This piece was originally published in Snowy Egret, Spring 2002, Volume 65, Number 1
My grandfather’s grandmother was Pawnee, which makes me one-sixteenth Indian–enough to get a discount on my college tuition if I had had anyway of proving my Indian blood. Unfortunately, my ancestors were racists who frowned upon my great great grandfather’s choice of spouse, so her name and tribal affiliation were whitewashed cleanly out of the family tree decades before I was born (and I will be paying off my student loans for another fifteen years). In third or fourth grade I found out about my thin ties to the Indian world, and quickly incorporated them into my personal genealogical narrative, right along side my connection to the Bloody Campbells of Scotland and the Hatfields of Hatfields-and-McCoys fame. I boasted of various ancestral pedigrees throughout elementary school and junior high. Some days I was a proud clansman; other days I was a descendent of a fierce group of Appalachian hillbillies. But most days I was Indian.
Although I am a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic and I usually have no patience for mysticism in any form, I am nonetheless fascinated by the pantheistic spiritualism that forms the base of many Native American belief systems. There is something very appealing about the bond with the natural world that is woven into traditional Indian belief, a calm, deep connection that runs counter to the very fabric of the frenetic and shallow economically-driven commotion of our present culture. New-Agers appear to share my fascination, and in their culturally-void eclectic accretion of the quasi-religious and pseudo-scientific, many New Agers have latched on to the more self-serving bits and pieces of Indian spirituality. And I fear that their self-focused New-Age buffoonery may have had a negative impact on the general public regard for many traditional Indian beliefs. Cultural traditions of indigenous people deserve to be respected for what they are, and contrary to the platitude, imitation is not always a form of flattery. For this reason and others I have never been tempted to practice any of the traditional Indian ways. Never, that is, until I met my animal guide.
Accounts of the purpose and nature of animal guides vary widely, and I claim no expertise on the subject. Sometimes the animal guides, or helpers, as they are frequently called, will appear out of the blue to offer their assistance or insight. Usually, they have to be approached through some kind of protracted spiritual quest; a person seeking such guidance undergoes some ordeal, perhaps fasting for days while sitting in a remote place beseeching the spirit world for assistance by “crying for a vision.” In many cases, ritualized dream fasting serves as a right of passage into the adult world. The spirit guide becomes a source of the knowledge, power, and “medicine” necessary to cope with the struggles ahead.
I was neither crying for a vision nor on a particular spiritual quest when I met my animal guide. In fact, I didn’t recognize him as my animal guide until several years later. It was a warm July evening in Davis, California. I was sitting in the dark on the deck of our second story apartment in one of the larger student-family housing complexes on the UCD campus. The neighbors called their decks balconies, but the term balcony implies a level of ornateness that was entirely lacking in the present case. The deck was made of wooden slats about as wide as railroad ties and about the same color, and bounded on two sides by what looked more like a fence than a railing. A solid paneled firedoor separated the deck from the common porch area at the top of the stairs. There was a four-inch space between the bottom of the fire door and the deck floor. As I sat brooding over a particularly disturbing domestic problem, I detected some movement to my left. A fat, cat-sized, rat-shaped creature with beady black eyes, a thin triangular face capped by a pink nose, and a thick hairless tail was casually strolling across the deck in my direction. It walked toward me with a distinctive swagger, its body rolling gently from side to side with each step, and appeared not to notice that I was there. Astonished at the creature’s bravery–or ignorance; I wasn’t sure which–I spoke out loud. “Who are you?” The creature froze in its tracks about six inches from my leg, raised its head, and looked me in the eye. “What are you?” I said, amazed that it hadn’t immediately fled at the sound of my voice, and not a little afraid that I was about to be bitten by a rabid wild animal, the likes of which I had never before seen. Several seconds passed and neither of us moved. Then, the beast lowered its head nonchalantly, turned, and walked away with the same insouciance with which it had arrived. It had to force itself through the four-inch gap under the fire door by sliding on its belly and clawing and swimming with its legs. I continued to watch as its snake-like tail followed into the darkness on the other side.
Eight years later I was enduring a cold Indiana winter in a one hundred year old house that had seventy-five year old insulation. I was sitting in the kitchen meditating on another disturbing domestic problem when the dog jolted me from my reverie by scratching the wall and sniffing frantically with his nose pressed firmly against the edge of the door to the water heater closet. I opened the door to find two very familiar beady black eyes staring back at me out of the darkness. It was the same creature, which I learned since our last meeting was an opossum. “You again,” I said. It was curled up against the water heater and gave no indication that it was going to leave, despite my presence. In fact, I got the distinct impression that it felt as if I had invaded its privacy and should promptly excuse myself and shut the door.
So I did.
