By Michele Kraft
Looking back on it, my relationship with Spirit Animals began many years ago, when I was a young teenager, freshly liberated from Catholic elementary School. Clandestinely reading about so-called Indian religions in my new public school’s library, I’d imagined that having a Spirit Animal would be like having a magical friendship, like a pet but better because he would be free; part leader, part friend, part secretary and best of all, forever at my side, or maybe waiting outside, somewhere I could still see him, peer longingly at him from my imprisonment indoors, at school or eating dinner with the family. We would probably communicate telepathically, and we would share even more things I’d only read about, like kindness and deep affection. It seemed right that mysterious, mythical things should arrive all together, like a set.
Still young enough to believe that all things were possible, except maybe Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, my fantasies of a Spirit Guide seemed as reasonable to me as other modern day spiritual tales I’d been told, like the one about the blessed virgin Mary appearing to young girls in France. Adults told me about that one, and it was in all the books, so it must have happened. Squirming under the grip of Christian religion, but aching for it to be more personally significant, it felt sinful to consider the possibility that animals could possess enough worth and meaning to guide, and yet, I argued to myself that day in the library, after I moved on to paging through National Geographic’s Wild Animals of North America as if it were a mail order catalog, who am I to say how God is going to teach me? The Lord works in mysterious ways, and don’t forget, The Holy Spirit is a dove.
Don’t put God in a box!” my very religious, also spiritual, father often said at the time, the time being the 1970s, a time when many unorthodox spiritual awakenings were dawning in our middleclass white culture. Though Dad meant we shouldn’t put limitations on what God is and does, he had his own restrictive container for God to exist in: Catholicism. Still, the idea of releasing God from His Box has stuck with me throughout my life. My Free Range God is cool with live-and-let–live, and that saves me from having to judge the God Storage Systems erected in the lives of others.
Yet I find myself scoffing at pop culture’s surface skimming spiritual inquiry. Answer a few self-aggrandizing questions and a spirit guide will be electronically bestowed upon you. Sure, I don’t see why the divine wouldn’t be able to work through the tools of technology; however, the test was created by people, and the Spirit Animals on offer are invariably carnivore critters, like the Mighty Bear or Wise Old Owl. Spider, Frog and Turtle cover the entirety of life forms that are not warm blooded, leaving me wondering if the writers of these programs have a few power and domination issues they could use some guidance with. Your spirit guide is Woman.
Wolf is probably the most popular advice animal. Wolf teaches us about independence, and, somehow at the same time, community. I was drawn to Wolf as a teenager. Wolf the misunderstood, Wolf the persecuted, Wolf the loner, Wolf the beautiful and stoic, Wolf, who will jack your ass up if you mess with Wolf, the very sound of the word, Wolf. But as a true Spirit Animal, a communicator of lessons designed to help on the path to wisdom, I can’t get past the tee shirt anymore. And besides, so much has been projected on Wolf already. I’m not sure Wolf has time to take on any more lost souls.
The Lesser Animals, the daily grind of animals, the prey, the rodents and ruminants are usually missing from the roster of popular Guides, but Squirrel has demanded my attention anyway. Too common in to be compelling to anyone, squirrels are identified in our culture as thieves of wild bird food, attic intruders, disgusting, disease spreading tree rats. Vermin. My ex-mother-in-law caught them in live traps and then drowned them in a garbage can full of water. I’ve never understood this kind of vitriol, having been fan of their acrobatic, playful behavior since I was a little kid.
I had more sympathy and respect for squirrels than I did for most of the humans I knew. Yet I didn’t feel bad for them when I watched our dog, Wags, chase them across the yard. Squirrels were always too fast to be caught, too wily, faking her out at the last minute, running circles around the bases of trees before shooting up the trunk. Then they would victoriously taunt Wags from above, thrashing their tails and scolding. They always got away, I thought, sometimes by the smallest margins, but they always got away.
