Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Transformative Moment

Nearly twenty years ago I was the custodian of a loving Dalmatian named Hadley.  Originally from Massachusetts but at the time living in Toronto, I always named my animals after towns in my home state.  In addition to my beloved Hadley, I had previously named a cat Belmont and a crazy Border Collie, Paxton.  I loved how the names were not only cute and somehow appropriate as animal proper names, but that they expressed my love for my home while I was so far away.

Hadley and I had a routine.  Every day I’d walk her on leash to the edge of the park and then unhook her to chase the squirrels that had gathered in the temporary absence of canines.  Off she bolted and the shiny black squirrels, predominant in this part of  North America, scattered like cockroaches in the light.  I watched her run after one in particular.  I wasn’t worried because she never actually caught any.  For all her speed, they were usually far more agile than she and could get away quickly.  But the one she chased was noticeably slower than the rest.  She was gaining on it quickly.  I could see that it was just a baby.  Now I worried.  I had visions of her returning proudly with a bloody dead baby squirrel in her mouth as a gift.  I started to run after her, shouting.  Usually obedient, this time she ignored me utterly.

Underneath the heavy, low-slung boughs of a large pine tree the little squirrel ran for cover, Hadley in hot pursuit.  By the time I arrived at the tree the squirrel was under there and half of Hadley’s body wedged among the green needles.  The other half, bearing her wildly wagging tail, stuck out obscenely in the light.  She had caught it.  Devastated, I dove underneath the tree with them and discovered the most unexpected sight.  Hadley had not eaten the squirrel.  She’d never actually caught up to one before and now that she had, she was completely unsure about what to do next.  The squirrel was equally stunned.  So much so that the fluffy little guy didn’t even flinch when I arrived panting into their meeting.  Even more startling was the fact that the squirrel and my dog were face to face, only an inch apart,. and the squirrel’s little paw was reaching out, braced against the cold shiny surface of Hadley’s nose.  The three of us made a sort of comic tableau: human, dog and rodent, all unsure of what to do next.

My next thought was a realization of how that squirrel had likely come to be in this position in the first place.  I assumed it had fallen from a tree, either abandoned or excommunicated from the nest for some genetic deficiency.  I felt sorry for the little thing and wondered if I should bring it home.  I quickly realized that transporting it would become the issue if I decided to help it.  Even though at this point in my life I had not become accustomed to reflexive prayer, I suddenly found myself making a pact with God.  I thought, If I can find a box with a lid I’ll take that as a sign that I’m supposed to help this squirrel.  Otherwise I’ll leave him here to let nature take its course.  And even though I didn’t mentally articulate it as such, the type of box I imagined as I prayed was a wooden orange crate with a hinged lid.  I was, in a sense, challenging God to produce a box for me as a condition of caring for one of Its little creations.  I know I thought I was quite clever to come up with a condition that would not likely be met; thus getting me off the hook and assuaging the guilt I would surely feel if I left it.

I backed out from under the tree and looked around.  Just around the visible edge of the pine only a few feet from where our bizarre mammalian trio had met sat an orange crate complete with hinged lid.  All I could think of was, You’ve got to be kidding me.  With resignation I took the squirrel, who for whatever reason allowed me to pick it up, and placed it in the box for the walk home.  I cared for it for weeks, feeding it with an eyedropper a sweet, milky concoction recommended by the local Humane Society.  I was rehearsing in a musical at the time and I couldn’t leave it home alone, so I wore a hooded sweatshirt backwards to rehearsal cradling it against my chest as I sang and danced.  Instead of smoke breaks I took wetnurse breaks instead.

I did acknowledge at the time that I had prayed and received an answer.  I had asked and had received.  I talked to God and God not only heard, It delivered.  It was momentous, but its momentousness took time to germinate. 

Over time I began to look back on that moment as proof of God.  Even more wonderful was that I felt like I had proven to God that I was here, too.  Whenever I doubted, the though of that little trinity of Man, Dog and Squirrel comforted me and reminded me that I, too, am connected to Source, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

So now I’ll reveal what I named the squirrel.  On account of the fact that I assumed he’d fallen from a tree, I named him Newton.  And all these many years later I look on that moment as being the birth of my adult understanding of the mechanics of faith.  Ask and Ye Shall Receive.  His name turns out to have been somewhat prophetic.  For now, in my expanded search for understanding and knowing Spirit, begun that day in Toronto, I have found myself in seminary studying that very topic in the very town that gave my little squirrel its name: Newton, Massachusetts.

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