Saturday, April 07, 2007

Reading the Signs

I think I'm something of an animist. If I am, I'm a fairly agnostic one. While I mostly believe in some sort of guiding spirit to existence, my rational mind dismisses the idea that it takes an interest in my daily world, and sends me little communiques from time to time about it. I totally understand the impulse though. When I see a wild animal unexpectedly, I feel the urge to believe it means something, and the more exotic, rare, shy or majestic the animal, the stronger the impulse.

I did not grow up near a national park or anything; Richmond is a small city or large town, and the surrounding area is almost completely cultivated. Nonetheless I would occasionally see creatures that would inspire a sense of omen. Deer, hawks, egrets, herons, even raccoons occasionally would appear in my life, and I'd wonder if they were harbingers of something, secretly hoping so, because whatever it was, it would have to be good to warrant such an amazing messenger.
I remember the awe I felt as my family and I ate in the dining room of a B&B in Scotland. The experience started out pretty special even at the beginning; the dining room had a huge picture window that overlooked the Atlantic, and we were enjoying the light of the moon shining a road across the water. Suddenly the light began to pick out glinting bodies leaping through the waves. It was a pod of dolpins swimming by. All the Laceys gasped in wonder. The next table over was less impressed; they were a group of men there for some sport fishing. "Eh, they eat all the fish," one of them grumped.

As recently as this Summer I had a couple of these experiences. On a beach in New Jersey, at dusk, I and a man I was seeing at the time witnessed a flock of birds flying over head; they were either egrets, but probably herons. Just seeing one of them, on the ground, is usually enough to color my whole day with a sense of portent. Seeing one flying, looking so improbable with its neck pulled in and long legs trailing behind, is even more captivating. Seeing nine of them, flying in a V, well this was almost impossible NOT to see as a grand sign. It is moment of beauty in a relationship that was confused and difficult, a fond memory despite whatever else happened between us, at least for me. I hope he's able to remember it similarly.

Then on a visit to my childhood stomping grounds, one hot late afternoon I watched several Eastern swallowtail butterflies dance from bush to bush, while overhead a flock of goldfinches in full Summer plumage played, then still farther up (and mercifully disinterested in the goldfinches) soared a red-tailed hawk. I was overwhelmed that day with the sense of witnessing wonders.

Not all the omens have seemed benevolent however. Once in Seattle I was wakened in the early morning by a seagull sounding distinctly distressed. I looked out my window to see it flying as hard as it could, being chased by several smaller birds. That seemed like a good a day not to get out of bed.

What have these signs meant? To date, absolutely nothing. Not one of them has ushered in any amazing new wonders into my life, for good or ill, or if they have, I haven't noticed. This doesn't seem to change anything however. Whenever they occur, I still feel the pagan in me spring up, trying to interprete the sign.

Life in New York involves quite a bit fewer of these sorts of things, as one can imagine, though my years as a dogwalker in Central Park did include at least a few of them. I would see egrets and herons there, and in the Spring I would see a red-tailed hawk almost weekly. I wondered in fact if he (she?) was taking a special interest in two of my charges, a pair of miniature beagles. They were roughly the size of squirrels. Maybe a bit smaller. I wonder if the only thing preventing them from being hawk-food was my presence.

If nature is less likely to provide me with omens here, what seems to have replaced them is celebrity sightings. Here again, the degree of excitement varies in relation to my feelings for the person as well as my intuitive sense of how rarely he or she is in New York. Late last Summer my friend Melissa and I, in the space of an hour, saw Julianne Moore (whom I refrained from kissing), Jake Gyllenhaal (ditto) and Matthew Broderick (meh). Mr Broderick intrigued us both because he had one arm in a sling. Having this happen on a warm Friday evening in the West Village really isn't that surprising, but I could feel the impulse deep in me to pray, sacrifice a goat or SOMETHING to let the powers-that-be know I had seen the signs and was prepared to accept the bounty they predicted with humility and gratitude.
Recently however, I had a more depressing set of omens. Artists of all stripes acknowledge that a loss of faith and confidence in oneself is just part of the career cycle. We don't ever dispell it, we just get better at weathering it. I've been deep in one for some time now, and it seemed to be reaching some sort of crisis point this week. I was definitely wondering if it was time to give up these crazy wacky dreams, and move on. So imagine my delight when I get on a subway train and see the words "BE AN ACCOUNTANT!" emblazoned everwhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE. Accountancy in fact is the job I always jokingly mention as my alternate career, because it's the job I am probably least suited for intellectually and emotionally. Spending all day meticulously computing and checking numbers, yeah, not a job that would be playing to my strengths.

So, I hated that subway car. Hated, hated, HATED it. OH so much hate.

Then, I bought a copy of Backstage only to discover their feature article was on actors who grew tired of the profession and changed careers. If that weren't enough, I decided it would be a good idea to read this article at three in the morning (awakened by insomnia) which of course is a dandy time to ponder one's failures and general worthlessness. After reading the article, the only thing keeping me from turning on the gas was the fact it was in the next room, would have involved actually getting out of bed, and I just couldn't be bothered.

So as you can imagine, while I was much better later that morning, I did not greet the next day with a skip in my step and a smile on my lips. Spring is often a hard time for me in New York anyway. I am aware that trees and flowers OUT THERE IN THE REAL WORLD are starting to bloom, while here in the city, warm weather just means there are more people making unnecessary noise outside my open bedroom windows and standing in my way in enormous bovine clumps. So I was less then cheery as I stomped around the city, thinking it was very good I didn't own a flame thrower because if I did I'd be using it right now to clear a path for myself until the constabulary deemed it necessary to detain me... when suddenly, there, standing outside the Chelsea Cinema on 23rd and 8th, looking anxiously at his watch, was Ralph Fiennes.

Ahhhhh. My. This was unexpected. I stared at him just a shade longer than I usually do, because, this, this was indeed a celebrity sighting of mystic proportions. I love Ralph Fiennes. I think he's beautiful, incredibly talented, and even though I know he just did Faith Healer on Broadway, his presence in New York seemed noteworthy if not actually shocking. I looked at his large, gorgeous features and blue blue eyes, took note of the fact that yup, he's shorter in person than I thought, then I recalled my New York cool self, and pretended I had no idea who he was. I think he did notice me staring at him, but fortunately my big city instincts were still intact enough that I didn't break my stride, and kept moving past him.

This means nothing. I know it means nothing. There is no significance to this event whatsoever. But suddenly I felt much better. I headed out to Jersey City to have dinner with Melissa, and stood on the crowded PATH train, smiling kindly at the surly hordes around me.
Accountancy school can wait.


Moheggie said...

How did you lick his face and still not break your stride? That's talent my friend!

Patrick said...

Ah, you see, this is where one discovers unexpected benefits from all those dance, tumbling, clown and Suzuki classes. I had licked him, and slipped a photo/resume into his coat before he knew what hit him.

Jeff Wills said...

A Feinnes portent indeed. Hope he tasted good, Patrick. I believe little signals of hope surround me, and that it's my fault when I can't see them. Of course, sometimes when I see them they're so obvious and timed that I just have to stop in my tracks to shake my fist at the sky and shout, "I get it, you bastard!"

So it is fortunately that a cooler head like yours encountered Ralph.