My friend Jean thinks God speaks to her through road signs and songs on the radio. If the mashed potato scrapings on her plate resemble a J, she sure it’s from Jesus — a love note meant just for her, to encourage her as she goes about her day.
I used to be a skeptic, and nothing has really changed that. If God is omnipresent, can’t he whisper his messages clearly in her ear? But Jean thinks he is communicating with her, all day, every day. He just chooses to relay his messages less directly, and Jean is tickled by his little greeting cards. Perhaps it’s a game they like to play.
But I can’t deny it. Lately I've been thinking that Divine Source speaks to me through birds.
The other day I went driving in the county down Highway A, when all at once a glorious bird passed by to light on a fence post. I had never seen a bird like this, with its bright coral epaulettes and a tail like swallow’s, but much longer.
I called my ex-husband, a birder (and friend), to describe it, and he knew what it was right away: a scissor-tailed flycatcher.
I grew up in Ohio, so it makes sense that I’d never seen one. The bird has a range that is centered in Texas, and southwest Missouri is the outer edge of its territory. They aren’t all that common here, even, and I felt lucky to see him.
I thought about Jean and wondered what she would make of it, that long-tailed miracle. She would think it a sign, for sure. But a sign of what?
As a poet, I have spent my life developing an understanding semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and although some seem to be nearly universal, they are also deeply personal. In understanding a symbol, we go deep within to make sense of it, filtering through our personal knowledge and history.
I was struck by two aspects of this bird: its beauty and its name. Those beautiful scissors snipped across my path, and it seemed to mean something — maybe that there is beauty to be found in cutting, and in saying no, doing less. The message felt timely. I have been reflecting that I spend entire days doing nothing but working, or working WHILE — working while taking my kids to the playground, working while I eat dinner, working while I drink my morning coffee on the back deck. (Writers can take their work virtually anywhere, which used to feel like a blessing but now seems more like a curse.)
On that same trip, on Highway FF outside of Fordland, I came across two other birds, turkey vultures, dining on a dead armadillo in the road in front of me. I actually had to brake before they grudgingly scattered.
I was still on the phone. A boxed lunch, I joked — but it occurred to me that a buzzard, too, is a potent symbol, and maybe another sign. To me it seemed to represent providence — how our needs are so often taken care of if we keep our eyes open and we are patient.
Looking to birds as omens is a practice that goes way back — a whole millennium before Greek civilization, a website tells me. It’s called augury, a word that is related to “avis,” Latin for “bird.”
If you think about it, it makes sense that the celestial world would speak to us through winged creatures. What self-respecting angel would ever tolerate trudging, clomping about, when it is accustomed to a 1,000-foot view, the caress of air over its wings.
Last night I saw a woodpecker at my suet feeder, and I had to laugh — there was a perfect picture of me, beating my head against hardwood. Jean’s God has a sense of humor.
But wait — a closer look revealed it to be a sapsucker, and that's a symbol I can get behind — something that is willing to probe deeply to find all the sweetness the Earth has to offer. That’s me — or at least that is who I dearly wish to be.