my power animal is a martini

I feel empowered.

Click here to enjoy an audio recording of Amelia reading this story aloud.

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.

-Amelia Sauter


barefoot clean

Awesome sneakers

I thought 'barefoot clean" referred to bare feet. Boy, was I wrong.

WHEN MY PARTNER LEAH AND I FIRST OPENED OUR OWN BUSINESS, we didn’t have time to eat or bathe regularly, let alone clean our house. After three months of my groveling about how much more fulfilling my life would be if someone mopped the floors weekly, Leah finally succumbed to my begging and said we could hire a house cleaner, though she made it clear she wasn’t thrilled with the idea.

We knew only one or two people who used house cleaners. One finicky gay couple told us they paid a little old lady to clean their house, but they said she did a terrible job. They described at length how they only used her because they used to employ her daughter, who was meticulous, but who moved away and handed the job over to her not-so-tidy mother. Then the mother cared for their dog when it was dying, and they felt indebted to her because it pooped on the rug with clock-setting regularity, and ultimately they didn’t have the heart to fire her.

I turned to craigslist. Under “household services,” there was a grand list of employment-seeking cleaners from which to choose. One post was titled “Barefoot Clean.”

I liked the sound of that. Even my do-it-yourself mother would approve. When I was growing up, she washed all the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, rendering it impossible to tell when it was time to empty the machine. On a weekly basis, she religiously changed the sheets, laundered the towels, scrubbed the bathrooms, vacuumed, dusted, and mopped. Her house was barefoot clean; you could eat off the floor even if a bite of dropped food loitered there more than five seconds. When I walked around my own house barefoot, I ended up with dog fur, cat litter and pretzel crumbs on the bottoms of my feet. I wore slippers constantly to prevent a dirt-triggered anxiety attack.

But while I inherited my mother’s preoccupation with cleanliness, I did not inherit her work ethic. I set up an appointment for “Rob” to come to our house.

The next day, a smiling 50-something-year-old man, sporting khaki shorts, a sparkling white t-shirt and a potbelly, sauntered up the walk in bare feet.

“He’s not wearing any shoes,” I whispered to Leah, who was working at her computer at the kitchen table. That explained the “Barefoot Clean.”

I invited Rob inside, thinking how it was rather convenient that I didn’t have to ask him to remove his shoes. “You’re barefoot,” I said. I was a former social worker trained to name the elephant in the room as soon as it reared its mighty trunk.

“Yes,” Rob replied with a big grin. “As often as possible.”

We showed him the house, which took under 60 seconds since our one-story bungalow was only about 700 square feet. Perfect for the two of us, small for the six-member family who lived there for the twenty years preceding us.

Rob and I stood back at the door after the mini-tour. Leah returned to her seat at the kitchen table, but I knew she was following every word.

“Do you have references?” I asked.

Though not as suspicious as Leah, the idea of a stranger poking around my belongings made me uneasy. While I was pleased to own a copy of Playboy’s Girls of Home Depot edition, I didn’t want anyone else perusing my nothing-but-an-orange-apron vixens. I also loved looking in people’s medicine cabinets when I was visiting their houses, but that didn’t mean I wanted someone exploring mine. (I’m guessing I’d get fewer invitations to parties if people knew my habit.)

“Well…” Rob hesitated and glanced up at the ceiling, over at the walls and down to his bare feet. Then he stared me straight in the eye. “Only from my nude modeling job,” he said. He waited for my reaction.

“I guess that’s fine,” I said.

I tried to keep his gaze, like a good non-judgmental therapist whose client had just blurted an awkward confession. I’d nude modeled for artists in my younger, experimental hippie days. To break the tension, I joked, “As long as you don’t plan to clean our house nude.”

Rob frowned. “Oh, would that be a problem?”

Suddenly I got that Barefoot Clean actually meant Bare Ass Totally Naked Clean. “Um, yeah, um, I think, um, it would,” I said. I could feel Leah trying not to laugh behind me. I too struggled to maintain my composure.

“You said in your email that you preferred your house cleaned while you were at work,” Rob said, “so why does it matter if I’m nude?”

