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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Early Blog #9 (Spirit Animals)

This is one more blog from two years ago, in the weeks after my first brain surgery:


Wednesday morning, nine days after brain surgery. I woke up this morning around my usual time, just after 5am. I felt the need to get up, go downstairs, see to Noah, putter around, get a few things done. MJ was reading in bed and sensed me stirring.

“Stay,” she said. She clicked off her reading light and curled up next to me.


She was right. As I lay flat on my back, awake, I felt new equilibriums shifting in my head, getting bearings as my mind floated thoughts in the eddies of the new spinal fluid in my head. I thought about things. She fell asleep under my arm and I lay awake for another hour, just thinking. It was nice. I needed time like this before jumping out of bed.

MJ is the guardian of my solitude, something I consider the most important thing in a marriage. Honesty and trust come before true love, actually, and these are all built on the foundation that one spouse will basically work to protect the other. It’s such a simple thing, but so many people get it wrong: the notion that you have the responsibility to watch over your spouse and that you can accept being watched over as well.

I have felt this kind of kinship with spirit animals too and WAIT! . . . if you are going to stop reading because I wrote that, please give me a chance.

At key times in my life I have experienced unbelievable moments with animals that appear to watch over me, completely out of a normal context. Something in the natural order of things puts unusual wild animals in my path at turning points in my life.

Growing up, we had a wood statue of Francis of Assisi, known as the patron saint of animals, inside our house. My mother talked to me about St. Francis often, about how much animals meant. The statue must have been about my height as a boy, maybe three or four feet tall. The wood was old, cracked, and much of the paint had chipped off. He stood indoors, palms facing up, and various wooden animals were attached to him. We were moving to different countries all the time, packing him up and unpacking him, and while living in Caracas I think one of the birds on his hand broke off so just a nail protruded up from his palm, making me think of stories I heard in school about Christ and crucifixion.

Living in Melbourne once when I was about seven or eight, my father took us on a day trip to Kangaroo Island. I sat on a log there, eating a piece of bread, thinking about an instrument I had just taken up a few days ago — the oboe. I liked playing it but thought it might have been a mistake because it sounded so terrible. I only knew three notes (G, A, and B, the left hand notes) and the low G squawked every time I tried it. I knew special arrangements had been made with the school to get this oboe for me and, even at that young age, I felt shouldered with a responsibility not to give up right away and see things through for a while.

Wild kangaroos approached me. They wanted the bread in my hand. I waved it in front of them. Several more gathered around, including a young mother with a joey poking his head out of her pouch. I moved my hands back and forth the way I imagined a conductor would and all the kangaroo’s heads followed the bread. I thought it could be fun to be one of those kangaroos, to sway in unison, just following a piece of bread perfectly. I tore the bread into pieces and fed the kangaroos. Before leaving, one stopped, looked straight into me, and went away.

Unbeknownst to me, my father had been snapping photos of this. This picture of me conducting kangaroos at the moment I decided to become a musician has been published in newspapers, and I have it framed in my house. I don’t recognize the boy in the photo anymore, but I know it is me.

Other times, animals appear just as I make a change in the direction of my life. They arrive out of the blue, like punctuation marks, a reminder from the natural world that a certain decision has been made. When my first marriage was breaking up, I knew it was over when a fox curled up and spent the night on my front porch. It was Christmas morning, and I went outside to fetch the paper when the fox was just there. It startled me. The fox woke up, looked straight into me, then trotted away into the woods across the street.

I thought maybe the fox was sick, so I dialed the number for the local ASPCA.

“You saw a fox?” they asked.


“You live next to woods?”


“Okay . . .”

I said, “It was curled up, sleeping on my doorstep. Maybe it needs something. Tuna fish?”

“The fox is not there anymore?”


The person answering the phone was not happy. She said, “I’ll make a note you saw a fox.”

“Okay,” I said, then hung up. It was another sign. The way the fox looked straight into me before leaving was the same as the kangaroo. It said (to me), “You’ve thought about this long enough. You know what you’ve got to do.”

