I had a teacher once who loved whales. She had whale posters hanging in her classroom and wore a tiny silver whale on a necklace. She would play whale-song nature CDs while we studied.
I had a boss once who loved otters. Her office was full of otter figurines in porcelain and carved wood and spun glass, while her desktop background was a picture slide-show of otters playing.
I have friends who love horses, or bats, or bunnies, or alligators. If we were at Hogwarts, this is what their Patronus would be. I never have to wonder what to get them for Christmas: anything with that animal on it. They collect the tchotchkes and can tell you factoids about the different breeds or species. This animal is the first thing they want to see when you take them to the zoo. They identify with these little beasts. They consider them lucky.
This is their totem.
I don’t have one.
We had cats when I was little. I'm sure it started with one or two, but then they had kittens, and the kittens had kittens, until eventually we had a small pride of friendly, outdoor housecats. The neighborhood cats hung around with our cats as well, all quite lazy and domesticated. I needed only to step outside to find a purring armful to love and play with. I knew all their names and personalities, and it was years before I understood that we personally did not own 27 cats.
My room was full of toy cats, and cat pictures, and cat coloring books. I had little-girl jewelry made of plastic, cat-shaped beads. I watched Hello Kitty cartoons. I always felt that Cinderella's problem with the cat Lucifer was that she just didn't understand cats.
You would think cats are my totem, but you would be wrong.
One year when I was very small the monarch migration came directly through my grandmother’s yard. It seemed as though the leaves on the big tree behind her house had turned October-orange until they lifted up and flew away.
I asked Mom over and over if I could watch the Katy the Caterpillar cartoon. I had a turquoise butterfly on a necklace that you can see me wearing in every picture of me between the ages of four and six. I still wear it sometimes. I have butterfly suncatchers, butterfly wall art, and preserved butterflies in glass cases.
They’re not my totem either.
As a child, I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and that was IT. From then on, it was all giant squids, all the time. It simmered in the back of my mind for years until scientists only in the past decade started finding them and filming them, justifying my childhood obsession with what everyone had assured me were mythological creatures. I read everything I could find about squid and octopuses, becoming a self-professed cephalopod expert. Go ahead: ask me anything.
Handy around the house with all those extra arms, yes, but not my totem.
If you look around my house, you’ll find them everywhere: animals. Not just the cats and butterflies and octopuses, but others.
The peacock feather from when I visited a peacock farm as a child, as well as new ones I’ve acquired out and about, and the peacock-themed necklaces and earrings and one very impressive scarf.
The turtles I’ve collected since I first read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where a flat world is carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. The stone turtles in my rock collection, the turtle art hanging on the wall, the toy turtle I keep on my desk – they make me smile, as does the toy orangutan I keep around, also due to Pratchett, who once declared that a certain orangutan was a librarian and the sworn brother of all librarians everywhere, and may have influenced, only slightly, my own career choices.
The things I’ve collected – the sea shells I found at the beach and not in the craft shop, the locust casing I plucked off a tree, the empty wasp nest and shed snake skin, the bright feathers taken from parrot and flamingo exhibits at various zoos (where I may have slipped my fingers, just a smidge, over the perimeter where the sign said “Do Not Cross”).
The tiny Hedwig owl I’ve posed in front of my Harry Potter books, and the owl salt and pepper shakers in the kitchen, and the owls that come out for decoration at Halloween and don’t always get put away until Christmas.
The toy elephant Matt got me when we were dating and the coin purse with the elephant embroidered on it and the elephant jewelry from India and the t-shirts from the zoo.
There are frogs and llamas and bunnies and pandas, even unicorns and dragons and dinosaurs. Penguins, sharks, chickens, dolphins, mice and moles, and birds, and even flowers and trees, depicted on my clothes and walls and coffee mugs. At Christmas, you could get me anything with an animal on it and chances are I’d love it. I have tchotchkes and factoids for all of them. I identify with them. The first thing I want to see when you take me to the zoo is all of it, because I love everything.
It’s not that I don’t have a totem. It’s that I don’t have ONE.
Apparently, life is my totem.