I’ve always been enamored of the idea of totems. I won’t pretend to any real expertise in this area. My limited knowledge of such things having been gleaned from a long ago reading of The Clan of the Cave Bear and several viewings of Dances with Wolves. Still, I do believe that whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all have them. If we pay attention, our animal guides through the spirit world may even tell us something about who we are or, at least, who we were.
As a child I had a real thing for elephants — my favorite was “Angie”. She was purple, plush, and well-loved. Elephants became my “thing” for many years not because I could appreciate the familial bonds that these great beasts are well-known for in the natural world — bonds that have long imparted to them a certain human-like quality. Nor did I have any understanding of the symbolism associated with elephants in Hindu culture — the elephant has long represented Ganesh, the deity responsible for, among other things, removing obstacles. My affection for elephants was simpler and childlike. I liked them because they were cute.
Angie also had something else going for her. She just felt lucky. As the story went, my father won her for me on the Boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey when I was a baby at one of the many carnival-like stands where you plunk down a coin, spin the wheel and take a stab at winning a prize. That is how it came to be that while other children acquired teddy bears or bunnies, I held fast to elephants.
Somewhere along the line Angie (and the rest of her elephant companions) ceased to be important to me. Perhaps this was because, outside of their adorableness, I never truly identified with elephants. Perhaps totems cannot be won in games of chance or given to us by our parents. Possibly, they have to be earned. Mainly, though, I believe that they have to choose us.
I passed through my elephant phase and sailed through the rest of my late childhood and my adolescence sans totem. Then, when I first struck out on my own, partly as a result of their wide availability, partly because their colors complemented my kitchen décor, but mainly because they spoke to me, I took up with roosters. Or, they took up with me.
At the time I didn’t realize that by opting to fill my shelves and countertops with roosters that I might have been saying something about myself — tapping into my “inner rooster”, as it were. Upon further reflection, I can see that I was. Roosters are bossy. They’re also loud. Their colorful plumage and strutting nature make them the center of attention in any chicken coop. I can see now that the younger version of me had quite a lot in common with the rooster.
Somewhere in the midst of the redecorating and organizational project that I’ve come to call “the hovel purge”, I began to rethink the whole rooster thing. I became more conscious of those things that roosters symbolize and decided, for better or for worse, that I am no longer a rooster. Sure, I can still assert my place in the pecking order, when necessary, and I daresay that I’ll never be described as quiet, but the roosters were no longer speaking to me. I had stopped identifying with them. Middle-age, it seems, has softened my strut considerably.
I’m more likely now to let the younger people get excited about the injustices of life. I leave it to them to take on the world. I’m tired. I’ll give advice when and if they ask, but, really, I’m content to just observe as they, more often than not, peck and cluck away in that puffed up, rooster-like way that is best suited to a more youthful person. These days I’m far more likely to watch from the sidelines, all the while shaking my head and thinking, “They’ll learn!”.
And so it happened that the wisdom that one naturally acquires with age forced upon me a new totem. The decision wasn’t necessarily a conscious one. I didn’t wake up one morning and haul off all the roosters. I simply noticed that a different animal spirit was whispering in my ear.
I became aware that, more and more, I was being drawn to owls. There is, at present, no shortage of owl-themed accessories in the marketplace. With ’70s retro being very in, they are currently all the rage. It probably won’t be long before people start replacing their stainless steel appliances with avocado, gold, or burnt orange ones. While I don’t see myself hopping on that bandwagon when it inevitably rolls around, I have wholeheartedly, and much to my husband’s dismay, embraced the return of the owl.
It’s no accident that their comeback has coincided with my maturation and my need for a new totem. Owls, after all, symbolize wisdom. Aging has made me, if not always wiser, certainly more wily.
Nature, in its infinite wisdom, has also seen fit to bestow upon the owl, for purposes of survival and protection, a keen and nearly total field of vision — it’s almost as if they’ve got eyes in the backs of their heads. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but, in true owl-like fashion, I can sense an enemy approach. To avoid this, I need only, like an owl, take flight. Roosters don’t fly.
I can also, like my owl friends, fairly easily pinpoint prey. My victims don’t anticipate my presence. I, too, have learned to rely upon the element of surprise and bursts of quickness to subdue my enemies. They hardly ever see me coming. They only know I’ve been there once they’ve been masticated and swallowed whole.
I’m not exactly sure how much, if any, wisdom real owls actually possesses. What they are, though, is patient. They have the ability to sit for very long periods of time as they observe and absorb their surroundings. It is possible that humans have confused this patience for wisdom. That’s understandable. True wisdom is very often gained by those who have mastered the fine art of patience. Good things may, indeed, come to those who wait.
Slowly, but surely, the roosters, totems of my younger, more aggressive self are ceding their space, being phased out, to the owls — calmer, more knowing birds. I won’t dispose of all of my roosters, though. No. I’ll hold tight to a few of my favorites. They’ll serve as excellent reminders of what my totem used to be — who I used to be. Also, you never know when a situation may arise, when it might become necessary, for this wise old bird to strut her stuff.