I had no idea how the animal found its way into the closet, but I figured that it could probably find its way back out again. It was gone the next morning, but it returned throughout the winter and into the early spring. Any time the weather would turn cold it could be found curled up against the warm metal at the base of the water heater.
At first I considered calling animal control to have the opossum removed. But a bit of research changed my mind. Opossums have an undeserved reputation as a varmint. They are often lumped in with the likes of raccoons and skunks; yet opossums are generally beneficial creatures. They are nocturnal, omnivorous loners who usually dine on insects–one of the cockroach’s only natural enemies–but will eat mice and snakes as well. They have a formidable set of sharp teeth that they bare with an impressive hiss whenever they are threatened, but they rarely use them for defense–they prefer to avoid confrontation. They don’t actually play dead; rather when things get too much for them they go into a kind of shock that leaves them involuntarily unable to respond. They are extremely resourceful, finding shelter wherever they happen to be and eating whatever is convenient. They use their prehensile tail to steady themselves when they climb, and although they are sometimes depicted hanging from their tails, their adult weight makes such acrobatics prohibitive. The more that I read about opossums, the less inclined I was to have this one forcefully evicted. Still, it’s a difficult thing for someone raised in the antiseptic Western world to be comfortable sharing his space with an uncaged wild animal, so I began to search for a means to rationalize the opossum’s continued tenancy. I considered keeping it as a pet, but childhood memories of cleaning guinea pig cages led to a quick dismissal of that idea. Then I struck upon the possibility of considering the opossum to be a message from the spirit world, perhaps even my personal animal guide. The opossum’s name comes from an Algonkian Indian term for “white dog.” Perfect. A joke from the spirit world: send the white man a white-dog animal guide. Within days, I had the opossum eating Kibbles ‘n Bits practically out of my hand.
About this time, I started noticing opossums everywhere. Once I saw three of them in a single day. One stopped traffic as it strolled unconcerned in broad daylight across a busy intersection; another, having failed to stop traffic, lay dead on the side of the road on the other side of town; and a third stared at me from behind the garbage cans in my garage as I deposited the kitchen trash. I would have wondered about my sanity if other people weren’t with me to verify each sighting. Perhaps the strangest encounter occurred one evening when an opossum followed my wife and me as we walked home along the river from the local ice cream place. It didn’t actually follow us; stalked us would be more accurate. It walked alongside, keeping an equal distance between us and the riverbank for most of the way home.
Okay, so I never actually believed that the opossum in my water heater closet was sent from the great beyond to assist me with my troubles. But thinking about the opossum proved to be a useful way for me to organize my thinking about other aspects of my life. Comparative self-reflection revealed that I possess many opossum-like characteristics. I am a loner, I am somewhat nomadic, I prefer a simple existence and adapt easily to adverse situations, and I avoid confrontation at all cost. Like the opossum, I am frequently misunderstood and often mislabeled a threat, and like the opossum, I tend to freeze-up under pressure. The opossum became a metaphor, his presence in my closet an allegory. Was I, perhaps, hiding from the cold world in a closet of my own design, playing dead whenever things became too much for me to handle? My close encounters with the opossum on the deck and the one in my water heater closet occurred when I was embroiled in a particular kind of internal conflict. In both instances I was struggling with a problem to which I had already determined a solution but was unable to muster the courage to take the necessary action: I was paralyzed, not by indecision, but by the implications of the choice that I had already made. And ironically in both instances the problems resolved themselves before I had the chance to act—and in ways that suggested that the choice I had settled on would have only made things worse. Sometimes playing dead pays off.
I have recently started to take a more opossum-like approach to life in general. Whenever I am confronted with a problem or a conflict that I’m unsure how to resolve, I ask myself, “What would an opossum do?” Most of the time, the answer is “Turn and calmly walk away.” And, nine times out of ten, the results of implementing this particular opossum strategy have been nothing short of miraculous. Now, when my world falls into temporary disarray, I no longer allow myself to be terrorized by my own inaction. I no longer expect myself to be able to respond immediately in every crisis. Moreover, I allow for a moment or two of paralysis as a necessary part of the decision-making process, as a way to avoid the reflexive reactions that usually make things worse.
The opossum is not the most glamorous of creatures. But we cannot choose our animal guides. Very few people, after all, qualify for the likes of the eagle or the wolf. Most of us deserve a more humble animal, and even the lowly creatures can teach us something about ourselves if we are willing to learn from them. The opossum teaches us to persevere in the presence of acrimonious opinion, to make use of what is available at the moment, and to understand that inaction is sometimes the best strategy when you are overwhelmed. And regardless of whether one accepts assistance from the spirit world as a literal possibility, a spiritual animal guide can be a useful tool for self-understanding. My inborn skepticism tells me that my opossum experiences were just coincidence, and it’s been months since I’ve seen an opossum. But when the nights start to get colder I plan to put some Kibbles ‘n Bits in the water heater closet just in case.