7 June 2021
I can actually think of no better day and no better way to write this. Today is the first official day of our PCS: the packers just arrived and hauled all of their materials into the foyer, chatted for a moment (as one of them is the same kid who moved us into this house two years ago), and then disappeared into the bedrooms to begin. There is nothing further to be done inside the house, and so I’ve migrated out to the backyard, where I sit in the one available patio chair, wrapped in a patchwork quilt, giving Lexi much-appreciated back and ear scratches. The sky is a mottled grey; the clouds are low but soft, like a down comforter, and they act to amplify the sounds of the children playing at the CDC and – well – all of the birds: robins, grackles, finches, sparrows, and even the stray chickadee. So much life. Quite pleasant, really.
What strikes me about this particular piece, before I even begin, is my fear to begin: it is, in fact an impostor syndrome fear. I’m worried that my thoughts here will seem childish or cliché. I am worried that spending such time elaborating on this idea will also come off as self-centered or narrow. Inspecting these thoughts further, it’s clear to me that for these reasons – and maybe none others – I must air these ideas. It’s time to lean-in instead of out. It’s time to prove to myself that those ideas are worthy of air and that imposter syndrome is a simple mindset limitation and nothing more.
Where to begin…? In the classroom.
Somewhere on the Internets about a year ago, perhaps on the Higher Ed Learning Collective on Facebook, a fellow educator mentioned that instead of asking students, “Do you have any questions?” at the end of a class, she started demanding, “Ask me a question.” In doing so, she elicited far more interaction from her students leading to some rather elaborate and engaging discourse. So, in my own spin on that tactic, I began the “Two Questions” exit ticket: in order for the entire class (all twenty students) to be allowed to exit the classroom at the end of a session, they must first ask two questions – which I will answer. That’s two questions for the class as a whole, and it does not matter who asks. This tactic can be especially effective when I have at least one very engaged, vociferous student in the classroom…and it can be quite fun. Most of the time, I prefer that the questions center upon our learning materials; however, it is inevitable, for some reason, that about 7/10 of the time, those questions center upon me – in spite of my insistence that this need not be the case.
One day last semester, a student asked me, “What is your spirit animal?” Was it Shawn? Jonny? I can’t recall…in any case, sometimes these student questions are quite difficult to answer. This was one of those moments. I didn’t want to rush. The question felt oddly important, for some reason. I asked for a raincheck on the question in order to ponder. In truth, I don’t recall deliberating or hesitating long: my intuition immediately suggested to me, that very moment, “Raven.” Yet without fully understanding that instinct, my response to that question would necessarily be under-supported; it needed reflection, research, and a touch of time. I asked my student if I could get back to him the next class.
…as I contemplate this, I’m watching a grackle bully a crow yonder over the JDC parking lot…
**An aside within an aside, a week or two after this moment, when embarking upon a ziplining adventure in Big Sky, Montana, the zipliner tour guides asked our group the same question: “What are each of your spirit animals?” Most of the spirit animals in our group were spot-on and fascinating choices – with one exception: one man claimed his to be a golden retriever. I just about died! Please forgive me, anyone out there whose spirit animal is a dog or golden retriever! But big, dumb, goofy, friendly – who chooses these characteristics for their spirit animal?? I am definitely far too judgmental…but deep within me, something responded with hysterical fits of laughter. OK – focus, Meg.**
So, I took some time, researched, and then returned to my class two days later with resolve: “My spirit animal is a raven.” What follows here in this essay is my fully elaborated explanation supporting that decision.
What is a Spirit Animal?
A spirit animal is a significant Native American tribal concept: a person’s spirit animal is their sacred messenger or teacher. From what I understand, we don’t really choose our spirit animals; instead, they appear or present themselves to us naturally or subconsciously. Hmm. Interesting, right – considering mine was a knee-jerk gut instinct?
Can someone who is not Native to this land have a spirit animal? Why in the world did the raven present itself to me so quickly and easily that day? Is this weird? Yes, it’s weird – but whatever, who cares…? Lean in, Meg.
Corvid. Let’s start at the beginning…
The very first time a raven appeared in my world I was fourteen (years before I became a bird nerd). The summer after my freshman year of high school, our family launched itself into a month-long cross-country odyssey. We hit a bajilliondy national parks ranging south and westward from our home in Maryland across to Cali, Washington, Oregon, and then back again north and eastward. There are so many memories worthy of writing in here, but let me stick to my raven moment.
