Do not lean
over the edge
says the sign before me — almost a haiku — as a gentleman with a violin plays something Italianate and sad.
Music all signs and symbols: 𝆔 Art is, too.
Why is everyone I sit next to smoking today? Is it a sign? Yesterday’s full moon was a sign of completion, and challenge. (What sign is the moon in? We’re in Virgo, so it must be, hmmm, Pisces. Pisces is fish, and fish means being submerged, yet moving. No wonder it’s linked to meditation.)
Time to change trains.
I just passed a number of signs. One said, “Star-Struck Clones” and showed two twin-looking yuppies reading Time and Newsweek. Next was “Educated Outlook” — a man reading U.S. News & World Report. And another made a Nestle’s Crunch bar into the word “Scrunchous.”
Here’s a questionable sign: the mark on my forehead. Just above my hairline is a dark red scab I have no memory of. The strange part is that Michael, the autistic kid I take care of, has a scab right there, too, from banging his head. Does this mean something? Do I injure myself in my sleep out of sympathy?
What makes something a sign? If it signifies something.
Every so often I think of two Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door in 1983. “The world’s getting worse and worse,” the man said. (Usually one of them is silent.) “Just think, ten years ago everything was better.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Twenty-one,” he said.
“Ten years ago you were eleven! Everything always seems better when you’re eleven!”
The woman he was with smiled.
“Crime’s going down, the Vietnam war is over. We haven’t invaded Nicaragua. Many things are much better than ten years ago,” I said.
“I still think it’s worse,” he said. (All this, of course, to prove the World Is Coming To A Halt.)
I recall the guy who picked me up when I was hitching in Oregon. He said, “Look for yourself! It says in the Scriptures: ‘The crooked places will be made straight. The rough places will be made plane.’ That’s the interstate highway system!”
The question is, what is a sign?
Do not lean
A sign gives instruction.
And Michael Jackson — did you hear? — left Jehovah’s Witnesses. Is that a sign?
New York, New York
Today I talked to the Alphabet Lady. If you live in New York, you may have seen her on street corners in the Village, with cardboard signs safety-pinned to her long coat. She holds an empty coffee cup, looks at no one, does a slow, angular dance, and swings around street lamps.
I said, “Hello.”
“Oh, hello.” She stopped dancing. “You probably wonder what I’m doing. I’m waiting for my welfare application, so I have to do this for a while, and I thought I’d have some fun while I’m doing it.”
She’s maybe fifty, black, wiry, missing two front teeth.
“I’m interested in the alphabet,” she continued. Not the words but the letters. See? That’s why I wear these signs.” She pointed to the cardboard rectangles.
“I’m more interested in words, myself,” I said, “but letters are nice, too.”
“I like to split letters. You split a T and you get two Ls. You split an O, you get a C and a D. Then you raise up the C and you have an S.” She demonstrated with her hands.
“Of course, it doesn’t work with all the letters, so sometimes I make my own letters out of the old ones.” She showed me a truncated K pinned to her thigh. “I like to walk around and read the advertising and split the letters. Like IBM. I split the I into Ts, split the B into Ds, split the M into Vs. It’s great, I change their name and they . . . they. . . .”
“They don’t even know it,” I said.
“Exactly!” She laughed and stuck out her hand. “You got it!”
I was pleased. I shook her hand and then went on to the post office.
New York, New York
Our wedding rings have the same design.
Victoria created the design in clay a long time ago when we were both married to other people. But now the rings exist in gold, the symbol of preciousness.
To the left are the symbols that commonly designate male and female. They are taken from the astrological signs for Mars and Venus, denoting aggression and creativity, respectively — as if either quality could exist without the other.
To the right are symbols taken from the Tarot: the sword and the cup. These, too, symbolize male and female — in this case, intellect and emotion. Again, inseparable.
The central symbol is the tai chi: the complete one. It represents the constant and necessary balance that exists between all opposites. In each of the opposites is the seed of the other.
Within Dodd lies Victoria. Within Victoria lies Dodd. There is no truth greater than this one. The rings are a perpetual reminder.
Victoria + Dodd
It’s possible I’ll lose my job soon because I refuse to cut my hair. After I ignored some verbal “suggestions” to cut it, my employer instituted an “appearance policy.” I then received a letter saying that “this is a service-oriented business dealing with the public,” and “this policy will help with customer relations.”
