I was twenty eight years old when a man asked me that question on the subway. It took me a minute to realize he was looking at the cover of the book I was reading, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, which I had only just opened and started reading. I had found it at a Hudson News in Port Authority. I was tired of spending money on magazines that I would be finished with by the time I got to the end of my ride, and that often filled me with incomprehensible self-loathing. I was also hungry, unsettled, waiting for a teacher, and that book , glimmering in its unusual black and gold cover , made me ignore the yogurt covered pretzels just beneath it.
I had only read the first few lines when he called to me from the seat across the way, “Do you run with wolves?” I paused and planned to ignore, which is the default response to men acting stupid on the NYC subway. Instead, I answered with a smile on my face, “Not yet, but I will.” He looked surprised and I went back to reading. It was not exactly out of character, but it was out of time. It was the kind of thing I might have said or done when I was nineteen years old and living in Brazil. That kind of sly answer and self-confident smile belonged to the girl I had been, so fearless and connected to my own wild nature that I trusted myself completely.
At twenty eight I was living in Inwood right above the A train, my sons were four and two, I had been married for six years and I was out of touch with the girl I had been. She was not lost, so much as resting and regrouping, and in her own way trying to figure out how to grow up. Motherhood and marriage, though filled with the usual challenges, had been good to me. I knew I had been very lucky in that respect. It was not what I had witnessed growing up or ever saw around me. My grandfather, who was in town from Puerto Rico, had taken me out to lunch to ask me why I had bothered to graduate from college if all I was going to do was get married and have babies. He ended it with, “Now you will never see the elephants you so wanted to see.” I went home to my husband in a kind of weepy “what have I done” crisis. He, engulfed in his own youth and the struggles of being far from home, took the candle wax that accumulated on the plate where I burned my velita to the santos, and using the flame from the candle to make the wax malleable again, made a palm sized elephant head with big ears. He gave it to me and whispered, “Aggarate de este elefante hasta que te pueda ayudar a ver los elefantes que tu quieres ver. Yo no pienso nunca ser un obstaculo par ti.”* (translation below) That moment sets the stage for explaining the inexplicable, when people ask how I married my husband six weeks after meeting him and we are about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in May. It is not an explanation, but an indication of sometimes finding more than we know how to seek. This is our wildish nature, the one who makes choices that seem unsound, but comes from a much deeper yearning for wisdom than we know how to access.
In Inwood I had been able to connect to homegrown wildness in women with babies I met on the playground or at the cooperative play space they organized. They reminded me that motherhood was another form of warrior training. I was tracking my way back home to my instincts as a mother, and my answer to the man on the train was inspired by the very first lines I had just read on page one, “Wildlife and Wild Woman are both endangered species…It is not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild natures fades.”
The book has become a bible of sorts. It is a text I return to often ( I also teach from it in a course on fairy tales), and always when I feel stuck, lost or in trouble. It became my first direct experience of the guidance of La Que Sabe, the Wild Woman, the Feminine Divine. That was almost twenty years ago and I could write a book on how that book changed my life. Instead for now, called out to the beautiful challenge of #52essays in 2017, by the writer, Vanessa Martír, who goes by La Loba of course, I am writing a three part essay. It is all I can, for the moment, commit to in the slippery sands of writing about my life.
In 2014 I had the amazing privilege of spending a week in the presence of the writer, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in a retreat she holds in Colorado. It was a retreat built on her words as a story teller reminding us, guiding us back to our own voices, our own stories. All of this to say that the message comes again and again and as Estés writes, “We may have forgotten her names, we may not answer when she calls ours, but in our bones we know her, we yearn toward her; we know she belongs to us and we to her.” I am writing this three part essay as a way to ground and pin down the mystery I entered when I read that book, and it won’t work. I am also writing it as a way of saying thank you to a teacher, Dr.Estés, who wrote a book gathering wisdom from across the ages that helped me to shape a life I love that allows me to continue digging for and integrating my “wildish” nature in everything I do. She cannot be pinned down and neither can we. That is the song she sings over our bones as she breathes life back into us after long years away. Finally, Estés writes, “We see her where we see her, which is everywhere.” Twenty years ago I saw her at The Hudson News, last week I saw her at Target on 225th street in the Bronx. Next, I will write about how I saw her in dreams.
( pt II of 3 part essay)
* Hold onto this elephant till I can help you go see the ones you really want to see. I am not planning on ever being an obstacle for you.”