so cool, so perfect for an October night. Twenty-four years ago my son had been born, just a small chalkline on the rock but a monumental event in my lifetime. And I listened to the river rushing over the rocks and the wind stirring the brittle grasses on the banks and it filled me with such peace. How could a canyon be so desiccated and so full at the same time?
And in my imagination I could feel it waiting out there, somewhere in the darkness down at the river’s edge, silent and curious. I envisioned its thick, glossy fur and golden eyes flashing in the reflection of a truck’s headlights. I thought of its commanding stance as it claimed its spot, gracefully poised as the wind lashed the dry aspen trees. How its strong body kept silent watch, white fur ruffling magnificently in the cold air. It was entitled to this territory and it wasn’t afraid of us, not at all.
I doubt I’ll ever see one of those creatures in the wild in my lifetime but I’ve thought a lot about the wolf over the past few months and it haunts me in a way. Even though I never had a true sighting, what I carry inside feels almost as real.
Some days during my late afternoon runs, the grey wolf feels like a poem in the way that it fits inside of a space just below my breastbone. It fills a void, it makes sense, it explains some question that I don’t even have the words to ask. It’s massive form fills up the holes made raw by my own trepidation and fear. It is whole and wild and beautiful.
To live in the modern world requires us to hold so much numbing information: the unremitting news cycle with its atrocities and complex social issues. Poverty and war, the confusion about what to support, who/what to defend, how to know what is true and what is sensationalism. These things are real and yet they are not. They are the concrete and mortar of our existence, the bone meal, the scratching of chickens in the henhouse. They are real life, and yet they are not.
Since coming back from Switzerland, like everyone else I consume a daily diet of unhealthy internet meals consisting of artificial and non-nutritious material. The world’s ugly problems, our dysfunctional government, the hatred, bigotry, greed, the negative egotistical attitudes, the glut of extreme opinions and the incessant celebrity news. All of it pulls me into its vortex like any good gossip does, but it never satisfies.
The digital world can be a parched landscape of isolation and comparing. Even the words meant to inspire and provide encouragement can be cloying in the way they goad us toward a feeling of scarcity. How our lives are small, how we should strive to improve, to be better, to reject what is here and now and oh so beautiful within us.
And for the sensitive ones, the internet gnaws at our self-esteem and our creativity. So much out there seems better than our stuff, why bother adding to the noise? Our judging mind gobbles up all of our juicy artistic tidbits, leaving only shards of self-criticism. And yet we still hungrily scan the feed looking for the next image on the screen, the next website, the next thing that will fix us, inspire us and on and on.
But I believe that what we are truly searching for goes beyond our ego and intellect, our emotions and our opinions. And it’s a thing that’s difficult to access online because it is experiential and completely physical and it resides within our own fractured and imperfect and yet exquisitely perfect human bodies.
It lives in the questions of our spirit and of our soul. Why am I here and what is my purpose? What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be me? What does it mean to live here in this moment?
And there is no particular answer to these important questions or perhaps there could be, but that isn’t really the point. Because this messy ambiguity is what I call faith. It is the place where questions can just expand and they don’t really need to be resolved. They are the red wheel barrow from my poetry class that we would chew on and discuss for hours, the lines feeding us in a way other things just didn’t.
They are the inquiries inside of the spaces we feel when we breathe deeply and when we trust, when we exhale and allow ourselves room to feel. They arise when we pray and grieve and create and rage, within all of the throbbing places where we appreciate deep in our bones this amazing life we have.
So tonight I’m at home, not in some exotic locale, I’m just sitting out here on the back porch and it’s getting late. My husband is in a new job (yay!) but it involves a lot of travel during the week so I’ve fallen into the cadence of a solitary person, eating simple, lazy suppers and putting off the final climb up to bed. It’s been a good day for writing and I’m grateful for that.
And I watch as the sun dips and bleeds into a dusky purple that outlines the old southern oak trees, it’s not a wide open prairie kind of sunset, just a small display, but it’s perfect for me, a view of a tidy fenced yard for my chicken-scratch life. And before I go in, I think once more of the wild grey wolf up in the cold canyon in Wyoming, alone, or maybe he’s huddled with his pack but he’s waiting, simply waiting and watching like me, for darkness to come and for night to fall.