Imaginary Squirrels

“It’s a little harder for me to hike down because I am carrying a squirrel.” When my sister explained the trouble my daughter was having with this “squirrel” she was carrying,  my husband helpfully recommended the squirrel sit on her shoulder so she’d have both hands free. Unfortunately, the “squirrel” kept slipping off her shoulders when she tried to have it perch there. There is no solution other than for my husband to wear her bumblebee backpack and her grandfather to carry her the final leg of the hike. My 4-year-old daughter is constantly offering us situations to respond to that we could never have anticipated, with a menagerie of woodland friends that we can’t see, but are very real to her.

Last week she subjected the Sister who runs her preschool to a lengthy debate about whether she should leave her imaginary hamster in the car or bring him to school (“invisible”, not imaginary, she insists). Since the invisible water bowl couldn’t come too, it was decided that all invisible pets should stay with the water source. “Just get out of the car!” I want to scream.  Near daily I find myself exasperated, frustrated, and upset. Why can’t anything be simple? Why is getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time nearly impossible?  As a mom of three young children during a pandemic, I have had countless opportunities to exercise patience. Many of these opportunities, I have risen to the occasion; others…less so.

Sometimes it is easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of these conversations, or to approach them like a real-life improv workshop. I live with a daily struggle to respond more lovingly to everyone in our household. Oftentimes I find them coming up in prayer later. My daughter is just a more gregarious, non-conformist version of me. The imaginary squirrel is so real for her that she cannot walk straight. How often do I allow myself to be unnecessarily crippled by concerns, past hurts, and anxieties? I wonder how God looks at me with compassion in my struggles, both as they are, and as I build them up.

It is easy to get caught up in our own ways of seeing and interpreting the world, and God. In imaginative prayer, St. Ignatius instructs us to enter wholly into the Scriptures, allowing all of our senses to take over. We do not just imagine the way the scene might look, but also how the desert sand feels beneath our feet, the heat of the massive crowds of people pushing towards Jesus, the sounds of people crying out to be noticed. The person of Jesus comes alive as we place ourselves in these stories. As the narrative unfolds, I am often surprised at what Jesus asks of me. I see the people involved in a new light, I sense their hidden motivations, pains, or hopes. I see my own role more honestly. My daughter has an incredible ability to use her imagination in vivid ways to engage with and interpret her world. Being both so like me and so distinctly herself, she gives me a new lens through which to see St. Ignatius’ instructions on prayer.

What if I approached each day as a part of Salvation History? What if the words of my own family were treated with the same reverence as the people I have met in the Scriptures? What if I could be as forgiving of their flaws as I am of the Saints? As I continue to grow in the Spirit, I take the Ignatian practice of praying with my senses as I walk through my own day. 

In the fall, my six-year-old son told me that his eyes were blurring. I blamed it on being on Zoom for school, homework, and all kinds of other activities. The headaches and blurriness continued.  At his insistence I made an appointment with an eye doctor. When the tests revealed he needed glasses, I realized how grateful I was at his articulation of what he was experiencing. I should have trusted him sooner.  In Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man in two stages. When my son put on his glasses, the world did not suddenly look brighter or clearer. The blurring had been so subtle, and yet I am sure it affected everything he did. As I pray with this Scripture, I imagine the gentle healing happening in my son’s eyes as he adjusts to his new glasses. I imagine Jesus healing my false perspectives as well.

After the baby has fallen asleep in my arms, I know I should move him to the crib but I just want to hold him for a few more minutes. I breathe in his scent, feel the dampness of his sweaty head resting on my arm, and watch his little face contort as he dreams (probably of all his favorite things: dogs, bubbles, and trash trucks). As I drift off at night, I can imagine God the parent holding me and savoring all the things that make me who I am. 

When I imagine God accompanying me throughout my day, it changes how I see people.  When I intentionally look, listen, and sense with God, I am making the conscious effort to expand my own perception. I take the inconveniences in stride. I respond more patiently.  I see creativity in a positive light, rather than something to be dealt with and overcome. Growing in patience has been linked for me to growing in trust of God’s timing, appreciation of each person’s uniqueness, and gentleness with myself. When all else fails, I can just imagine my struggles like an invisible squirrel perched on my shoulder. God and I may be the only ones that can see it, touch it, and feel its weight, but that does not make it any less real.

Going Deeper: 

Explore how the physical senses affect prayer here

Use the Awareness Examen as a tool to reflect on your day.

Imagine how Jesus might be healing me in Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel.

This post originally appeared on Becky eldredge’s into the deep blog in a series called “Growth in the spirit”. Read more here.

Published by jencoito

Jen Coito is a California native with diverse experience in parish, academic, and national ministry settings. She has a Masters in Pastoral Theology from Loyola Marymount University. She worked for the California Province of Jesuits for seven years promoting Christian Life Community on university campuses and other diverse ethnic settings. Jen has collaborated on the creation of formation materials, discernment tools, and small group processes that are being used around the country in Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, and English. In 2013, Jen and Jesuit priest Fr. Tri Dinh co-founded Christus Ministries out of a desire to engage local young adults and form young-adult friendly parishes. Jen works for the Sisters of Notre Dame in California as the Associate Director of Mission Advancement. Jen, Jason, and their three children live in Southern California. You can read more of Jen's writings at www.jencoito.com.

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