It was an excruciatingly hot July day in the Moab desert at the campground in Arches National Park. Temperatures pushed well into triple-digits, and it was not likely an exaggeration of reality to surmise that the asphalt could melt the soles of your sneakers if you stood too long in one place. It was that sort of dry heat that makes the road before you turn to liquid - a visible heat, like that which rises off the lid of a lit grill. It was miserable, but at least outside of the RV the air was less stagnant, so we laced up our rigid hiking boots and filled our water canteens to go explore. In fact, BK and I had our eye on a particular cave across the street from the campground; it was well up on a red sandstone rise just begging to be scrambled.
Either these were days before the NPS began protecting the biological soil crust, or we didn’t see the signs – or perhaps we simply did not concern ourselves with such things…in retrospect, my heart breaks just a little bit that we might’ve damaged the crust in our meanderings, but what’s done is done. My story must go on.
We crossed the asphalt street and wandered off into the wild toward our chosen cave. The scramble up the warm sandstone was not difficult, and it turned out that our cave was just another not-yet-fully-formed arch – a baby or toddler arch, if you will. We were pleased with ourselves even though the cave was not very deep, glamorous, or even mysterious. As BK and I sat together on our rocky throne overlooking the magical realm of sandstone below, a gravelly caw captured my attention. Then, a winged shadow passed the mouth of the cave; I saw it only out of the corner of my eye, but immediately my head whipped around to attention. A second caw, louder, and another – a humongous crow – whipped by, and this time I saw it. So black it was iridescent in that heat – how could they stand it? I thought it must be cooler, moving through the air as they do.
**If/when she reads this, my mom will say, “Your memory for details is amazing!” What she doesn’t understand is that it’s not…the sandstone, the hike, the cave, the boots, my sister, the heat – these elements all existed. The ravens existed. Did they really fly past us as BK and I sat in that cave? I don’t recall. Does it matter? Was the fish Keira caught a foot or 18 inches? Did Grandma really take the floor at that barn dance? Were there 109 baby turtles? What makes a better story? Embellishment, exaggeration, inventiveness. My memory is fickle and limited, but my imagination is generous and so why not lean in?**
Without any instruction that day, I instinctively knew these creatures were ravens. How could a person not know? Precisely like a crow but bigger, with a deeper and gravellier caw, and (sometimes) bearded beneath the beak. This bird captured my imagination from day one – maybe it was the magic of Moab. Maybe it was that those feathers were so shiny black they turned blue.
My present-day nuclear unit re-encountered this corvid while we bundled in heavy fleeces on the frigid peaks Rocky Mountain National Park and explored the Tundra Communities trail. As we hiked steadily to avoid shivering, a ravenous (heh heh) couple captured and rode draughts of air like waves on the ocean, dipping in and out of sight beyond rocks and ridges; their caws echoed through valley and gulch, bouncing back and forth between mountains, and I marveled that they did not seem cold!
From the Moab oven to the Rocky tundra, these birds seemed – undaunted, unfazed. In fact, in both of these vastly diverse environs they appeared quite at home – flourishing, thriving. One word comes to mind: RESILIENT. How very military family of them to be able to bloom where they’re planted, no? Hm.
Beyond these two critical moments, there are my dreams. Vivid and realistic to the point of often confusing me, my dreams consistently leech into my daily consciousness. In the real physical world, when I was in third grade, a boy made the mistake of attempting to bully me on the playground. Of course, I would have none of it; whether punching him in the nose was just a threat or whether it truly happened, I do not recall. However, the power I felt in that moment stayed with me. Ever since, I have a recurring dream about that day: instead of punching him in the nose, I simply spread my wings and lifted off. With my feathery force, my body carried up, up into the sky – about 20 feet in the air – just over the head of my bully. His face was a mask of surprise at what he witnessed: a flying girl. Other third-graders on the play equipment began to notice too, jabbing friends with elbows and pointing fingers at me. Slowly, my wings floated me out and over the jungle gym, past the foursquare courts, over the hopscotch, off into the trees beyond the schoolyard. I won, and my wings saved me.
So, I guess I’ve always had wings. Maybe this dream fed my fetish for superpowers and my yearning for magic (which so recently died and was surreptitiously resurrected via existential crisis). In my research, there were many meanings for dreams about ravens: dreams about killing ravens, dreams about eating ravens, dreams about finding a dead raven, etc. None of those dreams were dreams of being a raven, however…so what does that actually mean? Let’s let that question sit…
That brings us to the meaning of the raven.
Let’s start with the comparison between crow and raven. The distinguishing factors are not restricted to the physical world: their differences lie also in the semantic/abstract.
For example, a group of crows is a murder. How macabre! Fun, but…also unsettling.
