“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, April 13, 2012

Part II, Day 12: Our Descendants

My sister and I used to joke that we were raised by wolves.  I guess that made us wolf pups, and gives us license now to masticate our food for our own young, and to howl a lot, as we do, in our own ways.

from a blog on endangered Oregon wolves, http://howlingforjustice.wordpress.com/tag/endangered-species-act/
Last week in Boston, when we attended Cheryl Strayed's reading from her new memoir, Wild, I was touched by something she said in the Q and A about parenting.

She had just done a reading in Seattle, and a young man in the first row, who was only 22, the same age she was when she lost her mother, asked her for some advice on how to live now that his mother was gone.  He was going down a bad path, he confessed.  His grief was making him self-destructive.  She was walking a dangerous path herself at his age until she took a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest trail, a journey that broke her down and built her up again.  But when you read her memoir you understand that the hike was influential, but in the long haul her apprenticeship to art, and to love, and eventually, to family life were what saved her.  These experiences didn't change her so much as reacquaint her with her best self, the self she'd been as a child that had been there all along and had never really deserted her: that bright and loving person her mother had nurtured and believed in.

"I told him something my mother always said," she told the audience.  (This is not an exact quote, gentle reader.  I wasn't taking notes.)  "My mother always said the best thing she made in her life was her children.  She gave up a lot to be a good mother to us.  And I felt that I owed it to her memory to become the person she thought I could be.  I would be letting her down, letting down all she lived for, if I didn't take a good path."

I'm sure I'm not the only one in that audience who was on the verge of tears when she said this.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought about her own mother too.

It was a miracle that I was able to reconcile with my mother before she died.  I owe this incredible gift to my sister, who never completely broke the ties between them.  The day before our mother died, my mother told me that my sister and I were her most beautiful creations, and giving birth to us was the best thing she ever did.

Even when we ran from her in terror, she hung onto this vision of us as beautiful, talented, and good.

I think again about the quote I discussed yesterday, on inheritance, from Thich Nhat Hanh:
We contain all the beautiful qualities and actions of our ancestors, and also the painful qualities.  Knowing this, we can try our best to continue what is good and beautiful in our ancestors, and we will practice to transform the violence and pain passed down to us from so many generations.  We know that we practice peace not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of all our descendants.
If I'm lucky, and I've inherited the longevity genes from some of my ancestors, I'm in the autumn of my life.  It's not December yet, and bright leaves are still on the trees.  But still, that's not a lot of time to practice peace, and to continue cultivating all that is good and beautiful that I culled from my ancestors.  I've been trying lately to catch up.

My family tree ends with my sister and me, at least when it comes to our genetic makeup.  My sister has helped raise her husband's two talented, lovely, loving girls, and I helped raise my husband's two talented, lovely, charismatic and fascinating boys.  But we won't be birthin' no babies.

I can brag about my step-descendants here because they didn't inherit their talents and intelligence from me.

Science Boy just won a prestigious grant that nearly a hundred people around the world applied for.  I wish I could explain what he's cooking up in the lab in Cambridge, England on his post-doc, but I didn't get past Bio for Poets, which I took pass/fail.

Art Boy has a solo show, his first, in the Midwest next week.  His paintings are too gorgeous for me to find words for-- the way he uses color, the way his canvases contain optical illusions and expand and contract depending on where you stand--so I'll have to cobble together something for you from the program and his craft talk after I head to the show.

I don't know what aspects of me they will remember, what they will wish to keep alive in their own stories and habits.  I've never really thought about this until I started writing this post.

Just as I don't know what my students will remember from our classes together: I hope there will be something useful in the mix about literature, and not just odd aspects of my personality, like how I tend to accidentally steal people's pens, and how I never wear a watch to class, and how I like to drink a scary health drink (Kombucha, usually) while I teach and that I usually learn names quickly, but there's always one person who gets called by his or her friend's name, and vice versa, and the two of them, like my sister and me when we were with our aging grandmother, have to learn to answer to both names.

(A memory is intruding here, not letting me stay too solemn for too long.  I'm thinking of my high school physics class with Carl Locke.  I don't remember what we did on the bunsen burners, but I remember when he said, "Don't touch those rubbers!  You don't know where they've been!"  He was speaking about rain shoes, not contraception, but that line lived on in our teen parlance for years.  It was up there as the thing to say that was applicable to almost any situation, along with what our art teacher said about the color magenta, "Some people like it, some people think it's kind of wild!")

Which brings me back to the subject of wolves and wolf pups.

My dog, Zoe should be in her autumn too, but now, I suppose, it's her winter, and hence the name, "Winter with Zoe."

Her mother was an Australian shepherd mix, her father a golden retriever mix, but the guy who was working at the pound that day said, "She's also part wolf."

How I wish Zoe could have had the chance to breed.  I understand why the humane society sterilizes its dogs, but I dream sometimes at night that I'm surrounded by a pack of mini-Zoes.

I wish I could have met her mother.  The story I heard from the volunteers at the humane society was that the bitch's people refused to get her fixed.  That they let her have litter after litter, then dropped her latest descendants at the pound.
photo by Lettie Stratton; I love the wolfy look Lettie captured here

Since I can't locate the dogs that share Zoe's DNA, I just take a lot of pictures and write these posts, hoping to get the most out of every day we have together.

Maybe the stories we tell about our lives and each other and our ancestors are our true descendants.

When I think of life and time that way, I hope every day I can find the right words to make a certain little wolf pup live on.

Not everyone likes to write.  Some people like it, and some people think it's kind of wild.

My wish for all of you, gentle readers, is that the stories you choose to tell will be among your finest descendants, and that sharing them will give you and the ones who will come after you peace.


  1. Wow, did you digress/where did that come from?; but to a memory I half share. I'd attribute the rubbers line to Mr Branch at Baker. We will need a ruling from Sandy, Lynda, Pam or Steph. Isn't it awesome to have so many sources?
    I love your stories-as-descendants idea and your wish.
    Also, from one who knows, being raised by wolfs is not always paradise.

  2. Mr. Branch--What as his first name? Must dig deep into memories! Thank you for this, my friend. xx