Some signs are clear: they dictate our right of way in traffic, mark the appropriate bathroom, or denote the sale prices for a rack of clothing. We rely on signs to navigate effectively through the physical realm. There is a temptation for some, a longing for others, for such signs to satisfy the navigational needs of the inner soul. Haven’t we all, at some point, asked God or the night air to show us a sign?
I have, in big moments and little ones. When I can’t find my keys, and I imagine God seated on His great throne in heaven, peering down into my little rented house, eyes fixed on my purse which, I’ll discover in a half hour when I’m so frustrated I attempt to throw said purse, is sitting atop my keys. I asked him them, to show me a sign… so I can make it to work on time. And that’s little. A bit embarrassing, but it’s honest as it happened just last week.
I’ve asked God for a sign in big moments, too. Last month, I prayed that He would give me a sign that I’d eventually be a mother… so I could find happiness and contentment in my current situation. We always have our reasons when we beg for a sign, and the bigger the reason is for me, the less confident I am that a sign will ever come.
Yet, I’ve seen answers during decision conundrums past where God’s intervention was undeniable. He spoke through a street preacher in Baton Rouge who told me I could not go back where I came from; that door had been closed, but God would open new doors, and He had already forgiven me. I’d prayed and searched so long for direction that I believed this was an answer from God, direction for my inner soul that it was time to leave Nashville and the life I’d built for a decade.
In the months that followed, I prayed for more signs: Where should I live? What job should I pursue? No signs came. After six months of what seemed to be unanswered prayers, I stopped praying completely. Had my encounter with the street preacher altered my expectations for God’s personal interactions in my life? Would He now have to speak through men or animals or dreams for me to believe I was finally certain of my next steps? I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life, and I was hopeless as a direct result of my purposelessness.
So much has transpired in the last four years, and the benefit of hindsight renders interpretation of past signs and symbols utterly unreliable. When my sister-in-law announced she was having twins, I sought out teaching jobs in Hampton. When I got the job, I decided to move. While packing up the moving truck, I was offered a position there in Syracuse. I felt that it was a sign, that if I’d gotten that job offer two weeks earlier, I wouldn’t have made the move.
And I wouldn’t have been co-mothering my little nieces, I would have missed out on all their firsts, I would have never met my young bloggers or had reason to make it to Italy, I would have never started blogging, Charming would have never read my posts that made him reach out to me… the list could go on and on. Was it a sign? Does it really matter?
Sometimes we just have to make a choice, and we’ll use any available datum to inform the direction, mostly because these signs aren’t clear like those in traffic or stores. This weekend, Charming and I drove up to Pennsylvania for a ski day with some friends. He cued up an audio book that fit the length of our round trip travel. I recognized the title as one I’d read in college, but I couldn’t remember any specifics.
Charming’s choice was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, subtitled “A Fable About Following Your Dreams” originally published in Portuguese in 1988. A Spanish shepherd boy goes in pursuit of his personal legend, given to him in a recurring dream about finding a buried treasure in the sands at the pyramids. Santiago encounters people who help him on his journey. One tells him that the Soul of the World conspires to help people fulfill their personal legends.
As with any fable, immediate parallels can be drawn, and I found myself resonating so much with the conclusion that I was moved to tears. Only a masterpiece of fiction can accomplish such a sudden flash of emotion entirely absent in the sentence preceding it. After a full day on the slopes, the frequent falls of an amateur had taken effect. The audio book was a welcomed distraction, facilitating the two hour drive home in the dark, winding mountains.
The last person Santiago encounters is an alchemist in the desert who teaches him to listen to his heart, and the boy eventually hears it say: “People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them. We, their hearts, become fearful just thinking of loved ones who go away forever, or of moments that could have been good but weren’t, or of treasures that might have been found but were forever hidden in the sands. Because, when these things happen, we suffer terribly.”