In my twenties, my beagle-husky dog Crunchy succeeded where Wags failed and caught a squirrel. We had been out walking in my fickle boyfriend’s neighborhood, and as always I let slow-as-an-ice-wagon Crunchy chase the squirrels. We’d come across Mama Squirrel and her half grown brood; they were the rare family my boyfriend and I both had an ongoing mutual affection for. This time, instead of scurrying up the tree when she saw us and then peering at us from the safety of a branch above our heads, Mama stopped and seemed to act as a decoy to save her children, who poured up the tree around her. Before I could intervene, Crunchy expertly grabbed her and shook her to death. My initial feelings of pride in Crunchy’s amazing accomplishment, actually catching a squirrel, were pulled down immediately by the limp weight of her long body, her blue grey coat, pristine white underbelly with its swollen little mounds of milk, and her black, unfocused eyes. Her offspring, now terrified orphans, spiraled like boiling pasta around the branches of the tree above me as I picked up their mother’s body from the sidewalk. As much as my heart was full of sorrow for them, what could I do to help them now? Buy them coats, give them an allowance?
Years before, the same fickle boyfriend and I had fed the squirrels together in another neighborhood, at another apartment, one we’d shared together. We’d been working on taming the squirrels, and, I see now, each other. That was before I got Crunchy, a real pet, not the kind of pet that wildlife is: never close, free of responsibility, largely free of recognizable individuals, until one turns up with the distinguishing souvenirs of near-death experiences, earning them names like Half-Tail, Old One Eye and Richard Scarry. But these characters are mostly oblivious to us, unwittingly participating in one sided, longing-based relationship in our minds, not of the mutually committed heart. Domestication never has a chance.
It wasn’t until I went back to school, half way across the country in Chicago, that Squirrel influenced me directly, in the way I now suppose a Spirit Guide might. It was not the Friends for Life bond I’d imagined in high school, and the squirrel didn’t speak English, not even telepathically.
It was my first day of undergraduate school in Chicago, at the School of the Art Institute Of, shortly after the final heart-smashing breakup with Fickle. I was nervous and taking it out on myself, walking so fast through the chilly air that my breath was burning, my mind spinning, working a lot harder than I had to. Going to art school, not to mention expensive art school, still wasn’t a comfortable move in my mind, even as I carried my ass to class. I wanted to trust in art, its validity and mine together, so I was acting like I believed we were both worth investing in. That’s not the same as knowing it.
As I rounded the corner and headed towards the door of the school, a squirrel bounded up to me and stopped, alarmingly close, about three feet away. She stood up on her back haunches in the familiar squirrel pose, with her little paws curled to her chest, tail trilling excitedly behind her. She leaned forward and peered at me with a dewy-eyed expression of innocence and curiosity, as if there were nothing unusual at all about the bright red tootsie pop she had in her mouth, with its stick flipped out to the side like an exclamation mark. How could I do anything but stop in my tracks and laugh? I relaxed and took a deep breath as the squirrel came to her senses and lightly bounced away across the grass.
Now I was aware of being miraculously alone, awake to the fall morning’s clear air, crisp sky soaring above me, metropolis churning behind me, lake and trees and grass of Grant Park ahead of me, art school property under my feet, my heart beating strong in my chest. I would have kept walking and never have noticed any of this, would have remained bound up in my anxious, self-defeating thoughts, would have dragged them right into school with me if it hadn’t been for that crazy squirrel. How could I have had any doubt that I was doing the right thing now, with a welcome like that, any doubt that I was home? It’s going to be OK, I got here, and I belong here.
But I did doubt it, deep down. My time at The School was life changing for me on every level, so you’d think I’d be convinced. I became empowered. Happy. But through the years that followed, I wandered away from the source of my optimism and strength, I got away from my trust, my creative life, and the creative people that used to be in it. I fell back in with the familiar advice of miserable people, and gradually sacrificed my happiness for security. It took me a while to see it again, but miserable people are miserable because they take their own advice. I’d forgotten there was a better way. For me, the better way was to give a damn about what happens in my life instead of succumbing to the inertia of others. Soon after that I got another transmission from Squirrel.
