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March 11, 2013 / glencoyote

Can anything you write after a shot and a beer be true?

Watched the film, The Grey. Didn’t see it in the theaters because of the criticism it received for its demonizing of wolves. A small silver lining of your wolf-loving wife travelling is a few more degrees of movie freedom. It is a terrific movie. Yes, it demonizes wolves, but only so they may serve as a metaphor for fear, the male fear that despite all bluster and the cultivation of toughness, that life will leave you in the end beaten and alone, knowing that not only did you fail to become fearless, but that your response to fear stripped you finally of the human relationships that might have made you whole.

When Liam Neeson’s character looks through the wallets of the dead he pauses over the photos that connect the men to loved ones. The men in the plane crash were on their way to do the kind of hard work that only people with little or no reason or ability to stay connected to society undertake. Some were angry, others merely lost. In the eyes of the wolves they saw themselves reduced to prey, as meat, and they could feel the truth of it.

My wife is traveling – took her to the airport this morning – already the irrational fear is upon me. That I will never see her again; that the illness she is fighting is going to take her from me. My life has not been lost to fear, I am not unusually aware of the wolf at my door, but experience has shown me that the struggle to overcome fear is real and hard – and that it helps to have a good woman at your side.

I met Valerie in August of 1976. She was standing in the kitchen of an apartment that she was still sharing with an ex-boyfriend when I and the ex entered to discuss the apartment we were going to rent – the one he was moving into post breakup, the one I was moving into post college graduation, pre adult life. I saw her first from the side. As she turned her head to acknowledge me, her hair covered the right third of her face and in that first glance she looked mysterious, both bold and shy.

Many years later I understood that I must have had a similar look (including the shoulder length hair), a survivor of trauma, and that for the two of us, love at first sight meant, in part, the recognition of the possibility of safety and understanding.

It only took three months from that first encounter to when I left her ex boyfriend behind and we moved in together. She bowled, she played soccer, read Marx, sought justice, and was still waiting for her life to bring her into her power – we were a perfect fit. Except that she was a woman and I was a man and despite how attractive and pleasurable that was, I didn’t yet know how to be a man who could be a good companion for a woman.

In those early years Valerie met conflict most often with silence. When she couldn’t cope, when things felt wrong, she became withdrawn. In time I learned that she was the canary in the mine, more sensitive to patterns of destructiveness in human relations than I. But in my 20s (yes, and in my 30s and 40s, and still a little in my 50s) I was more inclined to meet conflict head on, full rage, full fear, determined to win. But when she wouldn’t join the fight, when argument to exhaustion wasn’t going to be the solution, I started to discover that I could learn other methods of expressing fear and communicating love.

During one Boston winter when our political work was going nowhere and our circle was full of tension and mistrust she simply withdrew. Told me that she couldn’t do it anymore and that she needed a change; that it was making her crazy. Her expression and voice convinced me to sidestep my reflexive pep talk, and I held down the fear I have of the unexpected, the embarrassing, and we left town, went to Provincetown on Cape Cod where we found a place to stay and time off the clock. The fact that the waitress who watched us devour a bowl of mussels asked us if we were newlyweds merely provided gratifying, but unnecessary, confirmation that we had made the right decision. We both recall that weekend as one of our most romantic memories and an important lesson in putting our relationship first, of understanding that life has to meet your needs.

When we moved to western Massachusetts it was mutual. I went to graduate school, still searching for a way to keep my radical fire burning without having to do stuff that I didn’t like and wasn’t good at, and Valerie returned to school to pursue her passion for literature and to complete her undergraduate degree. Most importantly to her, we traded years of city life for the countryside.  Those next five years were perhaps our most idyllic. Impoverished, living off student loans, teaching assistantships, odd jobs, and credit cards, we hiked, we talked, studied, got married, and had our daughter. We didn’t know it at the time, but the pace of our lives would never again be as slow or the days as easy to savor.

Lot’s of great stuff has happened: our son was born, we experienced an extended stretch of not having to worry about money, experienced the pleasure of challenging work, Valerie found her calling as a shaman, we had good times with friends and family, watched our children grow into adulthood. But we’ve also struggled with the sorts of things that no one escapes, hard painful things that sometimes make it difficult to imagine the future. My wife has continued to school me on the illusion of success and failure, and the truth of being present and connected.

As a man in this culture it is hard not to internalize the expectation that you need to be a breadwinner, that you need to be the protector, that you need to be the one who can tough it out. Sometimes it feels that the wolves are out hunting, and since you know you are not the star of an action-adventure film, that can feel a little scary. Take my advice: don’t work on oil rigs in the Arctic, don’t let your toughness keep you from being tender, remember that being eaten by the wolf (or the bear, or your next door neighbor) is not as bad as it seems, and find a woman who understands fear.

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