Animal Wise: ‘Guides’ sheds light on difficult subjects

Photo by MabelAmber:Pixabay(Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay)

As much as Susan Chernak McElroy gets it right with Animals as Teachers and Healers (Ballantine Books, 1997), she gets right to the heart with Animals as Guides for the Soul (Ballantine Books, 1998).

This follow-up is not only a worthy exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, but also a potentially transforming walk through some of the thorniest aspects of these relationships.

8482McElroy, who has worked as a technical writer and editor as well as in several animal-related occupations, writes largely from her experience on a small Wyoming farm. Insights from people who wrote to her after reading her previous book are included.

I appreciate so much in Guides for the Soul, but here are three primary take-aways.

The first is that the healing benefits of our relationships with animals are often subtle, but no less powerful. It isn’t always the spectacular, tossing-away-the-cane miracle with the therapy dog. More often, it’s the steady warmth of the cat curled up on the patient’s lap or the jingling of tags along a quiet country road day after day. Sometimes the miracle is only seen in hindsight.

“We are so conditioned to expect drama and heroics in healing that we forget the staggering importance of all the healing that goes unseen,” says McElroy, a cancer survivor. (Check out this wonderful six-minute video about two guys — one a morbidly overweight human, the other a middle-aged rescue dog — who healed each other.)

What if, she asks, we were to believe that the being at the end of the leash, in the cat carrier, or on a perch could heal by his or her very presence, offering exactly what is needed in every moment? That the dog nuzzling a crying adult was administering critical emotional first aid, or the horse heard the bullied teen as no one else could? Is that so far off the mark?

Second, McElroy delves into the rocky territory of death in a way that can benefit anyone who has lost a much-loved animal, particularly when the loss is accompanied by shame and guilt. These experiences and memories, however long ago, stick to us until we acknowledge their multilayered impact, she says.

Quoting respected authors on pet loss as well as people confronting long-buried grief and remorse, she offers perspective and tools for healing. However, she is respectful enough not to put forth easy answers. The stories of McElroy’s precious llama, Phaedra; and Jody Seay’s elderly black Lab friend McKenzie, are likely to bring both a tear and a spark of hope.

Finally, even when the animals involved are not our own, what can we do when we witness the inexplicable and cruel? When McElroy was about 11, a young coyote with his mangled leg still dangling in a steel-jaw trap was part of a wildlife exhibit at a nearby park. Day after day, he lay in a rusting wire cage with no food or water. She pleaded with the park rangers to care for the coyote. They ignored her. She begged her parents to do something, wrote to the local paper, and contacted the town mayor and her family’s veterinarian.

No adult would intervene until she called Mrs. Roberts, the mother of a friend, who picketed the park. The exhibit shut down within a week. The coyote made the front page of the local paper and was released to Mrs. Roberts, whose veterinarian husband helped care for the coyote in a backyard pen. Months later, Mrs. Roberts drove the coyote to the desert and released him back into the wild.

“She reminded me that although it was she who freed the coyote, it was I who had brought the coyote to her attention. At the age of eleven, I learned that one person can stand up against suffering and make a difference,” McElroy recalls.

We should all have, or be, a Mrs. Roberts.

‘Watchman’: True colors or subtle shades?

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What do we do when the distinct colors of childhood show up in shades we couldn’t discern before? (Photo by Alexas_Fotos)

When illusions about people and places we have long loved come crashing down, we are left to either reassemble something we can live with or walk away.

But were the things we thought we knew, in fact, illusions?

Such are the perplexities faced by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now twenty-six, in the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015). She returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City to visit her father, Atticus, who is in his seventies and struggling with rheumatoid arthritis but still practicing law. Working alongside Atticus is Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s lifelong friend, current boyfriend, and probable fiancé.

Only this is not the Maycomb we and Jean Louise knew in To Kill a Mockingbird  (originally published in 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co.), where Atticus courageously defended a black man against a false rape charge. Now, in the 1950s, tensions over racial justice and who has the right to make the rules for whom are turning Southern communities, families, heads, and hearts into battlegrounds.

Sitting in her old spot in the courthouse’s “Colored” balcony, where she and brother Jem used to watch Atticus at work, Jean Louise observes a citizens’ council meeting. Both Atticus and Henry are present. She is sickened not only by the racist language and ideas she hears, but by the apparent agreement of both men.

Difficult (and rambling) conversations follow; with Henry, with former housekeeper Calpurnia, with offbeat intellectual Uncle Jack, and finally and most painfully, with Atticus. Readers who have spent half a century with this family no doubt share the young woman’s anguish.

What Jean Louise is now seeing — for example, her father’s view of blacks as childlike and incapable and Henry’s need to belong at any cost — has always been there. Her hometown has long been segregated. It would be easy to say Jean Louise, who has been living up North, is the one who changed and leave it at that. However, our way of seeing things changes as we grow up and create our own realities, no matter where we are.