Personally, I can’t believe people really care what their garbage man looks like, but my employer tells me otherwise. “Our goal is to provide efficient, friendly, and trustworthy service to our customers, the letter reads,” implying that long hair gets in the way of being efficient, friendly, and trustworthy.
I think the problem stems from his inability to accept symbols that contradict his own. Image is very important to him. He wants to have the best-looking garbage trucks in the county (if not the world). What will the people he’s trying to impress think when they see his trucks being driven around by a guy with long hair? Shiny equipment is one of his symbols. I’m equipment that he can’t polish.
(Does it sound like I have an inability to accept symbols that contradict my own?)
I’m wearing my hair tucked up inside my hat now. But I expect it’s not enough for him. I’ve questioned his authority. I’ve discounted his power — symbolized by the name on the doors of the trucks — the power that allows him to think he can tell other people how to look. (Maybe he does have that power; maybe by the time you read this I’ll be down the road.)
So what’s the big deal about hair? Some folks will wonder if it’s worth losing a job over. Some folks wonder if protesting the rape of the environment or the manufacture of nuclear arms is worth going to jail over. People’s symbols are important to them. Symbols reflect values and beliefs, whether your symbol is a garbage truck with chrome wheels and custom pinstriping, an expensive foreign car, the American flag, or the appearance that you choose for yourself.
I just came from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C., where I saw a fascinating photographic exhibit on the Shroud of Turin. The London Times has speculated that it might be God’s carefully prepared, patiently deferred sign for our scientific times. Under the heading “Signs and Symbols,” the exhibit quotes the Archbishop of Turin: “Unlike theology, signs and symbols affect men and women directly. We need such signs, particularly in our times when images have become the medium for most messages.”
I grew up in a Baptist, Freemason family that was vehemently anti-Catholic. My stepfather used to read to us from one of those ridiculous crimes of the “Crimes of the Convent,” books published in the 1840s. Its antiquity and lurid engravings were enough to convince him of its reliability. When I was angry — which was often — I would go out behind the garage and vengefully cross myself, over and over; it was the most defiant thing I could think of. My dearest and closest friend in high school was a Catholic, which was very alarming to my parents. I used to go to church with her; how I envied the grace of her quick genuflection — her air of entitlement, of rootedness. When I went to Rome, I brought back for her a trinket “blessed by the Pope.” I was sure she would laugh at it, but she was deeply touched.
Now I’m a Quaker, but from time to time I drive up to the Shrine. For some reason, it’s the only place where I can cry for my dead brother. I enter through what I think of as the “Quaker door” (which proclaims, “Walk Then as Children of the Light”). Sometimes I linger first in the gift shop, appreciating the symbolism of the trinkets: a St. Lucy medal for salespeople, St. Monica for brewers, St. Gerard for the falsely accused. Then I go into one of the side chapels and I light a candle for Randy. I cross myself, and feel a miserable kind of peace.
I was walking in a run-down neighborhood near San Francisco’s downtown financial district when I saw a bag lady pushing a wobbly shopping cart full of cloth, bags, and clothing of all sizes, colors, and shapes. Although it was summer, she was wearing a winter coat.
She stopped and searched certain garbage cans and dumpsters. Others she passed by. I could not discern just what caught her attention. Decisions were quick. Some items would be taken from the cart and put in the garbage; others she had just found would be placed in her cart. She would then continue on her way. I was at a loss as I tried to see a pattern — in the hope, perhaps, of understanding her life.
I was about to walk away, when I noticed she had stopped in front of a large building with long stone steps leading up to its entrance. Leaving her cart unattended in the middle of the sidewalk, she walked up the stairs to a statue of a lion. She put her hand to the lion’s face, as though petting it. Then she walked back down to her cart and went on deeper into the financial district.
Curious, I crossed the street and walked up the stairs to stand by the lion as she had done. There, on the tip of the lion’s nose, was a penny.
One of the consequences of becoming secularized is that symbols lose their power. Rather, we think they do; what they really lose is their coherence.
Yesterday, while meditating, I fell asleep. I dreamed I saw a lake of dun-colored, mucky liquid. I was deeply wounded, and I knew that, to heal my wound, I had to dive into this lake — dive so deep and long that I could not hold my breath, so that I would breathe the stuff of the lake like air. Holding back my panic, I plunged down and drew a breath.
