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Susan Chernak McElroy

The Edges of Things: Animals as Teachers and Healers
by Susan Chernak McElroy

When I was eight years’ old, my pet rat Hermine had seven fat babies. The rats were my very first animal companions and to my child’s eyes, the bald, pink, maggot-like wonders were absolutely perfect and absolutely beautiful. They grew so quickly, that they changed appearance dramatically from my first look at them each morning, until my final goodnight to the brood at bedtime. In a matter of days, they had transformed from worm-like blobs into tiny hair balls no bigger than a sewing thimble.

Animals as Teachers and Healers by Susan Chernak McElroy

When they were two weeks old with star-like eyes and fur as soft as pussy willows, I put them into a fold in my sweatshirt and carried them to the dining room for their first taste of life beyond the rat cage. Gently, I deposited them onto the dark cherry wood of our formal dining room table. Seven small black bodies flattened against the dark wood. Seven pink noses tested the air. Fourteen sparkling eyes mirrored in the gleaming veneer that was my Mother’s pride and joy. There was a slight pause, a collective rat breath.

Suddenly—alarmingly—they dashed off in seven different directions, careening across the surface of the table like spastic windup toys. They reached the four edges of the table with lightening speed. But edges meant nothing to infant rats with just fourteen days of living under their bellies. Without pause, each tiny rat launched itself off the table and catapulted like a pebble to the rug below. Horror stricken, I crawled as fast as I could on hands and knees, gathering them up with my shaking fingers. Some were a bit dazed. Others never missed a beat and were charging off in whatever direction they had been headed before they became airborne. Still others curled in a ball beside a chair leg and refused to move.

Shamefaced and breathless, I quickly returned the babies to Hermine. I never told anyone about the rat debacle, keeping the hot guilt of it all to myself. I tried to put the memory of those airborne babies out of my mind as fast as I could, but in the days that followed, I could not stop myself from reliving the incident over and over in my mind. Something about the vision of those seven bodies leaping mindlessly and spread-legged into nothingness kept prodding at my brain. Like a taunting riddle, the discomfort of the memory would not release me. It seemed incomplete to me somehow, the story still unfinished.

My shame was great, but not as great as my curious, knawing need, and so one morning about two weeks later when no one was in the house, I silently, secretly, gathered up the seven rat babies and carried them furtively to the dining room.

Now a month old, the youngsters filled my hands to overflowing. Their sleek bodies were strong and wiggly, and I knew the face and the feel of each cherished one of them. They were my dear, dear friends, and I was about to subject them—again—to possible harm. This time, I could not pretend I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew it, I was red-faced with guilt about it, and I could not stop myself. In my shabby defense, all I can tell you is that the emotions that drove me seemed akin to a religious calling.

Time took on a trance-like, eerie quality when I opened my hands and watched seven young rats explode with curious delight onto the wide and gleaming expanse of cherry wood. Once again, seven pink noses tested the air. Seven smooth bodies pressed against the table’s cool surface. Again, twenty-eight fast legs propelled the rats in seven different directions toward the edges of the table. I sucked in my breath and felt the hair on my arms raise in anticipatory alarm. Fast, fast they ran, noses twitching in rat ecstasy, tails held straight out behind them like ships’ rudders. All together they reached the horizon of the table where the wood kisses the air. And all together they stopped.

North, south, east, and west, each rat paused as though rooted at the table’s edge. Not one so much as extended a single rat toe over the abyss. I could feel their hesitation in my own body. I knew that they knew. Somehow, they had learned to recognize where the table stopped and the free fall began. My breath released in a gasp, and I could not see anything in the room but those rats on that table, nosing the air at the edge of their world, looking...looking. As though choreographed, they turned away from the edge and hurried to the center of the table, where they met each other in a glorious burst of play. I gathered them back into my hands gently, humbly. The story was as complete as I needed it then. Seven precious rats had taught me my first lesson about edges, about boundaries.

