Last Saturday, walking the hills, my friend had told me about choosing totems for the different members of her family. And how one of the other women in the group said, “You know, don’t take this wrong, but have you ever seen a female elk – they’re so – "
“Awkward?” my friend had said, retelling the story to me.
“No," her other friend had answered, "kind of humble and majestic at the same time. I think you’re a female elk.”
My friend is underwhelmed and would rather be a bird.
“Like a tern?” I suggested.
“I would rather a raptor of some kind.”
Now it is the next Saturday and my friend and I meet again on the road, greeting each other in puffs of frosty steam, our faces rosy with the cold as we turn together to tackle the 6-mile loop of hills around the fairgrounds. We come to the topic of totems again.
“Don’t worry,” she teases. “It’s not as pagan as it sounds. I don’t think it will keep you out of heaven.”
“Such a snert,” and she laughs as I shoulder her off-step.
“So?” she asks.
“Well, I’d have to be something with a keen sense of smell.”
“Definitely.” Our walks are punctuated as much by my stopping and sniffing the air – what is that? – as they are enhanced by her pointing out drops of water pearling along a fence wire or shaggy emerald moss on a fallen log or an anthill taller than either of us.
I really would love, just for a day, to experience the woods with that augmented sixth sense of smell. I'd like to live in that reality made up of all those layers of smells, to be able to follow the paths laid down in scent-trails.
“I know you would,” says my friend. We agree I coulda shoulda been a Nose – though she snorts with laughter at the idea of a Mormon wine-sniffer – but maybe there would have been a future for me in perfumery?
As for my totem, “Some kind of dog?” I’m thinking a kit fox or even –
“Actually I kind of see you as an English . . . what are they? some kind of long-legged hound? I know that sounds awful, but they’re very noble, velvety grey and they’re very useful to the farmer.”
But I am so tired of being useful. “But I would want to hunt down the prey and the taste of hot blood – ”
“Ooo, visceral. Okay, so you could be a wolf.”
But I know it cannot be. Even my wish to be wilder shows how domesticated a dog I am. For a wolf there is no glamour in the hunt. Bare sustenance. The only alternative to hunger's gnaw. It's the noble-jowled farm dog who looks off longingly to the woods before turning reliably back to her duties.
Herding. Guarding. Scaring bad beasts away. Isn't that what I do?
I don’t know that I can see my children all-at-once enough to assign them a totem. Perhaps 1st Daughter – this week especially – is a happy koala – sweet and contented as long as there are plenty of eucalyptus leaves. Rather unconcerned about the rest of the world. But restfully and adorably so. “Well, at least that’s better than being a golden-haired sloth like you said I was in first-grade,” says my daughter when I tell her about the totem-discussion after the walk.
My friend had nodded when I suggest that 2nd Daughter is some kind of brilliant lizard or panther – sleek and sinuous, very still, very quick. Though we agree that maybe an ermine is even better: finely wrought, suddenly fierce, a symbol in the Renaissance of loyalty. We realize we’re both thinking of the same Da Vinci painting.
My son – I don’t know – he’s still so unformed. A big-footed puppy? When I tell them all about it in the kitchen after my walk, my son tells me he wants to be a German Shepherd – we can bark around the yard together with our ears flapping.
“How about you?” I ask my husband.
But he refuses to play this morning. Too busy. Too burdened.
“Okay,” I say, “then I guess you are –-- ” glancing around the kitchen my eyes fall on the box of potatoes he’s been urging us to use up. Every year he brings more boxes of potatoes back from his parent’s neighbors in Idaho than we can ever use. Every year I fail to use them all – though I even give bags and bags of them away at the first of the autumn.
“Dad is a potato?” my son shakes his head. His dad is his favorite hero.
Well? It’s not particularly flattering but the more you think about it – underground, persistent, ordinary – and (yes) useful.
And more than that - easily bruised with rough-handling, perhaps a little apt to turn poisonous in over-brilliant conditions. Capable of sprouting endlessly, though, and sustaining life even in obscurity.
With strange purple flowers most people overlook.
Today, writing alone in a quiet house, I wonder what I’m not seeing in these daily four who share my waking hours. What I’ve forgotten how to see perhaps in their father most of all: this man maybe not so ordinary.