HAVING SPENT COUNTLESS YEARS SEARCHING for spiritual connection in my life, I feel I’ve earned the right to make fun of the mystical quests of fellow seekers. (Not to their faces, of course; that would be rude.) I’ve tried it all: chanting, fasting, rebirthing, Reiki, runes, magic mushrooms, Bikram yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Kundalini yoga, seventy-three other types of yoga, drumming circles, reading Tarot cards. This last I failed miserably at because I could never remember what all the darn pictures meant, but I’m sure that now, there’s an app for that.
The other day, I overheard a conversation between two women about one of them visiting a psychic. “She told me my totem animal is a red-tailed hawk,” the short, round woman said to her captivated friend, who was nodding supportively. “I already knew it was either that or an eagle. I can feel it in my soul.” She stretched out her arms and flapped twice. “The wings, the flight.” In her long, heavy black coat unbuttoned to expose a white shirt, she looked more like a penguin than a bird of prey. “Mine is a wolf,” her friend said, in what sounded like a “my-power-animal-can-beat-up-your-power-animal” tone of voice.
Why, I wondered, are our totem animals always discovered to be carnivorous predators who can eliminate their helpless prey with one powerful snap of their jaws or beaks? Why not a penguin? Some people could be better matched with less intimidating animals, say a weasel or a mosquito, though I imagine if a soothsayer told me my power animal was a squirrel, I’d feel cheated.
When I was in my early twenties, during a hippie phase that I swore was not a phase, I visited a shaman. I was about to embark on a year-long cross-country trip with no specific destination, and I was desperate to feel brave, or guided, or both. I nervously arrived at the shaman’s suburban home clad in my wraparound batik skirt and oversized Andes sweater that smelled like a wet yak when it rained. The shaman, Carol, looked androgynous, like a bland middle-age woman who drove a minivan and attended Rotary meetings, but I heard she took Level One Shamanism with Michael Harner, the author of The Way of The Shaman, so that meant she was legit, right? Carol seemed awkward and surprised to have someone in her house, as though she hadn’t advertised that she would enter shamanic trances in the company of strangers for the right amount of money, which in May of 1994 was $45.
She told me to lie down on her living room floor and explained that she would bang rhythmically on her Native American drum for about an hour while she entered a trance and met my power animal. Somewhat skeptical of the whole thing, and weirded out about laying on her floor, I asked her if sometimes animals didn’t show up. She looked offended, and said not to worry.
She must have been good, or my animal must have been ultra-eager, because after fifteen minutes of drumming, she suddenly stopped.
“A red-tailed hawk,” Carol reported. That sounded okay to me, but I felt no link to this particular creature, or to any creature, really. Carol instructed me to find a representation of my power animal to carry with me at all times, like a picture or an amulet. And she said to go outside and meditate on the hawk that day for at least twenty minutes, and my connection would become clear.
That afternoon I went for a walk in the Six Mile Creek Wildflower Preserve to contemplate my new totem animal and insure my $45 was well-spent. The Wildflower Preserve and neighboring water reservoir had been recently voted “Ithaca’s Best Kept Secret,” and it was also Ithaca’s favorite exhibitionist hang out. I had skinny-dipped in its waters with friends on many occasions, but this was my first time walking there alone.
Since the day had warmed up, I left my yak sweater in my truck. Sunlight showered the forest, catching flecks of green buds and flitting birds. I pondered my red-tailed hawk spirit guide and tried hard to feel it accompanying me. I didn’t encounter any other people on the path, until I saw a young man jogging towards me from the direction of the second dam. He was about twenty years old, with curly dark hair and matching pop-out eyebrows, a short red tank top, and running sneakers.
And no pants. As he ran towards me, his meat and potatoes bounced side-to-side with each stride. He passed within a foot of me, and he stared me straight in the eye as his manitalia dangled in the sunlight.
I had a healthy fear of the woods, of bears, vampires and the other monsters that might inhabit them, but I was not prepared for this pantless exhibitionist on the path. Somehow he felt different than the innocent nude sunbathers my friends and I had encountered at the reservoir previously. Both his nakedness and his stare felt designed to intimidate, possibly even threaten. I sensed he would be back, and I felt panic rising in my chest.
I could run – but to where? Deeper into the woods? The man had disappeared in the direction of my car. I wished desperately for the ability to fly, that a belief in the red-tailed hawk would aid me in a time of need.
So I did what any strong, scared woman might do in my situation. I hid. A large boulder sat about twenty feet from the trail, and I ducked behind it, just as I heard Mr. Sausage-and-Eggs’ running footsteps make a second approach.
I tried to slow my breathing, but that’s hard to do when you are not convinced that you are safe. My heart was pounding so loud that I was positive he’d hear it and find me cowering there. Would he be smart enough to guess my next move? Was he a hunter of women, a master at his craft, or just a dumb guy running around with no pants on for kicks?
He ran by again, and then I heard his footsteps fade. I don’t know how long I sat there, my back pressed against the rock and my batik skirt growing damp where my butt met the cold, spring forest floor. As I calmed slightly, I noticed a feather on the ground directly in front of me. It was about twelve inches long, with brown and white stripes. A red-tailed hawk feather! My totem animal was guiding me! The feather was the sign I was waiting for. My spirit guide had protected me, and would continue to do so on my travels. It was true after all.
When the man didn’t return a third time, I realized that at some point I’d have to leave my hiding place. So I finally jumped up, clutching my prized feather, and sprinted to my car, where I scrambled in, then slammed and locked the door.
I drove straight to a girlfriend’s house, collapsed on her couch and shared my story of the shaman, the woods, the man with no pants, my fear. I twirled the feather between my index finger and thumb as I told her how the red-tailed hawk must have guided me to the boulder.
“I guess it wasn’t a coincidence,” I said.
Then my friend’s housemate walked in, a guy I didn’t know much about other than that he worked at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “Where’d you find the nice turkey feather?”
A turkey. My friend laughed.
“Turkey?” I said. “Are you sure?”
He took the feather from me and described how he knew it was from a turkey. Science conquered coincidence, and my skepticism flooded back, this time for good. I felt silly, but also relieved to be spared further embarrassment.
That was the last time I spoke aloud about my power animal. My wistful quest for connection, however, continued for another few years, culminating when I finally met my one true love. Around the same time, I also discovered martinis. Finally, I was satiated.
This week on Facebook, I saw a lot of people posting their spirit animals (most of them were otters, which I’m not convinced is any better than a being turkey.) This is the new generation of seekers. They don’t have to spend money or endure a trial with a half-naked man to make fools of themselves. Now, there’s an app for that.