On Finding a Relationship Totem

Posted on April 18, 2011


In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron encourages aspiring artists to find a personal a personal totem for their creativity:

“Choose an artist totem.  It might be a doll, a stuffed animal, a carved figurine, or a wind-up toy.  The point is to choose something you immediately feel a protective fondness toward.  Give your totem a place of honor and then honor it by not beating up on your artist child.”

Image via MIA

The point is to provide creatives with a guide that protects them, with a beacon that shows them the way back to their core creative selves when confronted by discouragement or when stuck in a rut.

Don’t we all experience ruts in our relationships, too?  Times when we get sidetracked by arguments or fights.  When being swamped at work takes away quality time.  When the tasks and to-dos of paying a mortgage or raising a kid quagmire you in difficult situations. When maybe you simply feel bogged down by boredom.  Whatever periods of being “stuck in a rut” may look like for you, applying the concept of a totem for our relationships can be a useful tool giving us power to get back on track or to rekindle that special spark.

What does staking your totem look like in practice?  It’s finding a symbol that represents the Good in your relationship, and placing it in a prominent position in your life.  For instance, why not use your First Dance song as a ring tone?  How about featuring that favorite souvenir from your first trip together as a focal point in your apartment?  Or use that a photo of a special memory as your screensaver at work?  The totem protects us from discouragement, and we honor it by not beating up our relationship.  It’s a reminder in those ruts that you’ve got something good and worth fighting for, worth protecting.

For Juan and I, the story of our totem goes like this:

We were in the French Pyrenees (sheep country) and decided to climb the lush green mountain presiding over the small Basque village where we were staying.  With our handy hiking guide in hand, we headed off with a springy step in our sandals.  Upwards we walked past some picturesque farms lined by hydrangea-coated fences, until we reached the tree line and the grassy pastures above.  Suddenly there appeared a tri-fork in the road.  Pulling out our guide, we consulted which we should turn.  Problem was: the guide was in French.  Hm.  We took our best guess and headed left.  It looked like it more or less headed up.

So up we went.  Up for over an hour.  Up the dirt road, until it turned into a walking path, which turned into a rough foot trail, which turned into nothing more than some trampled weeds dotted by sheep droppings.  Clearly this upness was not the up of hikers but of sheep herds.  Even so, we followed the makeshift route up some more, using sheep droppings as our guide.  Soon the mountain had become very steep, and our options were to 1) go straight up the face, or 2) retrace our steps all the way back down.  My vote was for the latter.  Juan, however, was convinced that “if the sheep can do it, so can we!” (a logic that will never make sense to me).  All footing gave way to slippery dirt and an incline that provided nothing to grab hold of except ferns.  (If you’re wondering the Spanish word for fern, it’s “helecho” — it’s a word I know well.)  With my bum knee not reliable, I kept slipping; and since these ferns wouldn’t break my fall I felt that surely I’d tumble right off the precipice.

But what to do?  There wasn’t even sheep poo anymore — if the animals had given up by this point, that was good enough reason for me to, as well.  Problem was we were already a good distance up the face of the cliff, so going down at this point would be just as tough and unsafe as continuing up.   Going down, at least you knew where you’d be going, I figured.  Up, there was no idea what you’d find – the platformed peak of the mountain, or more of the same steep ascension?  Juan proddled a grumbling me along, no more sure of the wisdom of such a plan but trying to convince me (and himself) it was a good idea anyway.  And we clambered clumsily upward.

When I was about to give up all hope, I heard Juan’s voice calling from 10 meters above: “We’ve reached the top!”  I didn’t actually believe him.  But sure enough, after some arduous last steps, I peeked my head over a ledge, and there indeed was the unexpected summit.  It came a lot sooner than I thought it would!

And what a peak it was.  Higher than all the nearby mountains, we saw stretches of green field extending in all directions.  In the late afternoon’s stillness, cool misty clouds hugged and enveloped us as they passed by.  Below, condors with a wingspan twice my height sailed majestically with the breeze’s current.  The fog wetted our faces and the wind numbed our skin, but stayed reveling in the magnificent beauty for an hour or more.  I wrote in my notebook as Juan sketched the scene with his pastels.  “Let’s always remember this place,” I whispered.  Not only for its austere beauty, but for the lesson it taught us:

When faced with seemingly insurmountable dilemmas, the best solution is not to retrace our steps, to give up and back down, but rather to keep moving forward.  To climb on with persistence and accomplish the task even when it becomes more difficult than we imagined.  Completing the job is more rewarding than leaving it mostly done — it can even be easier.  You must plow on through the rough parts to get to smooth ground.  There, you can enjoy the fruits of hard effort.

This became our metaphor for working on projects and dreams together.  It became our aspiration as a couple, too — even when there’s a sharp divide between us, to remind ourselves that if we tackled this mountain together, if we walked 500 miles more together, then we can make it through anything.  Larla is the name of the mountain.  That’s our totem.

YOUR Action Step:  Think about a reminder of the strength of your relationship — be it a difficult event you got through together, a place, a song, a photo, a memory — and find an object that can serve as a physical symbol of that strength.  This is your relationship totem.  Place it in a prominent place and look to it for inspiration when you can encounter a relationship rut.