A Kind of Grace: This Squirrel’s Spiritual Autobiography

By Chris McLaughlin

There is a poem by Joy Ladin—what a burden that name must have been if she wasn’t a girl born to easy happiness—called “Tarot Readings Daily.” Folks come to learn the future through the cards, but the poet scoffs: “Only the sapiens in the house believe/fire, water, air, and earth/would bother to reveal/when to fear and love.”

And only sapiens, I think, believe that God will whisper in our ears these revelations, provided we are quiet enough, provided we have tidied up our messy minds and hearts enough, at least for this moment.

Dogs, they find the divine in things of the world, the smells of fishes rotting on a river bank; the sudden sight and sound of a heron, startled, lifting before it soars; dog muscles firing their own strong bodies in motion; the presence of the ones who are theirs. I won’t guess where cats find it, but most seem to think they are convinced of their own godliness.

When I was young and steeped in Lutheran teachings, a Jesus-shaped God often came to me at night. We had the longest conversations, this chatty God and I. He was a comfort to me and, I liked to think, I was a comfort to him. You can think things like that when you are a child and puberty hasn’t arrived to confuse you.

Things shifted after puberty. Is spirituality a hormone-mediated experience? The world I once took for granted became filled with mystery. Music and church ritual took on the role the private conversations once held.  And epiphanies, always in the sacred ground of nature. A pair of mallards swimming, as they do, in parallel: everything’s a part! Apart from each other and yet a part of some same splendid thing.

I met the Transcendentalists through books and their ways seemed to fit with mine. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became more relevant than his historic namesake. The divine came to me through the music now of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buffy St. Marie and Janis Joplin.

When children came along, the sacred task of rearing them (and inflicting upon them that with which you were yourself inflicted) led back to church. I was coming to understand how the works and experiences of God, or The Good, needed the shared breath, hearts and minds of a community. Unitarian Universalists became that community for our growing family.

Two men joined our woman’s spirituality group. They weren’t satisfied with notions that spirit was an ambient thing in which you always operated, which always operated in you whether you were hanging out clothes to dry, feeding bagels to a cranky child, or dancing with the folk dance group. Not a lot of bible or theology going on, more laughter and tears. Also eating. The group collapsed under the weight of academic definition the men needed. Is spirituality hormone- and culture-mediated?

Life got busy, sometimes hard. Joy and sense of spirit, understandings and conscience, hijacked me often, I didn’t seek them. There wasn’t much need except in the hard times when prayers increased. They’d always been a habit but now they became a form of meditation. That Jesus-god did not return but the prayer wrestlings left me exhausted, finally, and that was a kind of peace.

Seeking spirit led me to Quakers; UUs, who my mother-in-law called a debating society, came to feel too much on the thinky-talky side to suit, and a church conflict and a divorce left me more outside the community there.

Milwaukee Friends Meeting was instant home. In the silence I would be on fire sometimes, and I wondered if anyone noticed. Or I’d watch that flame in the center among us.

Then cancer made a visit. Surgery to remove my uterus and ovaries, then chemotherapy. The poisons burned out the desired cells and then some. But there’s no longer that visiting of fiery light. Is spirituality hormone- and chemically mediated? You can guess how I’m inclined.

God’s been silent so long you’d think I’d get over attempted talks, but no. Too much habit there. The divine is in the trees: in the fire, water, air and earth, and I am here to feel wonder and celebrate, if not to receive prophecies. And to be inspired and warmed by your spirit, which is pretty divine if you ask me. I’m also resigned to figuring out how once again to become a comfort to God, whatever pronouns they might be using now. And if they don’t exist, I suspect it’s our job to create them.

The last lines of Ladin’s poem say it better than I can, how I experience God, the divine—like this nonsapiens:

Outside, in the yard,

a squirrel noses seed that fell

like radiance, from above.