Light Musings: Reflections from My Inner Sanctuary


No Sign of a Sign

A yellow postcard arrived in the mail this week. It sounded earnest enough, promising not to take too much of my time. My input would make a huge difference, helping the surveyors understand my contributions to the community and the needs that I have. It was an enticing invitation.  Making a difference in the world can begin right in our own neighborhood. It felt affirming to be asked to participate in identifying our strengths as well as areas for improvement, even if only by electronic means. Then I noticed the survey title. The mailing was inviting me to participate in the 2021 Community Assessment Survey for Older Adults.

I have known for a while that I no longer fit in the category of young adults. One group of which I’m aware makes that politely yet perfectly clear in naming 35 years as the top of its age range. I’m an advocate of the saying that you’re “only as old as you feel.” Far be it from any single group alone to define me, but if many voices are singing the same song, it may be time to listen. If I’m honest, I’ve felt a little older the last few years. The back stiffens earlier in the afternoon. Muscle soreness after a day of strenuous activity has become part of my reality. It wasn’t difficult to accept the move into middle age, though in recent months I’ve wondered when that phase ends. If AARP mailings are to be trusted, perhaps when a person turns 50, because that is about the time my mailbox started overflowing with their material. (I’ve never known another group that claims to want to do so much for me!). I have too much youthful energy to accept that as the definitive word, but still, time is marching on. When does a person become “old?” Is it at 65 when Medicare becomes available? Could it be at age 67, with the full retirement age of Social Security? It may be the first day you discover you can’t get up off the ground without help. Or perhaps it occurs simultaneously with one’s 90th birthday? Does it even matter?  Or could the request to participate in a community assessment of the needs of older adults be a sign that old age snuck up while no one was watching? Maybe the group that sent the yellow postcard knows something I don’t. A reliable, trustworthy sign sure would be handy about now.

The search for a sign is an effort to gain clarity, but in fact, it may well add more confusion than value. The cows are lying down – a sure sign that rain is on the way, so some would say. The wooly worm’s coat is all black this year – better get ready for an extra cold winter. Thunder during the winter? Expect snow within the next seven days. Huge oak trees on the farm where I was raised were a source of information for my grandpa. Large acorns were a sign mother nature was providing extra food for the critters during the coming winter, so it was likely to be harsher than usual. Most would say there is no truth to that. Even so, ever since then, ground covered with small acorns gives me hope for a mild season.

Humans are fascinated with interpreting the seasons we experience, identifying signs in odd and interesting places. Naming something a sign lends it credibility to be trusted to help us know how to think or act. I’m reminded of an occasion in the Gospel of John where Jesus said, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” (4:8) It sounds as though people have sought outside verification for a long, long time.

The fascination with signs doesn’t stop with the weather. From animals’ behavior to the pattern of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup to the casting of dice – and maybe even the arrival of an innocent postcard in the mail — the desire to find guidance “from beyond” is never far from us. Some signs, like the one in the photo, are overzealous and overbearing. Apparently a Black Friday bargain sale requires basic instructions about how to play well with others. Ask for a sign to guide you and you may get a detailed code of conduct. It is a good reminder to be careful what you ask for!

I have lost count of how many times this week someone has said within my hearing, “It must be a sign.” It’s almost like a rehearsed opening move of a chess game. It gives confirmation that what is occurring is as it should be, and provides comfort or assurance.

There are a couple of reasons for this. A good amount of time is spent trying to make sense of life’s little episodes. It is a bit like pulling out tangled strings of Christmas lights in anticipation of the holidays. At the conclusion of last year’s festivities it was easier to gather them up and stuff them in a box rather than neatly wind them. When the next holiday rolls around, like an overdue loan, it’s time to pay back the time you saved with interest as you tease individual strands from the heap. Just when you think you’ve solved the puzzle another clump forms and requires you to work through yet another knotted mess. Life is full of choices and questions, which means there are almost always decisions to be made. Sometimes those are gnarly and confusing; a sign from above offering a little direction would be a welcome relief.

In Chatham County, North Carolina where I was raised, that kind of help comes from the highway department. Country roads there didn’t follow nice, neat grid patterns like the ones here in the Midwest. The paths many of them follow hint that the surveyor may have been a tad tipsy as they planned those routes because sometimes a straight line is hard to find. Absent a compass or a map, after a handful of curves or unexpected turns it is easy to lose track of exactly where you are or what direction you’re heading. Thankfully at the end of most of those roads, you could expect to find helpful signs pointing left, right, and perhaps straight ahead indicating the nearest destination in that direction: Siler City – 8; Silk Hope – 3. Or Seagroves – 4; Erect – 5. Even if you didn’t know exactly where you were, those signs helped you to have an idea of where you were heading. That is one reason people are smitten with signs: even if they can’t help you determine exactly where you are, they help you know what to expect and in what direction to proceed. A sign that reads RR Crossing heightens our awareness. Danger – Bridge Out causes us to put on the brakes. Large acorns may inspire you to stock up on supplies in anticipation of a rough winter. It is no wonder people have long sought the wisdom of oracles or prophets. Making sense of what is before us or knowing what to expect are lifelong tasks. Signs help with their navigation.

Recently I have become aware of yet another subtle maneuver in the never ending quest to gain an edge of insight that underscores this fascination with outside guidance. It makes me wonder if our dependence on signs has reached an unhealthy stage. The lack of a sign is itself taken as a sign. It is a distant relative to the idea that “what happens is what is supposed to happen” or “what is is what should be.” It’s akin to the idea that Providence controls all things. That can be a comforting thought, but it can also be a justification for ignoring responsibilities or doing that which is comfortable even if it isn’t good or right. Among my Quaker Friends, one may hear talk of “way opening” or “way closing.” Way opening is like a clear path appearing as a morning fog rises. What was not seen earlier is now unmistakably before us. Way closing, on the other hand, sounds like recognizing we have no other choice, so the fact there isn’t an alternative must be a sign that all that is left is the one the Spirit desires. And, it may be; but perhaps it simply is what is. Recently while listening to a thought process run that route it dawned on me that on some occasions the lack of a sign is interpreted as a sign. Dang! How will we ever know the difference? At this point, I can’t even wish for a sign to guide me! Ultimately, our task is to make the best of what is before us and trust that the Divine accompanies us regardless.

Back to the Older Adult survey, perhaps in the reshuffling of responsibilities, the US Postal Service is in charge of signaling when we reach old age. If so, given the recent announcement that mail delivery will be slowing in the future, at least that news will take longer to arrive! Upon closer inspection, I noticed the postcard was addressed to “Resident.” Since I’ve never gone by that name and our carrier is prone to deliver mail to the wrong box, I’m going to take that as a sign this post card was meant for someone else and concentrate on enjoying the day without worry of how many more there are to come.

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