Last December we had an Advent wreath on our table, with a candle at each point of the compass. One candle was for the mineral world, and some small crystals were placed beside it. One was for plants, with a handful of pine cones. The third was for animals, with some cat fur and a feather. The fourth was for human beings, with a scrap of writing or drawing. Every night at supper we lit the candles, adding a new one on each week of the festival, and sang an Advent song.
Traditional societies can muster a direct and powerful response to such personal and communal symbols. The dream tells the dreamers how they must change their way of living. The ceremony binds its participants to the sacred. We have lost that direct connection. Many of us dismiss symbols as outworn relics of a superstitious past. Others analyze them, making a connection between a conflict and a dream, a belief and a ritual. Some go beyond these explanations to a more direct and metaphorical confrontation with symbols, as Gestalt therapists do with dream figures and Robert Bly does with folk tales. What we are doing, it seems to me, is working from the outside slowly back in to the old intuitive connections — in our painful, circuitous Western way.
We are right to do so. It is not in the careful investigation, but in the sudden flash of recognition that the true power of the symbol lies. A symbol, a dream, a ceremony should not mean — as Archibald MacLeish said of poetry — but be.
Richard A. Stewart
Robert never touched my hair the way Lupe did. Lupe cut carefully. He murmured to me, and spun the chair around. Slowly, so I could see my shoulders and neck revealed, and the curve of my back. I felt lighter, pure. Robert never had what Lupe had — this fistful of hair, divorced from roots, his to drop to the floor, his to sweep away, to tie up in plastic and leave for the garbage men on Monday.
Lupe knew I was saying goodbye to my hair because this act could make a wound. It was all I had to hurt Robert with.
Bird’s nest hair, corn silk hair. I could wrap it around my neck twice. Sometimes, in winter, I twisted my hair up in a scarf to keep my neck warm. Hair too fine and smooth for a headband or clip. I was obsessive about the part down the middle, because my hair was important to me, because it was transparent. It rested on my hips, suggesting youth, innocence, bondage. And Robert adored it.
Robert took other women, and so I cut my hair.
Robert in Mexico with spare guitar strings and blue sandpaper for the nails on his right hand.
Years later, I understood why those gleaming women in anthropology books took burning sticks to their shorn heads. A magnificent display of grief.
I left my hair on Lupe’s tiled floor and flew to Mexico City. Robert didn’t recognize me in the airport. And when we made love that night, his fury was a spotlight, and I was the dancer, the orchestra, and the creaking floorboards, all bound in his inexhaustible disappointment.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Signs and symbols — such pregnant words! Even when I was too young to know the words themselves, I understood what they meant. I would watch my handsome, debonair father suddenly cross our shady street because a glossy black cat was coming down the sidewalk toward him. I learned that my father would never walk under a ladder, toss his hat on a bed, nor sit down if twelve were already at the table.
I respect my father’s signs of future disaster, but I am more apt to look for warnings from the elements. If I see the new moon “in the old moon’s arms,” I expect a storm. A Vermonter taught me that a flock of fuzzy reddish-brown caterpillars in the fall means a hard winter is coming. I remember that in El Salvador a sudden hush — when the insects stopped shrilling, the birds stopped calling, and the dogs were silent — was a sure sign an earthquake was about to rumble through.
One day I was given a sudden gift I didn’t deserve — an extraordinary symbol.
I was walking along a country road under tall eucalyptus trees, their newly nude trunks as pearly pink as the limbs of a woodland nymph, but I didn’t see the trees. I was blinded by some petty problem that filled my mind. I don’t know what made me stop short, but I did. Some inner summons compelled me to look down.
There, lying at my feet, was a broad, black, shiny feather nearly twelve inches long, gleaming in the sun like polished ebony.
I brought it home, of course, but I wasn’t sure why I revered it until my friend, Michael, told me why. He quoted Joseph Campbell: “Feathers are generally regarded by the Indians not simply as symbols, but actually as carriers and communicators of spiritual power.”
Sometimes on gray days, when I’ve lost courage, I walk over to that feather and pass my fingers delicately over its silken ribs.
Not long ago I was given what I thought was the ultimate sign. It wasn’t unexpected, because I am eighty-three.
I dreamed I was walking across a high Scottish moor when, through the mist, a large black dog came bounding toward me. As I woke, I heard myself asking incredulously, “Was that dog death?”
Luckily, it must have been another dog, perhaps even a friendly dog, for I am still here, living, breathing, and keeping my eyes open for signs and symbols.
