By Erica Leibrandt
People call me the Deer Whisperer, which is true, but also silly, as it implies that I am doing something other people couldn’t do.
The deer with whom I whisper daily in my local woods (and I do say “whom” because they are most certainly sentient) are as tame as a well fed yellow lab, lying on an expensive dog bed in the sun.
There are times when I sneak up close to them and they roll their eyes so the whites are alarmingly visible. They snort, or “ba” like angry lambs, or shake their antlers side to side, or even, on occasion, take some determined steps right in my direction, hooves stomping on the ground, nostrils wide, their intent entirely unknown to me (though I suspect it has something to do with smelling whatever it is I last ate.) I always try to hold my ground in this case, reasoning that their perception of my fear could only make things worse, and that if I do happen to die by deer goring, at least it will be an interesting death and one that came about while I was doing what I loved.
In the last few years, I have become quite preoccupied with what I call “my” deer. It started when I stopped going to the gym, and retired my fancy road bike which went too fast to let me to see what was around me. Instead I walked the forest paths, or rode them on a bike, so slow kids on trikes routinely passed me. Suddenly, I wasn’t madly counting calories burned or worrying about comparing myself to other gym rats or cyclists, I just was.
Releasing my attachment to the illusions of what a “work out” is supposed to be allowed me to be present, and I have since sunk my toothsome heart into every juicy moment of the experience.
Birds, both rare and common, skunks, muskrats, coyotes, possums, snakes, crawdads, flowers, grasses, sunlight, rain, and of course, deer—whom I have come to recognize as individuals with distinct personalities and even facial characteristics and expressions—revealed themselves to me, like shadows emerging from a darkness I didn’t even know was there. My daily ventures into nature have become the anchor which keeps the flotsam of my life from floating irretrievably away. In particularly stressful times, this is a great blessing.
Recently, I quit my job. It was a job I loved and worked hard to do well, but I wasn’t being treated fairly and over a period of months it because clear that I had to leave. It was an agonizing decision. As I foundered, trying to imagine how to proceed, doubting myself though I knew I had done the right thing, filled with dread and sadness, I retreated, naturally, to the woods. There, as always, were my deer.
I mentioned this to my oldest friend, Joy, who is a mystical, shamanic sort of person, but who is also a practical realist, and she told me to pay attention, which is always excellent advice.
In particular she told me to pay attention to whatever the deer might be telling me, as they were obviously one of my personal totems, and my reaction to them would thus be filled with lots of very useful information. Well, fine, I thought. Any information I can gather is a good thing.
The next day I went out on my granny bike, and as I peddled slowly along I was startled to see an enormous buck galloping straight at me. I didn’t think he was aiming for me, but I was in his way, and wherever he was going he wasn’t going to take kindly to a detour. I didn’t have any time to move, so I gripped my handle bars and held my breathe, and watched, amazed, as his enormous barrel shaped body swept past me so close I could see the individual hairs on his hide. My God, he was majestic. But what did it mean? I was trying to listen but all I could hear was the pounding of my toothsome heart, saying thanks that it was still around to beat at all.
I wondered and wondered all afternoon and all night, about the meaning. The next day too, I set out once again, and as I peddled along, in a slightly different place on the path this time, I saw what I assumed was the same big old buck in the distance—galloping directly at me! I set my foot down on the ground and became very still. This time I could’ve moved, but I made some weird decision not to, and watched with an eerie calm as this locomotive of an animal bore down with single minded intensity on me.
I could hear his hoofs upon the grass, pounding, and then upon the cement bike path, louder now, closer, and then whoosh, his grand antlers and sleek brown body streamed past me, lifting my hair from my shoulders in his wake. What does it mean? What does it mean? I could hear the words bouncing around between my ears, but there was nothing. No answer. I shook my head and smiled and continued on my ride. I felt the answer would come when it was ready.
In between all this drama in the woods, the drama of finding a new job has been unfolding.
There were many places that were almost right, and they all made me respectable offers, but the one I really wanted, (the one I still want,) was/is not calling back. Granted we are in the middle of a holiday weekend, so their ability to check references must be compromised, but in the week since I had my final interview there, my belief in my ability as a counselor and my self esteem in general has been on a wild ride.
Swinging from an attitude of acceptance around whatever the outcome might be, to deciding not to take no for an answer, my feelings about this job have begun to underscore every thought, and color every perception. Were a client to report such a state of mind to me, I would silently label it “obsessive thinking” and settle into to my comfortable chair, knowing we had lots of work to do.
Unemployed, with a lot of extra time on my hands, I find myself—not surprisingly—in the woods even more. Twice a day, three times a day I go, trying to walk or ride the anxiety out of my soul. And the deer are out in abundance—a mother doe with her three delicate youngsters; the brash teenage female with what looks like comically penciled on eyebrows; the old stag who I watched about a week ago as he fooled around with his antlers in the trees and got a massive vine wrapped around them, and which remains there like a milliners masterpiece floating above his impressive rack.
Each time I see one of the far reaching herd I ask myself, what are they telling me? What does it mean? And it hasn’t seemed to have meant anything except that watching them brings me joy and blots out every other discomfiting thought. Until today.
Today, as I pedaled along at my typically plodding pace, I was thinking about work again. Oh why couldn’t these people just call me back? Did I say something in the interview to put them off? They don’t employ any other LPCs in their practice, why would they make an exception for me? They are suspicious of me because of the way I left my last job. I didn’t present my clinical theory with enough confidence or originality, and on and on and on. In the middle of all these negative thoughts, buzzing around my head like a swarm of killer bees, came one completely different idea, or really, phrase.
“You’ll get the job.”
With absolute clarity the words blazed into my awareness and at that exact same moment, I looked up and there was the biggest buck I have ever seen, just standing, staring at me calmly from across the river, the sun streaming down across his back.
Boom! It was an instant understanding. I stopped my bike and all the tension drained away from me.
“You’ll get the job.”
The buck kept his gaze steady, he was a presence both benign and strong. I leaned into him in my mind. His ease in himself was what I had been longing for, and what I felt him passing over to me. Calm down, calm down, all will be well, he might have said. As I was leaning in and receiving all his bountiful energy he surprised me again by gently laying down on the river bank in the soft grass. He began to gently lick his own knees and chest, his antlers flashing in the sun. I felt myself relax even more, alongside him, as he nurtured himself in this natural and unapologetic way. I sat down next to my bike and let my body soften, just watching, whispering to the deer, “Thank you, thank you.”
I still don’t have an answer from that place, but it isn’t torturing me anymore. When I know, I’ll know, and in the meantime, I can believe in myself. The message my totem gave me wasn’t that I would get this job—that came from somewhere inside me—the message was simply that if I pay attention I make room for the messages to come.
When I do hear back, I’ll go out into the woods again. I’ll look for my friends, and in looking I will get clarity. I know now that it’s not really the deer with whom I’m whispering, but myself.
Erica Leibrandt is a 200 hour RYT, level 2 Reiki practitioner and a master’s student in clinical counseling at Northwestern University. Mother to six, Erica is partial to vegan food, good scotch and is frequently able to win staring contests with dogs. Her writing credits include The Sun Magazine, Yoga Journal and Elephant Journal, where she was a featured writer with over 500 articles. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Editor: Peter Schaller