I imagined a naked man vacuuming my rugs while his man-parts enjoyed their lack of restraints. Then I considered how when one reaches up to clean the top of the tall mirror in the bathroom, one’s pelvis presses against the counter. “I think it would make me uncomfortable,” I said.

“Oh, okay, well…” Rob said. His eyebrows furrowed crookedly, which made one half of his face look disappointed, and the other half appear irritated that I had just wasted his time.

“Um…” I said.

“I’d better be going,” he said.

“I’ll, um, be in touch or something,” I said.

Leah and I immediately googled “nude house cleaning” after Rob left, which presented us with 290,000 search results. Some people even advertised that if allowed to be naked, they would clean your house for free. I contemplated whether Rob’s services would be more appealing if we didn’t have to pay him. I wanted a clean house that badly.

I called my mother to ask her opinion. “You’d have to check for ass prints on your kitchen chairs,” she said. “And I don’t want to imagine where he’d carry your house key.”

That night, we cleaned the place ourselves, top to bottom. For free. And while it wasn’t Bare Ass Totally Naked Clean, it was as close to “barefoot clean” as we’d ever get.

-Amelia Sauter

recurring nightmare

school bus

The school bus: Love it, or hate it.

YOU’VE HAD THIS NIGHTMARE. You suddenly realize you aren’t wearing any pants, in the mall. Your teacher throws a pop quiz on a subject you know nothing about.  You are onstage and you forget your lines; in fact, you don’t even know what play you are in. Your mouth is full of pounds of stretchy gum that you can’t pull out.  You try to run from a dangerous person and you can only move in slow motion. You have to pee real bad and all the toilets are clogged and overflowing so you have to go in the sink (this one runs in my family).  You try to dial 911 when someone attacks you and you keep hitting the numbers wrong or no one answers.

Twenty years after graduating high school, I still have dreams where I am running to catch the school bus as it pulls away, or I get on the wrong bus and it drops me off in a strange place.  A few weeks ago, I experienced one of these unfortunate nightmares while I was awake.

It was about 7:30pm when I sat down by the fire to read the newspaper, specifically the Ithaca Journal business section that had come in the mail that day.  As I sipped my bourbon and flipped through the pages, I saw a blurb on the blogging workshop that I would be teaching next month in Trumansburg.  “That’s advertised about four weeks early,” I thought.  “Wow, those T-burg Chamber people really plan ahead.”  I turned the page and started reading another article.  Leah came in from the kitchen.  “Look, honey,” I said.  “My blog class is advertised in the paper already.”  As I flipped back to the page to show her, my eye caught the date of the workshop:  November 17.  I stopped breathing.  “What’s today’s date?”  I asked Leah.  “November 17,” she said.  My heart turned to ice.  I looked at the article again.  The workshop starts at 7pm, it read.  I looked at the clock.  7:36pm.

“Sh*t!” I hollered as I leapt out of my chair.  “Sh*t-sh*t-sh*t!” I said as I frantically changed into a pair of jeans and put my boots and coat on.  “Sh*t!” I muttered as I jumped into the car and drove really fast the half-mile to the library, hoping the cops weren’t taking radar in the middle of town like usual.  The library was dark.  “Sh*t,” I said as I turned the car around.  I had a sinking feeling that I had messed up really, really badly.

I stopped at Gimme coffee on the way home and the girl was just closing up.  I banged on the door and gave her my best pleading face.  She laughed at me as she unlocked the door.  “You need coffee that badly?” she asked.  “No,” I said as I walked over to the bulletin board.  “I need this.”  I pulled down the poster advertising my workshop that I had noticed hanging there earlier in the week.  November 17, 7pm.  “I missed my own workshop,” I told her.

Later I found out that the Chamber of Commerce, the Library and I had all written the date down as Dec 17, but the woman who did the publicity had accidentally switched it to Nov 17.  The blogging workshop technically was scheduled for December 17; it was just advertised wrong to, say, around ninety thousand people.

I was off the hook, but the anxiety was all too familiar.  I had dreamed about missing the school bus the night before.  Last week, all my teeth crumbled and fell out.  And the week before that, I tried to stab an intruder with a butcher knife and it turned into a compostable plastic spoon.  My near-miss was an all-too-real reminder of where these anxiety-provoked dreams come from.

Sweet dreams, and see you at the workshop…

-Amelia Sauter