Animals as Guides for the Soul by Susan Chernak McElroy

I spent much of my eighth summer in a tree. Our local park was home to an old pine that shaded a small play-ground. Although I grew quickly bored with the jungle gym and the swing set, that tree was something else entirely. I learned to climb high, high up into the old pine's very throat and to sit quietly on a particularly thick branch. Some days, I would bring along a bologna sandwich in a crumpled bag. Occasionally, I would bring a book, but not often because books took my attention away from the tree itself. I listened to the sounds of the tree, all rustle and creak, bird-chirp and groan, but I came to know the tree by its edges. I knew the secret creases in the bark where my fingers needed to grip so that I could pull myself up to a firm foot-hold. I knew the exact line of hard soil where the tree trunk began and the upswell of roots ended. I knew the precise thickness of each of the pine arms: which were strong enough to hold me, and which would drop me to the ground. And I knew also, and with great clarity, the differentiating line between the rough, scabby bark and the smoothness of my well-worn jeans pressed up against it as I sat, still, for hours.

The rats grew up and grew old, and as the years passed, I became too cool to sit in trees. Somewhere along the way, I forgot those first, clean lessons about edges and boundaries. Instead of seeing with rat’s eyes, I began prizing that endless expanse of veneer, the shimmering reflection of myself in the deep polish, and the rush of that seductive plunge into thin air.

My mother was never able to teach me about the value of healthy boundaries, or about edges that defined clearly and gently the shape of things. She and her twin brother had been raised by her grandparents in Germany. Her own parents—Oma and Opa to us—left my mom and her infant brother to seek a better life in America. Evidently, the life they found was so enjoyable, they simply "forgot" to send for the children. Oma loved to dance, and there was plenty of dancing to be done in New York City for a two-income couple with no children.

Only the threat of war in Europe fourteen years later would close the physical distance between my mother and her parents. Reluctantly, Oma and Opa at last sent for the twins, afraid that if they didn’t act then, something terrible might happen to their now-teenage children an ocean away. Mom tells me that the morning before they boarded the boat for America, she and her brother crept silently away before dawn to climb a lookout tower above their cobble-stoned village and watch the sun rise up pink and sweet over the streets of Bayreuth. In that town, at the Wagner Opera House, they had listened together to the impassioned speeches of Adolf Hitler and worn proudly, innocently, the swastika armbands of the Hitler Youth.

Soon after they reached America, the war began. Before it was all over, my mother’s beloved grandparents in Bayreuth were dead. Her brother, lying about his age, joined the Air Force to escape the terrible fighting at home that comes when parents try and assert themselves over foreign, unknown teenage children. Mom was left alone then to try and solve the riddle of why some parents leave their children in another land, and go dancing instead.

Opa died much too young of a heart attack that took him in his sleep. For all the years until her death at ninety-three, Oma never succeeded—and ever tried—to mend the tear between she and my mother. The betrayal hung between them for icy decades like mustard gas. To this day, my mother wants no part of separateness. In her world, edges and boundaries mark the bleak and sad borders between love and abandonment.

Heart in the Wild by Susan Chernak McElroy

One winter evening, on the near side of my thirties, I sat with a lover in the nervous silence of a psychologist's office. The counselor, a gorgeous wild-haired woman, gave us two pieces of chalk and told us to sit on the floor and draw circles around ourselves. These circles were to symbolically represent us. I took up the shard of chalk and drew a bold mark on the blue carpet. My circle extended about a foot out from my body and I sat loose and comfortable in its center.

Then Mike took the chalk, scooted across the carpet toward me, and—how else can I say this? —launched himself like a tiny rat off the dining-room table. His circle extended out in a wide arc that overlapped the edges of mine. As the white chalk line moved across the private frontier of my circle, my shoulders sucked up to the bottoms of my ears. My knees sank into my chest, and my neck into my spine. Inches vanished from my height. I recoiled away from the invading chalk as if it were a pile of steaming cat manure.