Another time more recently, a few months after my mother died, I was driving home from the airport after my first solo flight in an airplane. Aviation was a fantastic new passion of mine, a way to believe in myself again, and I was on such a high. I flew a plane by myself! As I turned the corner to come the final mile to my house, a fox ran across the road in front of the car, and I had to hit the brakes. The fox stopped in the middle of the road, looked straight into me, and continued on. I had not seen a fox anywhere since that time ten years earlier.

Even more recently than that, this past Christmas MJ and I spent a quiet few days at our cottage on the lake. It is so cold and desolate up there in the winter, such a wonderful place to be alone with your thoughts. This might have been the first few normal mornings where we were alone, taking in the serenity around us. I thought about things, about turning points in my life, and what things would be like going forward now.

Running across the ice out the window I spied a pair of coyotes, so common in the area you hear them howl at night. I heard them all the time but had yet to see one. I checked the cottage security webcams for an instant replay, but the image was grainy. A few more times, this pair of coyotes ran by, about every half-hour or so, but they were too far away to get a good look. Finally, I sat in a chair looking out the window with a pair of binoculars. On their next pass, I focused on a face. At this moment it stopped running and looked straight into my lens. Now I could see vividly: the red fur and pointed ears standing out against the bright white of the ice. This was no coyote.

It was a fox. Actually, it was two foxes now. They stopped, looked directly at me, and left. I have not seen any since.

It hasn’t always been foxes. After my recent series of eight MRIs, which took almost four hours in the middle of the night, I drove home, my body sore from lying motionless that long. Driving through the suburbs of East Grand Rapids in the still of the night, my headlights shone upon a white flicker bobbing in the road in front of me. A tail? I came up to it fast and I had to hit the brakes.

It was a doe, a beautiful one. In East Grand Rapids, no less. As my car came to a complete halt, the doe stopped, looked straight at me, and walked casually into someone’s yard, miles and miles from any woods it could call home. It looked into me again, with kindness I felt. Before the MRI results came back a few hours later, I already knew I had a brain tumor. I just knew it right then.

Finally, at the beginning of this past summer, I had decided to stop writing a piece of music I could not finish. It was my first major commission outside of my home orchestra, and (perhaps already suffering from this tumor squishing my pituitary gland down to nothing) I could not go on with it anymore. I wasn’t a composer, and maybe I never was one.

I was at our cottage with MJ, sitting on the porch with a glass of wine. I said, “I’m going to write that email. I’m done. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I can’t put the big pieces together. My head just doesn’t work like that anymore.”

She knew this had been torturing me for months, and she was more relieved than me to finally hear these words.

“Okay,” she said sweetly. She patted my knee and went inside. As the screen door swung shut, I sat alone outside with the finality of not being a composer ever again. I stared at the sky.

A bald eagle flew over my head, one with full adult plumage. Bright white head, long white tail feathers. Beautiful. It flew so close I felt I could touch it if I reached high enough. There is a family of bald eagles that live nearby, and the adults and the three juveniles often patrol the area. So I had seen them before, but never an adult so close like this, just for me.

It did not look at me the way my other spirit animals have done. I thought it might be somewhat pissed off, actually, the way it flew so close without taking the slightest notice of me. When I get that special look—from foxes, kangaroos, or does—I know my intuition is right. But this eagle simply soared straight over me. It was protecting me in my space, telling me to stay in a holding pattern for just one more day. So I didn’t send the email I had already composed in my head.

The next evening, MJ and I sat on our deck again with a glass of wine. I still hadn’t composed anything new, but I was thinking about things in a different light.

Out of the blue, I said, “You know, I have hundreds of pages of notes. So many ideas I simply can’t throw away. I still have time. Maybe it won’t be the best piece ever written, but I’m going man up and get it done.” I didn’t know exactly how this was going to happen, but I felt a seed inside me that never lets me down. Even, in retrospect, if I already had a large tumor causing trouble in there by this point, I knew this piece was as good as finished, with only a few months of scribbling in front of me.

“I like that,” MJ said. “I like that answer a lot. Good for you!”

She patted my knee and went inside to check on dinner.

I waited for the eagle to come by again, this time looking into me, telling me something like, “Told you so,” but it never did come back.

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