My husband and I had moved from Wisconsin to Baltimore, Maryland so that I could go to The Maryland Institute College of Art. I’d wanted to get my MFA for years, and the Post Bac program looked like just the thing to polish up my act. Once we were in town, it didn’t take long to notice that housing is cheap to buy, but expensive to rent. We thought we’d pick up an investment. Foreclosures and short sales were on our radar when we came across a listing for a remarkable short sale. Though it wasn’t in any of the artists’ areas we’d hoped for, we went to see it anyway. It was the impossible combination of cheap and opulent, fully historically restored with brass hardware and skeleton keys, even in the closet doors. It was a 5 bedroom 3 bath town home of beauty with every detail expensively attended, down to the Italian marble on the kitchen floor. I could get used to this kind of living I thought to myself. But there was no parking, no yard, and no bathroom on the ground floor, and we are quite attached to the cars, dogs and regular bonfires in our lives, among other logistical issues. Oh well, we’ll just get a porta-potty for when Mom visits if she can’t make it up the stairs. Right. I’m a problem solver. I can figure this all out!
But the pre-foreclosed owner of Cheap Opulent house didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get his dressage saddles and antique livestock portraits moved out. We weren’t sure why a man of such means had a house in foreclosure. He was there when we saw the house and made a point of mentioning that he had no plans to leave, no idea where and when he was going. Our realtor observed, as we walked to our cars, that it’s hard enough to convince people to beat it when they are poor and you can bribe them, but this guy drives a Jaguar.
So we looked at second runner up house, just down the street. I could think of nothing but the lovely salmon walls and white trim around the fireplace in the living room of opulent house, with its sweeping staircase leading up to the first of the three bathrooms with restored claw foot tubs. Before I opened the car door to get out and tour the lesser dwelling, I saw a young squirrel in the front yard, patiently, meticulously patting down the earth over something she had just buried. She observed the tiny mound she made for a moment, like she was pausing in satisfaction. Then she strolled off into the ivy and shrubs next door in a markedly non-squirrel-like fashion, unhurriedly, stretching like a sun-warmed cat.
Tootsie Pop Squirrel’s memory surfaced immediately. Ha ha, very funny, Universe, brain, or whatever, but no, no way. This is not A Sign. I wasn’t seriously considering this dump at all, just placating my husband and the realtor.
But the contemplative squirrel kept returning to mind. My husband was very keen on the house, apart from any signs and portents I didn’t want to acknowledge. Begrudgingly, I reevaluated the situation, Jaguar Guy, and our prospects. We bought the so called lesser house. It’s perfect, with a small garage, a back yard for bonfires, and toilets on all four levels. It’s not opulent, but it is us, and as it turns out, our neighborhood is full of artists, too. And somehow, though Cheap Opulent house sold well before we bought ours, Jaguar Guy lives there still.
We never met the woman who sold us her house, our house. She left it all behind, with all kinds of stuff in it, too. Going through it felt like a prequel to the post mortem that will be done one day on my own collecting habits. She seems to have been an art teacher, a maker, a foodie, and a pagan. That was another thing I tried to ignore, especially after trying to disallow the meaning of Buried Treasure Squirrel. The house was owned by a woman who is more like the mother you would imagine me having than my own mother is. It was a cornucopia of things seemingly picked out just for me: fabric, beads, scented oils, incense, candles, crockery, and a beautiful functional jar collection; things I would have bought new and were delighted to have second hand.
There were larger items I’ve always wanted, too, like the Hobart stand mixer that I thought was from an earlier industrial age until I saw the date on the manual corresponded with my high school graduation. There’s a decorative quartz fountain with multicolored LED light show that I’d never have condescended to buy but now grudgingly adore. The clothing she left was my size of course, and style, along with a crystal ball, assorted witchy items, and stacks of books on pagan subjects I’ve had on my list for years. All of it feels like some kind of cosmic inheritance, and with it is the same feeling of rightness that stayed with me at school in Chicago. After my husband bought some annuals for the back garden wall, volunteers of the same odd orange miniature petunia sprang up out of a neglected planter by the back door. A house of buried treasure.