"This is the part of me that is closest to Susan," Mike said as he pointed lovingly to the four inches of leaf-like wedge that joined us together. The counselor turned to me. "What does this mean to you, Susan?" My answer came roaring out, my voice too loud, too furious. I aimed an accusing finger at the spot. "That's the war zone. It's every fight..." I hunted quickly for the right words: "It's our sickest part." I thrust my arm forward and as fast as my hand could rub, I wiped Mike out from my circle. Grabbing for the stump of chalk, I drew the edges of our circles to press together tentatively, like two thin lips. My sphincter ceased its death grip. "This feels better to me."

Smothered by a family dynamic that mistook absorption for love, I had somehow retained enough of myself to be repelled by invasion. That night, the counselor confirmed for both of us that the rings gently touching along their edges were the healthier picture of intimacy, of boundaries defended and respected. I learned, again, that edges are valuable, defensible. That is, I learned once again what I'd been shown at eight by a cluster of innocent rodents.

Fourteen years ago, I found a large sore underneath my tongue. A pathology report called it, rather poetically I thought, "sheets and nests" of cancer. Battling it led me to a new edge I had never explored. At thirty-seven, I plunged off the edge of my own table, thudded against death, and landed dazed in a heap after the free-fall. In no uncertain silhouette, illness framed the edges of my life. Cancer was the exact separating ground between root and trunk. It was the rim of another circle, pressed like thin lips against the rim of mine. Marked by such clear and fragile boundaries, my life became starkly visible and achingly precious.

To feel the edges between life and death, I needed only to touch the raw threads of a hundred stitches etched like train tracks from my left ear to my collarbone. During that sacred and terrifying time, other edges butted up against me. They were not tabletops nor trees nor chalk marks on the floor. They were lab charts and hospital beds. They were sales packets cruelly sent to me, unsolicited, by local cemeteries and funeral parlors.

Surgeries and fear sharpened my edges even further. Slowly, I came to know where my own fear ended, and the fear of those who loved me began. I learned to balance clumsily along the harrowing edge between wanting to live forever, and being willing to let everything and everyone go completely. I promised myself that my family, my friends, my-medical team wouldn't get past me at the edge of my life without at least pressing their circle up against mine. And most of them didn't.

I don't know if that sweet old tree still stands in the park where I used to visit. I know that the rats, babies and all, are long gone to whatever heaven welcomes animal saints. The cancer is fourteen years gone. Gone for good. I believe. And I am still here, finally owning what I'd learned from a passel of tender rats: It is important to honor the edges of things.

© Copyright 2003 Susan Chernak McElroy.  All Rights Reserved. 

Susan Chernak McElroy
Susan Chernak McElroy is a teacher and storyteller, and the author of several books including the New York Times bestseller, "Animals as Teachers and Healers: True Stories and Reflections. Her writings are currently published in more than 20 countries worldwide. Susan's books, lectures, audiotapes, and workshops explore the emotional, physical, and spiritual healing potential inherent in our relationships with animals and wild nature.

A long-term survivor of advanced cancer, Susan reminds us that our evolutionary journey has been alongside animals and the living earth since time began. Throughout human history, we have been cradled, nurtured, and informed by nonverbal, living, sensory-based nature systems. In times of hardship and challenge, humankind intuitively sought physical and spiritual contact with animals and nature as a source of wisdom, healing, and harmony. Biologically, we are still today what we have always been---beings who are at our core connected to the earth and to all life on earth.

So that we may continue to grow and evolve personally and globally through the current challenges in our lives and cultures—that is, to expand our "medicine bag" beyond the limitations of human knowledge—Susan beckons us to rekindle our relationship with civilization's forgotten "Others."

Drawing upon indigenous wisdom, personal story, myth, and current science on heart disease and loneliness, Susan weaves the profound connection between the quality of our other-than-human relationships, and the quality of our lives and health. A former humane educator, zoo keeper, wildlife rehabilitator, dog trainer, and veterinary assistant, Susan has been a voice for animals and wild places all of her life.


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