We have a pet hedgehog named Philip. You may not know much about hedgehogs, and let’s face it; why would you? First off, hedgehogs do not possess many of the cozy and cuddly qualities that most boys and girls are looking for in the family pet. For starters, they are nocturnal. Our boy Philip, barely bigger than a soft ball, spends the entirety of the day hidden beneath a hand towel that we have provided for him, emerging only when we all are well asleep and deeply in dreamland. They are burrowers, hence the need for the hand towel, and perhaps their most uncuddly quality of all is the fact that their bodies are covered in pointy spikes, making them virtually untouchable; and when you do try to reach out and touch them every so gently, they puff up their back, stick out those spikes and hiss—yes, hiss. This is not an animal to be reckoned with. Being playful with a dog or a cat can be a fun and interactive experience (think leaping dogs catching Frisbees or kooky cats chasing after feathers on ends of strings), a hedgehog’s idea of fun is shoving his tiny little head inside one end of an empty toilet paper tube. While this may delight and amuse because it just looks damn funny (with that round, spiky body clearly unable to fit in the tube–does he really think we can’t see him?) it is a far from the kind of interactive I-love-my-pet-and-my-pet-loves-me-back fun we think of when we ask mom and dad “can I get a pet, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE!!”!. Still, my kind hearted older son, always empathetically drawn to things less fortunate, wanted a hedgehog, so a hedgehog was what he got.
As circumstances would have it, my son is only in my home; Philip’s place of residence, for half the week. The other half of the week is spent at his father’s house throwing the Frisbee for Tiger, the loveable Golden Retriever that resides over there. So during the time that my son is engaging in some canine/boy bonding, the care of Philip falls to me.
Seeing as pet care is not what I would list as one of my areas of strength (as you would notice by observing the state of my slime covered fish tank), having Philip’s care relegated to me is not such a bad gig. He needs his water topped off (he can never manage to take a drink without spilling the water dish, and this I know only because of the water dish being tipped on its side, not because I observe Philip as he drinks) and his food bowl refilled when needed. Otherwise, his cage is to be cleaned and that is a task I leave for my son while he is staying here at Chez Philippe. It’s really quite easy. Nothing to it; I don’t even have to see or interact with the grumpy prickly bastard and in fact, I often forget that he is there until the pungent aroma of his “overdue to be cleaned” cage catches my nostrils and I remember, “oh yea, Philip”. Out of sight, out of mind. No muss, no fuss.
The other night I watched the Motorcycle Diaries. This is a film about the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, before he was known as such, and was still an earnest medical student taking time from his studies to travel around South America on a motorcycle. In the last third of the film, Che and his travel companion take a boat to a leper colony on some island deep in the Amazon Rain Forest. The doctors and nurses (nuns) lived on the north side of the river and the lepers lived on the south side. Each day the medical staff would journey across the river to visit and treat the patients, but not before suiting up in their sanitized white coats and rubber gloves. When Che arrived on the first day, he refused to wear his gloves, reasoning that leprosy is not a contagious disease, and this caught the lepers off guard. They were suspicious and recoiled when reached for but after their initial shows of caution, the allowed themselves to be touched without the gloves and marvelous things started to happen! Instead of believing that they were “different” and that “something was wrong with them” be came alive with the knowing that they were human beings, just like the doctors and nurses. Yes, they needed care, they were suffering from a common disease and they were looking at an ugly fate; but under all of those external circumstances they were just like Che, the staff and the rest of the world. They were worthy of touch. And accepting the gift of touch from Che was a gift to Che himself; so much so that he chose to spend his birthday on the south side of the Amazon, and swam through the dangerous waters to get there! I was moved to tears.
After the film was over, I walked up the stairs to my third floor office to fiddle around on the computer—oh yea, Philip. The smell of his cage was unmistakable. This time though, I came present to something different. Simply because Philip is not overtly friendly (to put it mildly) and spends most of his time and energy hiding, hissing, recoiling and puffing up his spiky round body in an effort to keep other living things away from him, doesn’t mean that he does not need or would not benefit from some bona-fide TLC. The lepers in The Motorcycle Diaries recoiled too; they were cautious and mistrusting as well, but that was because they had come to believe that they were unlovable. How could they not? They were sent to live in isolation, in the jungle, on the south side of the Amazon! Even the Doctors and Nurses wouldn’t spend any more time with them than they absolutely had to! Thanks to Che, they eventually accepted love and nurturing and it fed them; changed them; made their lives loving and joyful. Perhaps my non-efforts where Philip is concerned are giving him the same idea; that he deserves a life of isolation—that he is unlovable.
It struck me then that I should know better! After all, I founded a non-profit organization who’s very mission is to dispel this type of thinking! The population with which my organization works is actually the human female version of Philip! Each woman we come in contact with, whether she is in substance abuse recovery, a homeless shelter or a domestic abuse safe house, believes that there is something fatally flawed about her; that she is not loveable; that she is not worthy of love and deserves to be isolated from all of the “normal and healthy” people out there. As I have come to work with these women, connect with these women and love these women I have come to understand on a deep and visceral level that they are just like me; and I am just like them (like Che and the lepers). Though our packaging is not the same, our experiences may differ and our paths may have led us down very different roads, she is no different than me in her desire for love and nurturing care. Like Philip, she may pull away. She may act aggressive (like Philip’s hissing) and she may be very cautious and suspicious; even hiding completely for a while. But as we teach these women yoga we see them beginning to trust. As we put our hands on them, breathe with them and through our hands send them the message that they are worth all of the care and love that we are offering, we feel them soften. To reach inside and touch the heart of another human being takes so very little. It is not in how much money you spend on something, how much time you took to make something or even how much of yourself you give to someone. It is a glance; a smile; a touch to the shoulder. It is a hug, a stroke of the hair or a prolonged moment of eye contact, which conveys the message: “I am here; I am with you”. In our work at yogaHOPE, it is breathing with her, moving with her, and sending messages through our touch that says, “let go, relax, you can accept this gift”. The remarkable thing however, is that by giving the gift, we receive an even greater gift. The gift that we receive is simply the fact that these women accept our offerings, and their acceptance is the most overwhelming gift of all. What we offer them may create trust, peace and even transformation in them but make no mistake; we–without a doubt–experience every bit of this ourselves. I expect that this is how Che felt when the colony of lepers accepted his gift of connection. I know it’s how I feel in my work with yogaHOPE. I know it is how the wonderful volunteer teachers feel in their work with the women they teach for yogaHOPE. Why then, do I deny myself the gift of having our pointy, prickly, hissing hedgie accept what I could offer him? Why am I not seeing in Philip what I see in the hundreds of women I’ve encountered in my work? It may seem silly to give so much thought to how to “coax out a little love from your hedgehog” but is it? Touch is touch. A gift is a gift. Caring is Caring. Wouldn’t my life be that much more rich if I had yet another being that I could offer some care and love to—even just a little? Philip WILL accept some love and nurturing, but just like the beautiful women in rehab, or in shelters or safe houses, he needs a little time to trust. I look forward to the process of helping Philip become the loving, cute and in his own special way—cuddly pet that I know he can be. Whether or not he gets there has no importance, but as I lay reading on my couch, with Philip snuggled under my pillow, I feel joyful in knowing that he is not in isolation. I am presenting an offering to him and he is meeting me there. I know very deeply that what they say—to give is to receive—is not just some corny saying on an inspirational poster somewhere. It is a more noble truth than any that I know.