Yes, yes, yes! I cried inwardly. I sat up. I listened even closer. The road noise was muted by the intensity of the words. Santiago’s heart goes on to instruct the boy to tell it, his heart, that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself and “no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
Yes. That’s it. The fear of suffering stunts us all at some point, and we long for these omens promised to the boy Santiago, omens given by God to guide us in realizing our personal legacy. It makes sense then, that I would pray for a sign that I would be a mother… so that I could be satisfied in my life now. It’s the reason that’s flawed, not that dream or the desire. Santiago’s journey was the lesson. His journey contained richness equal in measure to that of the treasure he pursued. He was committed to his destination, but it did not stop him from achieving in whatever his present circumstances chanced to be.
Instead, he saw signs in the moments we often missed. Since Sunday’s reading, I’ve been paying attention, too. Last night, I dreamed that my hairdresser had mistakenly given me bangs. Does it mean something? Probably not.
During my planning block, a distraught senior came inquiring about cap and gown pictures in the auditorium, explaining her sister had passed away and today was her first day back. As I worked to accommodate her into a full schedule, I noticed her t-shirt bore the dates of her sister’s life. She was in her early twenties. She died on my birthday. She left behind two baby girls. Does it mean something? To me, it did. I was ready to adopt those little girls in that moment had they not already had a loving home.
On lunch, Facebook reminded me it was Uncle Paul’s birthday. I remembered the integral role he played in helping me come to make peace with the reality of my divorce. God gave him a second chance with my Auntie Cherry, and their quiver was full with four brilliant and charming sons. It’s just coincidence, that it’s his birthday today, but Paulo Coelho’s fabled manner of interpreting life has lasting effects. In any event, I stopped to think, to pray, to thank God for Uncle Paul and his personal legacy.
After school, we interviewed a potential candidate for an English position next year. Over the course of an hour, I’d concluded I was in love with her. Her answers sounded like mine every time. I had visions of us collaborating over grade ten curriculum. I left thinking, “She could be my best friend.” Another dream.
At dinner, my sister-in-law explained what Mardi Gras means to her, though I’d been unaware it was even coming up. She talked about living in Louisiana and how the week leading up to Lent was marked by a festival every day. Next week, on Ash Wednesday, many Christians will observe a period of fasting or abstaining. I’ve participated myself, giving up soda or chocolate or music, but I never understood the real significance until tonight. Perhaps, it was because my experience with The Alchemist has me paying attention.
I’d heard that the smudge of ash put on the forehead embodied the scripture that we come from the dust and will return to it. Gabrielle told me, however, that she sees this mark of ash as a representation that our sins are gone, that our pasts have been burned up, like the sins written on the cards that some churches symbolically throw into a fire. Lent begins, and the daily denying of something by yourself is instituted to draw yourself closer to God.
These are signs that we give to God. They represent promises. Does it mean something that this week begins the daily Mardi Gras festivals, that the world enjoys its last nights absent the discipline required in the weeks to come?
I don’t know if it matters if there are, in fact, omens, or that these random moments in my day are, in fact, signs. What I’ve gathered, in one day of paying attention, of reading my environment, of seeing and hearing things I’d normally overlook in my dismal cloud of disappointment at not yet being a mother, this ache that overshadows normal interactions. My reason had changed. My heart can’t suffer if it goes in search of its dreams, because “every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
I felt God more near to me today than I have in years, than I have since the street preacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home to Gabrielle’s fondest Mardi Gras memories, on the day we focus on living, on the day a great man gains another calendar on the cake, the day a young girl faces a new life raising her sister’s kids, a sister that died on my thirty-forth birthday, a day I was so sad.
When I was skiing on Sunday, I tried a blue trail for the first time. It wasn’t until I made it to the bottom and looked back at the mountain behind me that I felt satisfaction. I’d fallen four times. I’d hated the run. Too often, I think, we scorn the journey, or at least I do, when the suffering of the path will certainly be behind us, when eventually it will end.
We scorn them because we can’t see how those sufferings themselves will become, in the perfect retrospect of hindsight, necessary means to fulfill our own personal legacies. There were signs on the trail on the way down, but I can’t see any facing me when I look back up the mountain. I just see that I made it.