When the distinct colors of childhood give way to a puzzling array of shades and gradations, it can feel like a betrayal … especially at a time when basic human rights and dignity are being questioned and fought over. Jean Louise, navigating the shifting terrain of young adulthood in this setting, has to decide whether and how to find a way forward.

As I understand it, Watchman was Lee’s original novel, and a publisher convinced her to turn the flashback sequences into a separate work, which became Mockingbird. There was some controversy, just before the release of Watchman, over whether the then elderly and ailing Lee actually wanted it to be published. She died in 2016. What I wonder is: If the younger Scout and Atticus had lived between the same covers as their older counterparts, would it still have become a beloved classic? These questions cannot be answered.

What I can say is this: If Watchman taints our appreciation of Mockingbird, we are in the same boat as Jean Louise, trying to reconcile what we knew with what is now before us. Perhaps, in these equally polarizing and vitriolic times, that is a useful exercise.

Two books, two women, one famous friendship

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Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok on a 1934 trip to Puerto Rico. (National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor-Hick-Cover-Large-1-197x300When the trove of letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok came to light two or three decades ago, I wondered why the two hadn’t been more careful to keep their correspondence private. Both women had passed away years before, but still. They lived in a time when secrecy surrounded same-sex relationships, or even the possibility of such, and one of them was married. To the president. That’s some pretty intimate stuff to leave for someone to find and expose, I thought.

51B8ti2v7eL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Now, having read two 2016 books on the subject — Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert (Persevero Press) and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (Penguin Books) — I appreciate that a much bigger story is being told, even now. Perhaps especially now.

Loving Eleanor is fiction, though apparently extensively researched, told in first person from Hickok’s point of view. Eleanor and Hick is a nonfiction account of their lives and relationship. However, both works respectfully and with due diligence tell the story of the reluctant first lady and the pioneering journalist finding their way in 20th century America.

Lorena Hickok was a scrappy, dedicated Associated Press reporter who began covering Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, campaigned for president. Hick, as she was known, survived childhood poverty and abuse, but managed to get some education and on-the-job training in newspaper work. She was one of the first women to have a byline with her stories. Having written about sports, politics, and the Lindbergh trial, Hick wasn’t too excited about covering campaign-trail teas, but soon discovered a depth, integrity, and vulnerability about the woman she would fondly refer to as ER, or Madam. Hick, completely outside ER’s circle of class and privilege, became her lifeline.

ER, of course, had her own youthful unhappiness to overcome, along with her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer and the endless interference of her mother-in-law. She had her own circle of friends, a small cottage, and even a furniture company. Being in the White House would not end all of that, but it sure did complicate the life she’d carved out for herself, especially as she and Hick grew closer and one term turned into four.

Hick’s first complication was a conflict of interest. You cannot get that close to a source and keep the required objectivity and the public’s trust. As a seasoned reporter, she knew this. Yet she continued down that slippery slope, even letting ER and FDR advisor Louis Howe review stories before publication, before finally leaving the AP in 1933. Like so many journalists before and after her, she was able to transfer her skills into other lines of work, but she would never return to the news business.

Apart from compromising her journalistic integrity and giving up a job she loved, Hick arranged her life around being available to ER, who fitted Hick in around other friends, children, grandchildren, FDR, and the “endless succession of things” in public life. Though ER trusted and valued Hick greatly, the relationship never quite seemed equal. Given their positions in life, perhaps it was as equal as it could have been. Though Hick accepts this to a degree as the years pass, she spends much of both books waiting and hoping for more.

This sadness permeates their story. Yet there’s no denying that because these two supported, challenged, and inspired each other over so many years, they were able to better themselves and society in ways they couldn’t have otherwise.

After leaving the AP, Hick became a field reporter for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, traveling to areas hit hardest by the Depression and reporting back to boss Harry Hopkins — and ER — on what was really happening in the nation. Having both a reporter’s eye and the ear of the first lady worked well here. She also helped ER with the writing of her books and “My Day” column. ER’s women-only press conferences helped open Washington’s political doors to women journalists, and encouraged them to look to one another for support and accountability.

ER and Hick lived in a time not unlike ours, with polarity and finger-pointing aplenty as the nation recovered from economic hardship and war. In the midst of that, two women from vastly different backgrounds came together, saw what they could do, and did it.

While writing this, I discovered that another novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, White Houses by Amy Bloom (Penguin Random House, 2018) — also told in first person from Hick’s point of view — has recently been published. Obviously, this is a story that continues to resonate in an era of even less trust in both journalists and political figures.

While these books tell a bittersweet story of a love that didn’t happen the way either party may have wanted, they also give us in the 21st century a glimpse of what is possible when we are brave enough to transcend barriers and work together.