Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Wolf We Feed

It’s 70 degrees out, and I’m barefoot with my toes in the sand. All around me, people are enjoying this little taste of spring, even though it is still February. When you live in a Southern climate, the seasons like to tease this way, coming and going, blending together, giving you a nice warm week and then blasting you with ice a few days later. Still, these random warm days are impossible to resist, even when you know they can’t be trusted. I’ve learned not to put away my sweaters or put my house plants on the patio until at least April.

But this was not my best winter, and I’m more eager than normal to see the coming of Spring this year. It doesn’t carry with it the same promise as last year, but it carries promise nonetheless, because spring is all about new life, rebirth, and hope. As I sit in the sun, I think of an old Cherokee adage a friend recently shared with me:

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It consists of anger, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, bitterness, weakness and ego.

The other is Happiness. It consists of joy, love, hope, serenity, benevolence, peace, empathy, kindness, generosity, truth, humility, faith, strength, forgiveness and compassion."

The grandson thought about it for a while and then asked his grandfather, "In this battle, which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed." - Cherokee Elder

Although I spent much of my young adult life on or near North Carolina's Cherokee reservation, participating in pow wows, learning stories and traditions, I’d never heard this particular tale put forth in this particular manner. But it makes perfect sense, really. Do we really need hours of therapy, dozens of books, and thousand-dollar seminars to tell us that happiness is a choice, not an automatic condition we're gonna find ourselves in? Just like Spring in the South, life is unpredictable. We find ourselves in all kinds of situations that we never imagined…these moments are the forks in the road, the stopping point where two paths diverge. They are not always what we expected, and often, not what we wanted. But it is here that we make the choices that carry us forward.

Last summer, I killed a Copperhead snake with a small hand shovel. I didn’t want to do it. I like snakes. I think they have been unfairly villanized throughout history, and for the most part, mean us no harm. But I don’t like highly venomous snakes on the patio where my young son is playing. I remember the moment I realized what I was seeing, when the serpent's golden eyes were looking back into my own. There was no panic, no running to get someone else to handle the situation for me. There was no one else to handle the situation. Being on one’s own teaches a form of independence that can’t even be imagined by those who’ve not had to live it. I’m so out of the habit of calling on someone else to handle my emergencies, it never even occurred to me to do so. My reaction to seeing the Copperhead was instinctive and immediate, coming from that place in a mother’s soul that knows protecting her offspring must come before anything else, even the risk that she herself will be struck. But also, there is an instinct born from forced independence, from knowing there is simply no one else to handle a situation but you. The snake was coiled and poised to strike. My son was less than two feet away. If there was another choice in that moment, I could not take time to consider it.

Although I know I did the right thing, I still regret taking the life of another creature. I regret that there was no other way to handle the situation. I even regret that there was no one else to handle it for me. But to ponder regrets is to risk unhappiness, and, as the Cherokee elder states, the victor between happiness and unhappiness will always be the one we feed.

Spring is coming now, it’s obvious in the budding trees all around me. Winter wasn’t my best season, no, but the warmth of the sun on my skin reminds me that, even though there may be a few random icy blasts over the next few weeks, the cold is almost at an end. Soon it will be time to start seedlings in old egg crates. The trees are sporting small green buds that will eventually flower. Birds are busily gathering materials for their nests. Hope lies in a seed, in a waiting bloom, in a pale blue Robin’s egg.

Apologizing to Serpents

A flash of reddish brown diamonds
Amongst the clover
And my heart stops

I can smell the venom
I am death, the serpent seems to say
Perhaps not to you
But to the child behind you
Who plays
At striking distance.

I don’t make a move
Or sound
My spade is in my hand
My son is five
Curious age
And he plays
At striking distance.

Copperheads are quick
But I am faster
My spade meets flesh and bone
In an instant
Eve slays the serpent
Before there is a chance
For the world to come undone.

Later, as I cover my deed with dirt
I remember the serpent’s protest
As its life ended
And I wonder if there might have been another way
Everything desires to live
And what was its sin, really?

But in the absence of Adam
Eve must be swift.
Her shoulders sag at times
From a weight that should be shared.

Still, death does not stalk my house tonight
I sleep with my spade in my hand
And wake up
Feeling strong.

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