Totem Animals

So I wrote this entire blog entry the night before last and lost almost the entire thing (yes, it's long) just after getting this terrible pain in my chest that landed me in the hospital! I don't know what a heart attack feels like, but I was pretty convinced I was experiencing something like it. It was a relief that the doctors didn't actually find any physical source for the pain, but it left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Not having any clue at all to what the cause was left me feeling nervous. Could this happen to me again, and at any moment?

Nerve-wracking. 

Anyway, on the the original post... 


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There are two women in my family who are particularly attuned to the mysteries of the universe. Both of them practice the healing arts, believe in the force of the natural world, and hear messages from what they refer to as 'spirit' or 'the universe.'

Personally, I have always felt a strong connection to nature, and believe that it is our privilege to be stewards to the natural world.  It is up to us whether we destroy or preserve, and since I was a tiny little girl I worried over what would happen to all those poor pelicans caught in the plastic rings from 6-packs.

As somebody who tends to surround myself with creative types, the subject of totem--or spirit--animals has come up a few times. A few years ago I attended a reiki group with my grandmother, and there was a psychic there who told me my totem animal was the owl. Although I liked the idea of it, I wasn't convinced. Owls rarely showed up in my life. In fact, I only saw one in nature for the first time a few weeks ago.  I don't dream about owls nor does owl imagery pop up enough for me to give deep thought to the possibility. I desperately wanted to know what it could be, but I saw no evidence that would lead me in one direction or another.

Then on Sunday, just after work, I walked into a conversation between two co-workers about the subject...

Person 1: I really want to find my totem animal

Me: How do you go about 'finding it'? 

I left a couple minutes later to go walk my dog, Ana before heading to Perch Studios to get some work done. When I arrived home, my grandmother promptly met me with, "Nature brought you a present today."

"What is it?" 

"Go look at the garden" 

I looked but didn't see anything at first, and then, I noticed a black snake caught in the deer netting around her garden. My mind flashed back to an experience earlier that morning. On my morning walk with Ana, we spotted two small snakes mating next to a bush. Ana didn't want to get very close, but despite my intense fear of snakes, I was fascinated, and stayed to watch a while.

I also remembered passing a dead snake on the road on bike the evening before.

"It's dead," my grandmother said, "so just cut it out of the netting and throw it away." 

There was something that seemed so demoralizing about that, so I decided to cut it away completely to give it a proper burial free of the trap that killed it. The holes in the net were small and dug into the flesh of the snake. Cutting it free would require me to push into the body with the dull side of the scissors blade, and cut very gingerly to avoid breaking skin. Before getting started, I held part of the body in my hand and it felt warm somehow. I cut the first ring away, and the body relaxed. After the second, I felt what seemed like an uncoiling inside and realized it wasn't dead at all, but had been stunned. The snake's head raised and looked toward me. Its tongue flicked.

It took me a painstaking hour to free the snake from the netting. The last cut took the longest because the netting was so close to its head I was worried it would try to bite me. It didn't though. It flicked its tongue, and kept its head raised, but kept still while I dug into its body the 7 or 8 times it took to free it.

When it was finally free, it slithered off to what I thought was the middle of the garden. I thought I had time to rip up the rest of the  netting so it wouldn't happen again, and began ripping it all up. I didn't even realize the back of the garden, which backed up to a thick bramble, had netting behind it. I started pulling that last section away, and my heart dropped. I looked over and there the snake was, caught again.

This time, Harold (this is the name I used when pleading with him to be nice and forgive me and not bite me) was not quiet or calm or patient. He was mad and scared and, I'm sure, hurting. He wasn't caught in quite as many places, but the stuck spots seemed stuck more deeply and in a more complicated configuration, and this time, the spot where his head was caught was far enough away that I could get bitten while cutting it.  

The next hour was terrifying. Sweet little Harold lunged at me several times and struggled quite a bit. About 2/3 of the way through, my grandmother brought me some incense and pulled a chair over. The incense was for the mosquitoes that had begun eating me alive, but I thought that somehow it might calm the snake as well as ward off skeeters. 

"Sing to him," she said. 

"You sing. I have too much to concentrate on. 

Person 2:  You pay attention to which animals or animal imagery appears to you on a regular basis. It could be in life or in dreams. It bothered me that I couldn't think of what mine could be, and suddenly, as if I hadn't been going along just fine without one all this time, I desperately wanted to know what mine was.

Sweat poured off of me as I tried to avoid slipping with the scissors. My hands shook, and my grandmother started singing.

I swear it worked. Harold stopped moving so much and calmed down with the lunging long enough to get to that final piece of netting. 

This time, when he got free, there was nothing else to run into and he got far far away.  The relief I felt was so intense I could hardly process it. Having life in your hands like that isn't an easy burden to bear, especially when helping requires endangering yourself.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the incident in DC earlier in the year when myself and a colleague where faced with trying to resuscitate a man dying from a heart attack. We performed CPR while the wife and son watched, but there was nothing to be done. There was just nothing to do.  

I just couldn't let the snake die. When there's a choice, there's a way.

And it's no wonder that when the pain in my chest began late that evening on Monday, I thought I was having a heart attack.