February 20, 2014

Trusting in Spirit. ~ Jenine Durland

water snake

This is not a dream.

There’s a dead garter snake with a lizard’s rear legs and tail sticking halfway out of its mouth, also dead—the whole thing like an odd, decomposing, double-tailed creature—outside my door.

I found the strange amalgamation yesterday on an afternoon trail hike with my dog, and after a morning of reading about shamans and spirits and Stan Grof; I couldn’t help but scoop the thing up in a doggy bag and bring it home.

Now, though, I’m not sure what to do with it—it ”has a bit of an odor,” my mother said when I stopped by to show her. I told them I was thinking of putting it on my altar and my step-father shook his head in that “here she goes again” kind of way and I’d let myself go there.


See, I’d gone walking in the last hour of low sun. The trail fringed with elegant, rusted Ponderosa pine needles and knee high grasses the color of honey, which my dog cut through with wild abandon. As I walked, I was thinking about something a friend wrote me this morning on the subject of inner journeys, saying it was the greatest lesson of her life so far:

“Fear is when you don’t trust in spirit.”

For some reason, the whole thing made me think of the three-leaf clover I have on my foot. It’s a tattoo I got as “good luck wherever your feet take you” when I was 18, freshly deflowered in a tent in a sheep pasture by an Irish kayaker whose fantasy I’d spend the next two years falling in love with, traveling back to Ireland only to have him not return my emails.

The first question everyone always asks about myt tattoo is “Why three-leaf and not four?” and the answer I’ve always given centers around how I didn’t want it to be kitschy and American—until now. As I walked through those woods, all I kept seeing were the three circles overlapping in my head as the mind, the body, and the thing I’ve spent so long running around, the thing I’ve been looking for in men—instead of myself—all these years: the spirit.

And then—seriously, just then—off to my right, I saw this thing that seemed to be swallowing itself.

The thing about snakes, I learned as I read about spirit animals, is that, “The snake is wisdom expressed through healing. On the deepest level Snake’s skin shedding symbolizes death and rebirth, an idea which is depicted by the image of a snake swallowing its own tail, a symbol of eternity.” But this snake isn’t swallowing its own tail—it’s swallowing a lizard.

The thing about lizards, I learned as I read about spirit animals, is that, “Through myth and legend Lizard is associated with the dream time. When we dream, we imagine different futures and decide which we will materialize. Lizard helps us see the importance of respecting and remembering our dreams…Now and again it is required to be detached, to separate yourself from others, to succeed in what is necessary. Lizard will also show you how to leave the past in the past! To move on and quit being attached to what has been.”

The thing about this snake and this lizard, though, was that they, from every scrap of scientific evidence available, were quite dead. They were actually half-deteriorated in the process of becoming one, the snake’s see-through vertebrae revealing the scales of another. They smelled. But that didn’t change the feeling I had leaving the bag in my car with the dog for an hour while I got a massage, holding my breath when I returned and peeked inside, half-expecting to find the snake and the lizard very much alive.

The thing about dogs, I learned as I read about spirit animals, is that, “The dog’s medicine is loyalty, reliability, nobleness, trustworthiness, unconditional love, friendship, fierce energy of protection and service.”

I think of my father, his body collapsed over his dog after the vet had left, her ears full of silent stethoscope, saying “he’s passed.” I saw my Dad cry for the first time that I can remember, snot and tears pooling on the dog’s brindled back, repeating over and over, “What about the spirit, the spirit? His spirit?”

How he asked me to do “some of those Om things,” and I did, holding my hands to my heart with my knees on the cold linoleum floor, the rumbles of passing motorcycles, the tinkle of the door opening and closing, a ringing telephone, his hands on the dog’s neck. How I’d said maybe he should do some himself and he’d asked how, and then the boom as my father, the former opera singer, exhaled into the room.

The thing about all of this I think, as I pour the snake and lizard amalgam onto a plate, is that it scares the shit out of me. Like seriously—the feeling I get in my stomach every time I look at the snake’s tail, still full and life-like, with just snake eating lizardsome spots where the skin is molting, and its eyes, black dots barely visible around the pointy ridges of the lizard’s tail, is absolutely real.

I have never liked snakes, and there’s something about this one that constricts the very place where my breath forms. And it’s not just the smell—it feels a lot like the first time I hit “publish.”

But then there is the dog—thank everything for the dog—her eyes holding mine from the other side of the snake-lizard plate, where she whines just a little, wanting to go for a walk. I take in a big, deep breath, so grateful for her companionship, for her loyalty, for the fact that she could give a shit about the animal experiment in front of her, and we go outside.

Earlier, I was thinking that most people would find spirit animal interpretation rather ridiculous, a little too new-agey. It’s not something I casually bring up at dinner parties or family events, after all. Plus, my reasoning continued, the animals in question—the snake and the lizard—are not even alive, so maybe this spirit research shouldn’t apply anyway?

If anything, I’d thought this was a lesson in ego, like how did this snake the width of my pinkie finger think it could eat a lizard four times its size? And I’d been planning on toning things down, going back to writing about the guys and the dating and enough with all this spirit stuff, but then I couldn’t stop looking at this strange thing in front of me, couldn’t stop feeling it in my belly, and now it seems as though the fact that the animals are dead is actually the point.

The thing I’m talking about here—the third circle in the shamrock—the whole beauty of this thing called spirit, is that it doesn’t actually die.


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Jenine Durland