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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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