Learning to see with the heart...from a talking squirrel.
By Jack Loudermilk
Immediately following my military retirement, my wife and I packed our Jeep Cherokee with a few suitcases to venture on a new life and search for my new career.
After a few weeks of driving and sleeping in cheap motels, however, I was filled with exasperation. I found fault in almost everyone around me. The order and discipline I lived with for more than 20 years was no longer a part of my life.
On the highways, I constantly dodged inconsiderate and careless drivers. In every store and motel I spoke with clerks incapable of understanding English. As weeks numbered into months, my wife criticized me for leaving Arizona and the security of a military career. I was near the limits of my tolerance when, out of the past, I heard the voice of Grandpa, my maternal grandfather.
"When everyone seems eager to wrong you," he said, "and you think you can’t take any more, go to the secret place to find peace."
I remember Grandpa as a humble, quiet man with many stories for young ears - stories with lessons. Older ears tuned him out, as mine had almost done just before his death. Grandpa said I could save myself a lot of heartache if I listened to his words. "I have seen many moons and climbed the fool's mountain," he explained. "You can learn from my mistakes or make your own."
Of the secret place, Grandpa said there are no maps and no guides to show the way. "It can only be found by the one who searches. Only upon arrival will you know you are there." Remembering his words, I left our motel room and started walking, without direction, and with my head hanging low.
When I finally lifted my eyes to look beyond my own footsteps, I found myself standing at the edge of a forest high above a valley of tall grass. It was a mystical place. I listened carefully and heard only a nearby stream, its water gliding through a bed of small stones, and the faint rustle of leaves dancing in a gentle breeze. Although alone, I sensed all things around me were aware of my presence. I felt my mind sway between fantasy and reality. Everything seemed so real. I found the secret place. I thought, now I will find peace, but how? I decided to ask the nature spirits.
First, I shouted to the wind as it passed me by, "How do I find peace within my own spirit?" The wind's voice became fierce and shouted back, "Ask the cloud!"
I looked up and saw a dark cloud swelling quickly above the trees. Again I shouted my question but my voice was overpowered by the thunder spirit, whose voice frightened the cloud and caused it to weep.
I screamed my question to the spirit of a large stone on the ground and demanded an answer, but it listened only to the wind and thunder and collected a few of the cloud's tears. I became angry and kicked the rock with all my strength.
As pain sprang up from my foot and engulfed my mind, I pleaded with the spirit of a mighty oak. It too would not bend to my cries, and the wind gave it speed enough to whack me with a wet limb before I could jump from its reach.
I begged the eagle spirit, who could see all from above, "Lift me above the tree and cloud. Make the wind dry my clothes and carry us to safety so that you and I can speak in peace. The eagle spirit just looked down on me as the wind held it aloft.
I was giving up hope and found a dry spot under a stone ledge to hide from the spirits. My body began to shiver so I squatted and wrapped my arms around my knees to get warm. Soon, however, I was attacked by many ants.
I rolled from my hiding place, screaming at the ants; demanding that they leave me. I felt new pain with every bite and jumped to my feet. I was ripping off my shirt when I heard laughter coming from behind a small boulder. Still fighting the ants, I made my way toward the sound and looked behind the stone. There on the ground I saw a small squirrel rolling in damp leaves; holding his sides as he laughed hysterically.
I shouted, "Are you here to taunt me in my search for inner peace?"
The squirrel replied, "You must be nuts, mack. I was trying to mind my own business and ignore your silly questions until I saw you jumping around like a rabid coyote. Why do you torture yourself so?"
His question made no sense, as it was those things around me responsible for my pain. Again I challenged the squirrel. He replied, "Look bubba, I don't have time for this. I'll give you the answers you seek if you promise to leave me in peace."
The squirrel wiped away a droplet of rain dangling from his bushy brow and stared up at the sky. After a moment, he spoke. "Expect from the wind only to cool you when the sun is hot and to move the clouds across the sky. Expect from the cloud only rain for your garden or shade from the sun. Expect from the rock only a step in your path. Expect from the tree only the fruits it may have to offer."
I grew restless and interrupted. "Yeah, yeah," I said sarcastically. "What about the eagle? What can I expect from something that soars over my head and looks down on me? And what about these damn ants? I'm still stinging from their bites. What can I expect from them?"
The squirrel became annoyed. "You know, it would help you to learn patience. Let me finish and we can both get on with our lives."
I apologized, although not sincerely.
The squirrel continued. "Like you, everything here is just part of all things along this trail of life."
I started thinking this squirrel may be wise - for a rodent - but still he said nothing of the ants.
"What about the ants?" I demanded. "Do they teach me that life is filled with pain?"
"No," he snarled. "They are only ants! But you should remember to also respect those you could easily crush because even the smallest creature has purpose."
I felt shamed for being blind to what even this squirrel could see. Instead of accepting what life offers, I had closed my mind and heart to everything and everyone around me. "Now I understand," I said. "I must accept all things for what they are instead of what I expect them to be. Then, perhaps, I will realize my own purpose and find inner peace."
I closed my eyes and asked the Great Spirit of all things to forgive me for not seeing with my heart.
A sudden blast of noise caused me to open my eyes in time to see a large dump truck heading toward a stunned squirrel on the road ahead. I ran full-force, crossing the truck’s path, and scooped up the squirrel. We rolled across the wet pavement and into a ditch. The startled squirrel bit my hand and ran away.
From across the road, I heard my wife yell as she stepped from our room onto the motel's black asphalt. "Are you crazy?"
I thought, perhaps I am, but today I can live with the possibility because no one is perfect. That’s just the way it is; I am as the Great Spirit made me.
With that thought, the rain suddenly stopped and the clouds slowly parted to reveal golden rays of sun. The wind slowed to a crisp, dry breeze and I could feel my wet skin begin to dry.
From the top of a large oak tree I heard the scream of a mighty eagle. Then the eagle stretched out his wings and swooped down on a running squirrel. I was shocked and quickly picked up a rock to throw at the eagle; hoping to free the squirrel. But, at that moment, I stopped.
I slowly opened my hand and saw on the stone a tiny ant. “An eagle will eat a squirrel,” I said to the tiny ant. Then I knelt and gently placed the stone and its companion on the ground. I watched the ant scurry away as I thought again about the squirrel that, today, had served his final purpose.