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March 14, 2016 / nicolespokane

On My Spirit Animal Nature

by Kathryn Smith

I’ve been saying the great blue heron is my spirit animal. I spot them in fields, lifting off above rivers, lanky wings flapping. I see them when I’m not looking for them. I see them when no one else does.

But now, as four common flies walk zig-zags on the window above my desk, I’m having second thoughts. Morning after morning, I sit as this window, the same view permeating my thoughts, the poems I attempt as I sit here. These flies return, too. They pace. They seem content. Is it possible to have a house fly as your spirit animal?

What is a spirit animal, anyway? Is it the thing you aspire toward or the thing that nags you? The animal that follows you or the one you dream about? In my first dream that I remember, a bear knocked at the door and I opened it. I was about 4 years old. The bear chose me among all the others. It picked me up and placed me on its back. I screamed and pleaded for it to put me down, but it wouldn’t. It was gentle. It did me no harm. So maybe that’s it.

The internet has a wealth of quizzes and lists of spirit animal meanings, but little on the origins of the term, expect, rather generally, that it’s “shamanistic” or comes from “indigenous cultures.” I took a quiz at that told me, in just 14 quick multiple choice questions, that my spirit animal is the owl. Its characteristics: “Intuition, ability to see what others do not see, announcer of change, wisdom.” I can find bits of myself in that description, though I balk at the lack of parallel structure. (Is there a spirit animal for grammarians?)

A Facebook acquaintance said she has not a spirit animal, but a spirit pestilence: the pantry moth. A good friend says hers are the half-dead wasps she keeps finding in her baby’s room. My sister says our joint spirit animal is a plastic Barbie horse named Dixie that we’ve been trading back and forth for more than a decade now, a toy from our childhood turned practical joke of one-up-manship, seeing who can decorate it more elaborately, who can deliver it to the other in the most unexpected way.

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If I could cobble together an animal self, I’d say I have the heron’s patience (most of the time), its long neck, its loneliness, even among company. I hope for the owl’s wisdom, its prophecy. I aspire to the fly’s ability to find worth in uncommon places. O bear, what I wouldn’t give for your strength and confidence. O horse, for your drive.

When I was a kid, we had a children’s book about a lion that did not want to be a lion. Or rather, he wanted characteristics of all the other animals he encountered: the zebra’s stripes, the giraffe’s long neck, the peacock’s colorful plumage. He was granted his wishes, but when he saw his reflection in a pond, he laughed at the ridiculous creature staring back at him. He couldn’t recognize himself anymore. He wanted, then, more than anything, to be himself.

You can see the moral in this children’s tale. What’s harder is to live by the lion’s lesson. I want the good parts of me but not the bad. I want the strong parts, the skilled parts, the contented parts, but I want the fears and insecurities and shortcomings to fall away, covered up by something else’s feathers. Whether insect or avian, I want wings. I want hollow bones or no bones at all. Ease in the air, in water. These are things I lack. But really, they’re things for which I have no practical use. There’s no need, really, to dive for my food. I don’t need a horsey tail to swat flies from my rump. (Nor would I want one, if part of me is a fly.)

Maybe the Barbie horse is most like me, then. A few years back, my brother-in-law spray-painted it silver and cropped its tail short. My sister adorned it in feathers; I returned it in a hand-knit, custom-designed Christmas sweater. It is alterable, malleable, but still recognizably that horse from my childhood. It is like no other animal around.

Kathryn Smith’s poems have been published in Bellingham Review, Mid-American Review, Ruminate, Rock & Sling, and other publications. Her current obsession is creating erasure poems from the Psalms and from a certain congresswoman’s speeches. Find her online at

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