April 2018

Monday, December 8, 2014

Spirit Animals

A friend recently told me that on a walk in the woods near her home, a wolf appeared from the wild to look at her. The wolf was huge, considerably larger than her labrador retriever. I had to swallow my jealousy for a moment--that she would get to walk for miles in the woods and to see such a marvel. 

Walking in the wild is the thing I miss most with my disabilities. Though before brain surgery, I often went into the wild and Ann and I once took a hike in Denali National Park in an area where wolves had been cited, I never got to see a wolf. I'm saving that for my next lifetime. (That's when I'll have a lovely singing voice, too. Maybe I'll be a bird.)

At the end our talk, my friend called herself, somewhat wistfully, a "lone wolf." I keep thinking about that wolf and her description. Perhaps she saw something of herself in that graceful, quiet, lonesome--or is it independent?--wolf.

A few years ago, when my dear friend Chris (RIP) and I wrote with a writing group in my church's basement, we responded to the prompt, "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?" 

I remember Chris writing that she would either be a basset hound or an elephant. When she read aloud, "For one thing, basset hounds and elephants are good friends," she laughed with her deep giggle. "I have no idea if that's true, of course," she said. "I just made that up." I loved Chris's laughter, and I loved her idea that these two reflections of her nature were friends--perhaps a signal of an internal peace that she didn't often experience.

In that writing session, I wrote about three animals: 

First, a cat, who lets people pet it when it feels like it and ignores them when it doesn't. Cats roam independently wherever they want--something I can no longer do with my feet because of my disabilities, but I can still do in my spirit. Cats nap in the sun, oblivious to the noise and even crowds around them. I do that, too.

Second, I wrote about being a dolphin that plays in the waves, trying to make the sharks laugh. Yes, I'm like that.

Third, I wrote about being a turtle: born old, moving slowly across the land, and pulling into my shell when I feel threatened. That's me to a T.

Then I remembered a psychology game from a long-ago friend who was in medical school and became a psychiatrist: Describe yourself as an animal three times. The first is how you see yourself. The second is how others see you. The third is how you really are. 

Yep, that works for me: I see myself as a cat; you see me as a dolphin; I am really a turtle. This makes sense to me and teaches me about myself, an unending process of learning more about the person I am, a process of unfolding. 

I wonder, too, about skin and bone animals, not just spirit animals. In my recent trip to visit my siblings and their families, I spent a lot of time with Maisy in my lap. Maisy is  little dog with small bones, a lot of curly fur, a puppy's spirit of jumping about, a crazy soft pink tongue that simply cannot stay in her mouth, and an old face framed by puppy fur. I loved her sweetness.

I've been thinking about that sweetness since my partner Ann and I returned home. We don't have pets of our own, but love it when a neighbor's pet adopts us each summer. 

Thinking about such spirits, I went to Mary Oliver's poem "Dogs," and love these lines:

look look
into their eyes

bright as planets
under the long lashes

here is such happiness when you speak their names!
here is such unforced love!

here is such shyness such courage!
here is the shining rudimentary soul

here is hope retching, the world as it is….

We have such a deep connection to animals and their spirits. It's no wonder we see ourselves in them. It seems like the general paradigm is that humans are more advanced than other animals because we have a more complicated brain, but perhaps they are closer to their own natures, closer to God, for not having such complications.

I recently took a Meditation Based Stress Reduction class with 15 other people with serious health conditions. Much of what we tried to learn--and I try to practice each day--is to sit with the world as it is rather than battling the world in our imaginations, to be present in the moment rather than dwelling in the past or the future. In this class, we sought to teach our minds to be still. Perhaps we were trying to learn to quiet that part of our brains that makes us "more advanced" than other animals. Perhaps we were trying to become more dog-like. 

Perhaps animals' lives are meditations on the joy of being present: Maisy, like so many dogs, present in connection; elephants and basset hounds absolutely in the moment in their droopy gentleness; wolves a reflection of the grandness of the world, its mystery and its quiet grandeur. 

Let me learn about peace and stillness and joy, about being in the moment. 

This morning, a Sunday before church, this is my prayer. 

1 comment:

  1. As a former member of the esteemed I-High Times under your guidance, it is a treat to read your writing. I wonder how many times you read our articles and wanted to slap us. That must have been hard. But you didn't. Instead you ignited the spark of journalism. Even if you didn't agree with us. PS: Turtle, it is impossible to get in contact with you privately via this page.


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