By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes, all we want is a sign.
Recently, I wrote a short story with a happy ending. Or, more accurately, I finally wrote the happy ending to a story I thought I was done with. I write a lot about broken relationships and wounded people who are trying to find their way toward new versions of themselves or new love. I write about them in various stages of this process. I’ve imagined people in their 20s and people in their 80s struggling with different versions of this same journey. The stories end not hopelessly, but with some acknowledgment that the journey is long, and not over.
I’d been revising this particular story, taking a fresh look at it the beginning of it for a workshop. As I worked deeper into the story, I suddenly began to see a richer ending taking shape, one that moved the characters past the moment of not being able to connect with one another. As I read the last scene I’d written, I sensed what was supposed to happen next, able now to imagine these two people drawing on the bravery they both possessed in order to be emotionally honest with one another and finally move toward one another. Maybe it’s less artful now, with its happy ending. So many short stories end in ways that leave you thinking and wondering, and maybe I still won’t be able to place it with a literary journal. It’s too soon to tell. But, either way, I feel as though I achieved something with this story.
I was not capable of writing that ending to the story before now. I could not have written it one year ago, and I certainly couldn’t have written it eight years ago. It’s not that I couldn’t envision such an ending, but I felt stuck in a way, or, unable to unstick the words from my throat. Confused about how to unravel the fibers, comprehend them, and knit them back together into meaningful sentences, though I felt all the fine threads in my hands. There were insights that eluded me, and that I didn’t know were eluding me. How often do we feel that way, that everything is right in front of us but we can’t see what we need to? So often, we make do with what we can. We show up with everything we’ve been able to make sense of and everything we haven’t, because, what else can we do?
Journeys take a long time, and often long stretches happen in the dark. It’s no wonder we want to look for signs that tell us we are on the right path, that things are coming together, that we are getting unstuck. It is easy to notice things that we hope are signs, once we are looking.
(A yellow butterfly crosses your path while a meaningful song is playing. You once again happen to glance at the clock and the time is your birthday. As passcode for a two-factor verification comes up as 123456. A moth patiently waits for you to save it from death by lightbulb and you do. On a dating app, you see a picture of a man with a crow behind him on a fencepost. You see this picture just after you’ve finished writing a story with a happy ending, a story that happens to prominently feature a crow. [Yes, I commented on his crow picture. No, he did not message me back.])
Often, I find myself believing that there is no “right” path. And if that’s the case, what need have I of signs to verify that I’m on it? There is no timeline, nor a single trajectory that you follow to get from one point to another, from the point of hurt to healed, over it, better. Still, sometimes we feel a sort of peace settling in over scars, like gold dust or starlight, and we feel soothed, sometimes even shining and spectacular. We can notice that things feel aligned, or balanced, or magical, if only for a moment. We can take all of this as validation that we are doing something well, even if there is no right path, no one way to go.
This bears repeating. I find my self craving answers sometimes to specific questions: should I do this thing or that? Is it the right time to take this step? And though I agonize over the details of these questions in my head, when my heart raises its voice through all that clatter it asks am I doing this right? Is this okay? Am I on the right path? Deep down, essentially, all I really want is to know what I already know. I’ve got this. I’m doing this right. Everything is going to be okay. And the feeling I get when I see the things that feel like signs to me is one of peace. The voice I hear is one telling me you’re doing well. I think I’m not actually looking for a sign that I should get back on Bumble or whatever. I simply want to know that the decisions I make – about anything – are well-fashioned out of awareness, and contemplation, and self-trust. Sometimes, what we really seek is the validation that we are doing/living/being well, and that this path or that, while not inconsequential, matters less than trusting ourselves to do what feels true and good for us.
The way forward after the low points in our lives is a blue-veined map across the surface of our souls. We follow paths that make sense at the time, and find our way back to our heart, and we leave again, replenished but uncertain about where we’re supposed to go next.
Autumn is a good season to pause, consider your surroundings. The days are getting shorter but for the moment, there is a pleasant balance between activity and restfulness, at least for a little while. When you think about the next steps you want to take, consider whether you need some time to get to know your own heart again. Take a visit back, refresh yourself. Consider too, if you’re heading out once more, that there’s no one right way. You don’t have to pursue whatever it is the world has told you should have by now. You get to do it your way, and if you find yourself looking for signs maybe it’s because you already know whatever it is you’re trying to validate.
But it’s okay to want the sign. It’s okay to crave the sight of crows settling in trees at dusk, or cardinals leading the way on your morning walk, or days when your favorite number keeps popping up everywhere. Dreams of pets who have passed, or the same old song turning up on different radio stations multiple times a day, the butterfly that lands on your shoulder or the cricket that has hitched a ride in your car. Whatever it is that strikes you as special, unusual, take in these signs and cherish them. Then figure out what it is that your heart already knows. Maybe it’s just waiting for the rest of you to catch up.