In the past few weeks, my literature students and I have talked a lot about symbols. Symbolism is like the cool trick you learn in a literature class – the hidden passageway, the trick book in a library that will open the wall to reveal treasure, or a bar, or a parallel world, or the author’s psychosis.
I warned my students, however, not to look for symbols where there were none. I told them that you have to look for patterns. Pretend you have a friend, and he/she comes to you all excited because the person they’re crushing on said “hello” when they passed in the hallway. Your friend jumps to the conclusion that because said crush greeted them, he/she is clearly interested. They’re clearly attracted to one another. They’re probably going to date, and then get married. Your friend wonders if this crush is into dogs because your friend is not a cat person. Your friend begins planning cute anniversary presents.
And all this crush did was say hello. All this crush did was exercise basic polite manners. This crush was not an asshole. That’s it.
Now if the crush keeps saying hello, and then stops to chat for a while, and then invites your friend to a party, or dinner, or something, then we probably have a pattern to follow. We have something that means more than just “hello.”
So it is with jumping to conclusions with symbols. If we see one mention of flowers, that does not mean that flowers are a symbol.
But if a story is named after a type of flower, and the main character is gardening and has a special skill with flowers, and her entire epiphany focuses on the way someone betrayed her trust by flattering her gardening (I’m referring to John Steinbeck’s story “Chrysanthemums”), then we might have a symbolic system going on.
One of my favorite symbols in literature is birds. They signify so much, and birds find a way to dip into my life a lot. If people have spirit animals, mine might be a bird. I’m constantly looking for food, I huddle under shelter when it’s raining (like doves under an overpass), I like to stay busy, and I also like to nest. And did I mention I’m always looking for food? Cause I am. Always.
We keep two bird feeders outside our kitchen window as entertainment for the cat, and as I was getting to know Amanda, I’d come over and we’d watch the birds outside the window while we chatted. Amanda knows most of them by heart. She has favorites. She knows their behaviors (like how chickadees fly in, pick up seed in their beaks, and then fly back to the tree to eat it). She would rattle off the names of birds, and I would sit their amazed. I had never been good at recognizing birds. I tend to look at the ground when I walk, rather than at the sky. That probably says something about me, perhaps about my cautiousness as I walk through the world, or my intent to walk through it perfectly without tripping or stumbling (though staring at the ground, literally and metaphorically, has never kept me from tripping).
I’m engaged to marry a sailor, and one of the things she taught me is that when they begin seeing birds from the carrier, she knows they’re getting closer to land. To me, this means closer to me, closer to home.
Birds can be caged, which could symbolize feeling trapped, stifled, or controlled. But often, birds are free, swooping and soaring, which symbolizes freedom, flight, feeling unlimited. I have, at turns, felt like both a caged bird and a free one at various points in my life.
As I write this, I can hear pigeons walking along the storm drains above my windows. Pigeons are so big, they look like small chickens, and they mostly knock the seed out of our feeders. They are the noisiest of all the birds I encounter in my backyard, scratching their claws along the roof above, tricking me just for a moment into believing that there are animals living in our attic.
This morning, as I was drinking my coffee and working on being productive, I was distracted by a huge flock of birds, all of them chirping in unison, making a screeching din that sounded panicked, urgent, so unlike the chortling song we’ve come to expect from our backyard birds.
It was chilling, but it was also kind of cool. The sound of their chirping would crescendo, and then stop, just for a moment, before starting up again at full force. They covered the roofs of the three houses behind me, and they filled up the branches of a large maple in my neighbor’s yard. I felt like I was in Hitchcock’s The Birds. And I sought meaning in the flock.
Life has been loud and big lately, with big changes on my horizon, big emotions and reactions to contend with, and big displays of love. Life has lately felt like a snow day, or Christmas, containing such amp’d up joy that I’m exhausted at the end of everyday. Noises seem louder than usual. Silence seems louder than usual.
That flock of birds today was, in the end, just a flock of birds. But since I try to pay attention to the patterns in my life, I also try to find the meanings they can bring to me. Enjoy the flock – the bigness, the noise – while it’s here. Those birds were with me for about ten minutes this morning before they moved on in unison, finding another neighborhood to bombard. Joy gives way to tough times, which again give way to joy. Enjoy the flock. Keep it in your heart. Add it to the pattern of your life’s symbols.