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Ritual & Renewal

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

We thank our friend Mary Underwood for this lovely guest post. She invites us all to pause, reflect, and listen to the wisdom of nature to see what guidance it has to offer us for the rest of the year to come -- and always.

By Mary Underwood

Over the years I have gathered what I refer to in my mind as a pantheon of wise women. This collective includes many powerful women in my personal life, as well as poets, artists, authors, and seers of all kinds, whose work I have grown to respect over time. While not related to me by blood, I claim these women as spiritual ancestors and keepers of wisdom who I can trust for guidance. Among many others I claim Annie Dillard, Joanna Macy, Nina Simone, Mary Oliver, Pema Chödrön, and Frieda Kahlo. I keep them close around me, guardians of the deep, their books, poems, and paintings stationed throughout my apartment like cairns on a trail.

Four years ago, I happened upon an article by one of my wise women -- author Elizabeth Gilbert. In it, she detailed an annual ritual she had created for herself. I was immediately struck by this concept -- it felt wild and daring. This was something I had never thought to do for myself. It had always seemed that, in order for a ritual to be valid, it had to be handed to me by someone else -- preferably from a large venerable institution. But here was Elizabeth, offering up the chance to create my own ritual, infused with my own personal meaning. Since that time, I have created many of my own ceremonies to honor momentous life events or as a way of sealing commitments to myself. But that first year I decided to borrow Elizabeth’s ritual and try it on for size. It goes like this: each year, on the first morning of the year, you go for a walk outside, preferably in the woods. The first wild animal you see is your totem animal for the year and is meant to teach and guide you. After all, all of our fellow beings have something to teach us, if only we are willing to listen.

The first two years of my experiment went well. The first of 2019 brought me a robin. At the time I was struggling to find the courage to leave my job

and go back to school to earn my master’s degree. The robin felt like an early sign of spring and a small nudge toward new growth and change. The next year, 2020, was a difficult year for

everyone and I was no exception. The first of the year however, I was gifted with particularly strong medicine in the form of not one, but two red-tailed hawks. After a year of pandemic woes forced me to move seven different times, I felt wrung out and desperately in need of more strong medicine. Early on the morning of January 1, 2021, I stepped out of my front door expectantly, only to find a cheery squirrel scampering across my path. A squirrel?! I thought. I was very indignant at being sent a squirrel. Squirrels, after all, are not powerful. They are silly little jesters. I briefly considered ignoring the squirrel and continuing on my way, but something made me reconsider. Rejecting the squirrel felt like rejecting a gift. Worse, it felt like an ism, like racism, sexism, or ageism, suggesting the superiority of some above others. Humbled by this thought, I took the squirrel as my guide, knowing he had something to teach me. Over the past year, I have learned many lessons from squirrel -- gentle lessons about humility, flexibility, and joyfulness. One lesson, though, stands out above the rest.

I live in the top floor of an old home that has been subdivided into apartments and my bedroom window is eye level with the tops of the graceful trees that line my street. One fall morning I was lounging in bed, propped up on my elbows and writing in my journal. My mind wandered and my gaze lifted distractedly out toward the window where I saw Squirrel. This particular squirrel was running full tilt across a thin little powerline, athletically, and with absolute confidence in his destination. Then, right before my eyes, he leapt from the wildly swinging platform of the powerline into the limbs of an elderly tree that stood at least 4 feet away and at least twenty feet off the ground.

After pondering this stunning display, I decided that what most impressed me was the amount of trust it took for the squirrel to fling himself into that old tree. How could he, I wondered, even begin to trust the limbs to hold him? The tree was growing in my backyard, and I knew from firsthand experience that she was extremely prone to breaking at the slightest provocation. A stately ash, she had been attacked on two fronts -- within from ash bore beetles, and without by tenacious climbing ivy. She was a beautiful old tree, courageous in the face of it all, but I knew that her days were numbered. After each gusty wind or thunderstorm, I would find bits of her strewn about the yard. But surely she wasn’t the only structurally unsound tree that squirrel had leapt into. He must have had limbs break out from under him before. And then I realized, he hadn’t trusted the tree at all. He had trusted himself. He trusted in the wisdom of his own body to know what to do, even if he fell. It was simple and beautiful, and also precisely what I needed to learn at that very moment. I had some very big decisions facing me, and though I thought I knew where I was being pulled, I was also grappling with a deep mistrust of my own intuition. At a very basic level, I did not trust myself to know how to make decisions for my own happiness. I was afraid of the fall. But here, again, was my silly little jester, showing me that it’s okay to trust yourself with big leaps, even with, and perhaps especially with, the ever-present risk of a fall. To paraphrase another wise woman in my pantheon, Mary Oliver, I realized in that instant, that I could take risks, follow my heart, and trust “the soft animal of [my] body” to do what it does.

Now, a year later and one more trip around the sun, I have again arrived at January first. Before I even opened my eyes this morning, I could hear the steady drumbeat of rain against my window. As I laced up my shoes for a run, I wondered if any potential totem animals would even be out in the downpour. I started as I always do in the rain, overprotected. I had a hood pulled tightly over my head and I meticulously avoided running through the murky puddles spilling over our sidewalks. Soon though, sheer delight took hold, and I threw my hood back, allowing the rain to drench my hair and seep through my clothes. I ran free, right through every puddle, realizing the rain for what it was -- a renewal, a baptism, a blessing. Not just for me, but for our world. In the end, the rain falls equally on us all. This year, I suddenly wondered, what if I took the rain as my totem? This of course would be contrary to the animal totem selection rules. But, I feel like she has something to show me. I’m eager to learn, and after all, 2022 feels like it might be a very good year to break some rules.


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