The next Sign of Squirrel came just a year later, when I was starting my first year of graduate school for Fine Art. I was supposed to be happy to be here, but something was off, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but I was thinking things like this all the time: It’s just new, I’ll find my way. I work hard and they’ll see that. I’ll find my allies. That day, I was walking out to the car from the brick education factory called the Art and Sociology building, absorbed in my fretful thoughts, oblivious to the fine, sunny afternoon. The sidewalk was lined with hollies and pines on each side, and the squirrels often ignored me as I smiled up at them in the branches. Today my mind was churning through the murky waters of anxiety though, far away.
In just a few days I would start being a Teaching Assistant, and I’d just found out that after the initial meeting, I’d be taking over the class and teaching solo for the next three sessions. Trying hard to remain calm, I couldn’t. I will be up there, all alone, public speaking! Teaching the lessons! All by myself, no lifeline, I’ve never, I have no experience! But it’s OK, I can do this. What am I doing?! No! I know this stuff, I know the material, inside and out, even if, it is, in front of people, cruel young people, how did I get this old, I only have a week, NO, 5 days, oh my god, at this new school, and– BAM! The metal trash can by the sidewalk banged against its restraints and a big burly fox squirrel leaped out of it. He flew through the air and landed crossways on the sidewalk a few feet ahead of me, beautiful with his red and gray fur, which was black at his face and paws like he’d been making charcoal drawings all afternoon. His legs were spread wide and low on the cement, like he was trying to hide a Frisbee. His head was turned over his shoulder, gawking at me with slight alarm as I stood there, frozen too, echoing his gawk right back to him. He flicked his tail a few times and then, in a convulsion, jumped straight up, turned himself in the other direction, landed on top of the trashcan and leaped from there into a nearby tree, where his dark body shot up a holly’s pale trunk and disappeared among the leaves.
Of course I laughed, and the sound pushing out of me was as unexpectedly loud and brash as the squirrel had been. Oh my God, I gotta to get out of this trash can! What am I doing here?
Mutiny! The familiar voice in my head said, What? You can’t LEAVE!
I wasn’t ready even consider it, so I told myself something else, something else that was at least true, and also helpful: Calm down! Teaching, smeaching. I am a grown ass woman. I got this.
The teaching part turned out fine, great, actually, completely natural to me once I got over the stage fright. Good to know. But most other things weren’t going well, and Squirrel kept coming to mind, haunting me like Marley’s ghost. My first inclinations had been right with those other two stupid squirrels, even when I didn’t want them to be. But sometimes a squirrel really is just a squirrel. That’s what they usually were. I saw them all the time. Yeah, this is silly. It was nothing. How do you catch a squirrel? Climb up a tree and act like a nut. Uh huh. You can make it for two more years. Quit thinking about it.
Time passed, and that feeling of being in the wrong place never went away. Teaching was great. But the environment was garbage, a misogynistic nightmare, and that was something I couldn’t make up for or fix, something that penetrated the classrooms like an invisible, deadly gas. I couldn’t be a part of it, couldn’t smile and pretend not to smell it anymore.
Yet leaving was wrong, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that giving up? Giving up some precious gift of inclusion, breaking some rule about serious dedication, about gratitude for all I am given? Or was staying agreeing to an ideology cannot abide, the one that said my empathy was weakness, the one that said I had to prove I am twice as capable to earn half the respect, the one that had to teach me a lesson, the one that said I must smile, and say thank-you when a man hands me a shit sandwich? I learned how to take a punch when I was a kid, fuckers. Now I’ve learned I don’t have to.
I left. And it was absolutely the right thing for me to do.
So why was Squirrel in particular at the scene of the crime every time? Why not some other critter? According to dream interpretaters and Native American lore, Squirrel teaches us about abundance and love. Squirrel gives direction, of course! And — the hardest message for me– guides us to stop taking life so damn seriously.