A group of ravens, on the other hand, is a conspiracy. I like this. Though the connotation may be negative on its surface, consider that a conspiracy is far more social than a murder. It implies cooperation of a group of like-minded people; it also implies overthrowing an organization or fixed belief system (presumably one that is unjust or untruthful). Of course, there’s the conspiracy to murder issue to overcome, but I can wave that right away simply because I do not wish to acknowledge it. Perhaps the murder was requisite for critical social change, after all? Nothing is so black and white…
Which brings me to my next symbol: literary gothic romanticism – or dark romanticism. To be clear, here, by this I do not mean popular goth, with the black hair and lipstick and nail polish. No; it would never suit me to pigeonhole myself (or my spirit animal) in such a way. In fact, I so deeply related and yet simultaneously eschewed the pop goth mentality and stereotype that in high school I would paint my fingernails white.
Yet literary dark romanticism (which I will hereafter refer to as Gothic Romance) is characterized by the mysterious, supernatural, dark, emotional, and even terrifying. We’re talking Byronic mountainscapes and morally tortured heroes. We’re talking Brontëesque lunatic attic-wives and disembodied voices. We’re talking Shelleyan quivering, electrified flesh. And yes, without a doubt, we’re talking Poeriffic thumping floorboards and dear nevermore Lenore! The bust, the chamber door – the RAVEN.
Literary Gothic Romance, since my introduction to the world of horror via Stephen King when I was an influential, impressionable ten-year-old, has always been my guilty pleasure. Perhaps it was my coping mechanism for all of the challenges I faced in the real world – a story for another day (or more truly, a book).
And what better world than that of Gothic Romance to learn that things are not always what they seem? A good man may have such a broken soul that he can no longer function in society. A marriage may be more of a prison than a paradise, and a small girl may be stronger than a muscled man. A monster can prove less monstrous than human – a simple lack of love his motivation for monstrosity. And a raven might startle, but instead of harm it imparts wisdom amidst grief.
In fact, ravens, much like gargoyles, are so deeply not what they seem. Gargoyles (a mild obsession of mine – there are many about my house) are caricatures and monsters – terrifying in artful design with two functional purposes: 1. To drain rainwater, and 2. To scare away evil spirits. Thus, these horrific figures are, surprise surprise, intended for the churchgoer’s protection! Likewise with the raven: they may be dark, mysterious, carrion-eating scavengers, but they are known to be viciously protective of those they love.
Viciously protective of those they love. This is me to a T. Threaten me, my husband, or my children, and my talons will scrape, my beak will peck – your skin, your eyes, your soul, nothing is safe. Think, Hitchcock’s The Birds. Except I am all of the birds, and all of them are ravens.
Is it ironic or is it well-suited that the raven is most widely known to symbolize death – for it is aging and death that are at the root of my deepest anxieties? What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? Keep your friends close and enemies closer? A raven as a spirit animal for a human terrified of death? But there is comfort in this…not only in keeping death close at hand and on the mind, but in the raven’s act of perpetuating the cycle of life: carrion-eating. This takes me back to Taoism and Buddhism, which have been critical components in the management of my death anxiety. Everything in this universe operates cyclically. To be born is to live is to die is to be born is to live is to die….ashes to ashes, if you will. There is something deeply reassuring about this rhythm, this cycle, in which scavengers like ravens play such an essential decompositional role.
But the raven can symbolize more than the dark and the gothic, as well. It can also symbolize introspection, consciousness, change, adaptability, and more. Not a single one of these symbols is alien to me. When Keira read the list I found online, with a mind toward my spirit animal, her eyes grew wide: “This is so you.” It is. My gut knew it. Turns out, each of my nuclear unit has an aviary spirit animal…
Ohhh sure, as a bird nerd, I’d perhaps prefer something bright and beautiful: a hummingbird, bluebird, a goldfinch, maybe? Or why the heck not a merlin or some other falcon? I could dream that bringing beauty and energy to others is my purpose in this world – except that it’s not. I may like glitter, but I am not made of glitter. If I do shine, it is not from without but within. No; the raven is so me. It just feels right.
So…childish? Cliché? How might you characterize this mental meandering, today? Will you grant me the possibility that there might be some value in the concept of a spirit animal – generally speaking? If so, what is yours? Are you a poodle? A goldfish? A tortoise? An eagle or a lion? And why…? Is it just good fun, or is there something to this that’s worthy of a moments’ thought? Either way, maybe it’s worthy of a moments’ thought…so why not give it that? Diversion is worthwhile too, you know...
Happy Monday, y’all!