A sign indicates; a symbol penetrates. Shooting pains down your left arm is a sign to cut your jog short today, perhaps to see a doctor; waking up consistently at 3 in the morning indicates depression.
Sometimes signs go beyond indicating and are internalized emotionally, at which point they become symbols. For example, in the North a robin in March is a sign of spring. Let’s say, however, a particular winter has been a very hard one, full of inner dying, perhaps a lost job, a failed relationship, the death of a loved one, and you are thinking that life is too hard for you to go on. Perhaps you are thinking of ending it yourself, as you look out the window into the bleak March landscape, not a bud or leaf or blade of green grass showing, the ground covered with dirty snow, the sky gray and dreary. Then, in front of that window, hops the first robin, and maybe something in that patch of orange breast surprises you, corresponds to a forgotten, faded orange spot deep within your own breast, and you are reminded of the eternal rhythm of life out of death out of life out of death, and once again the seed of spring is opened in you and an unexpected smile surfaces in your heart. Now this particular robin has become more than a sign of spring. It is a symbol of spring. The difference is in the feeling, the depth of the significance.
My understanding of symbolism increased profoundly last winter while I was visiting my girlfriend, Fran, who was studying in Pamplona, Spain. Never having been to Europe myself, I thought I had to see Paris. Neither of us could afford it, but we went anyway, catching the midnight special at the French border, third class, sitting up all night in a compartment with six strangers, two of whom were chain smokers, and one whose stocking stank so wretchedly that I was thankful for the smoke screen.
We arrived in Paris at 6 in the morning, sleepless, with sore necks and stiff backs; as luck would have it, it was also raining. We couldn’t afford the luxury of a taxi. We couldn’t even afford a croissant and a cup of coffee in the train station without blowing half a day’s budget.
After the rain subsided a bit, we discovered we couldn’t find a place to stay. All the cheap hotels were already booked. To make things worse, we had over-packed and our bags were much too heavy, our clothes had gotten damp, and the French were thoroughly living up to their reputation for rudeness, sneering, and belittling our poor attempt to communicate.
Naturally we began to take our frustrations out on each other. Why are you walking so fast? Why are you walking so slow? Why not eat here? Too expensive. Well, I’m hungry! Well, I’d like to eat tomorrow, too, if you don’t mind! Ask that person over there how to. . . . You ask him. I asked the last time. Asshole. . . .
We finally agreed on hamburgers and beer at a Burger King, but before we got one bite down I said something nasty and Fran ran off to the restroom to cry. I drank my beer and brooded until Fran returned. She asked me who I’d made love with while she was out of the country. A fine time for that question, I sneered, having learned from the French how to raise my lip in disdain. There’s never a good time for you, she shouted.
She started to cry, and I told her to go outside if she was going to make a scene. She ran out screaming at me; both of us were too numb to care much what people might be thinking. After I finished her burger, I went outside to look for her, another blast building up inside me. I found her a few blocks away, crying on a street bench. What an ass you are to walk off, I said. What if we had gotten separated? What kind of mess would that have been? What’s the difference now, she said. Go to hell then, I said, and started to walk off. I could feel my power over her. I could reduce her to submission. She came after me and grabbed my arm. I yanked loose, violently, now frightened by how much was coming, the bare-teethed intensity, the hair’s breadth from real physical violence.
She disappeared into an alley street. Each passing minute assured the greater likelihood that we would get separated, but I didn’t follow her. I was in a trance of fatigue, anger, fear, and power, with enormous guilt just waiting to arise, as soon as these more fierce, immediate emotions subsided. I had all the money on me. She would be helpless out there alone. But I didn’t follow her.
The morning rush hour traffic was now in full flow, four lanes packed abreast, both directions, frantically racing from light to light to save precious seconds to somewhere. There was energy, power, in that traffic, and I felt at one with it. A pigeon wading in a puddle at the side of the street flew too late and was hit. There was a great protest of pain and flurry of feathers as she thumped and bounced down on the sidewalk at my feet. In a spasm of death energy she gained her feet and assessed her new-found brokenness, circling some invisible center into ever-smaller circles, falling at last mercifully on her side, heaving a dozen or so breaths, peeping once ever so softly, open-eyed, and dying.
Oh my lord in heaven, I cried to myself. I have murdered love.
Petersburg, West Virginia