Things happen. We wonder why and if what’s happened is a signal that something else might happen. We look for meaning. We are meaning makers many of us humans, except for those who don’t or can’t: people who subscribe to a nihilistic ethos, or people whose brain is not wired to understand that one thing can mean something else, as in the case of people who have one of the autism spectrum disorders.
For the rest of us, we look for signs and make meaning out of what we see. Where are the stars? Where’s the moon? Where are the planets? What do their positions signal? Did she really look at her longer? She swaggers when she walks. Is she? What are the signs that she likes me? She held my hand! That means she loves me. I can ask her to marry me now!
Do we look for signs because we want certainty? Because we want to know that the direction we’re heading in or where we think we want to go is the right direction? Do we need a sign, a signal, an indicator to tell us, yes, this is the way to go? That it will be good for us? That we won’t be hurt? If we try once and fail do we interpret it as a sign that is not meant to be? Is it a question of fate or free will? A totally impossible question to answer since it’s not a question at all: it’s a binary statement of a belief system with a question mark, and it’s fun to talk about at parties.
It might be hard to grok, but we are more than our sexuality. Before we are sexual beings claiming a sexual identity of lesbian or bisexual or pansexual or transsexual, we are human beings. Hard to know that some days: there are people using plastic surgery to transform their physical features to resemble a cat or a Barbie doll or a dressmaker’s Judy. And a few of our fellow humans act more like alligators, but for the most part, we can’t escape being human, full of human quirks, quarks and queer eccentricities; the fantastic, funny and scary stuff that we all come with and worry about. And I mean queer in the original sense of the word.
We are fragile creatures with complex brains and an enormous capacity for making things up and imagining things and storytelling. At some point our ancestors began to interpret things around them: signs about what’s to come, what’s to happen, why things are and how things will be; wanting to be assured that things will be okay and if not, what steps to take to lessen the impact of bad times. Lots of stories and myths about prophesies and in one part of the world, while in other parts of the world, lots of stories warning about getting caught up in the crazy imagination of runaway monkey mind and the dangers of worrying about the past and the future.
We carry those ancestral impulses to understand, the human need to question. Of course with the human need to question comes the human need to answer because we can’t stand not having an answer. Answers get tricky because answers to a good many questions depend on belief and mindset.
I don’t know about signs of things. My personal belief (as opposed the impersonal one I sometimes hold) is that we can imagine a sign in anything. We can assign personal or universal meaning from anything and anyone: a cloud, the shape of a tree branch, the way she holds her body when she talks to us, how she touches our shoulder, seeing her five days in a row at the line up at a cafe, at the bus stop, a run of good luck, a run of bad experiences.
At the same time, we are probably not entirely accurate at interpreting signs because interpretation is dependent on belief systems. And based on what we believe we can make meaning out of anything, or, deny that anything has any meaning.
Was that a sign?
In my student days, I lived in a small apartment complex that at one time was home to a bunch of retired nuns. It was later converted into apartments and I lived in one of those apartments while going to school. My family swore the place was haunted. I wasn’t willing to take that leap in logic, although I confess strange things happened in that building for which there are no explanations to this day.
Because of the strange things that happened there, and my mother’s influence and interest in what she termed ‘psychic’ phenomena, I wondered about signs and signals and the invisible things of life. I was also interested because one of the women in one of my classes made my spideygirl sense tingle and she talked a lot about reincarnation, past lives, spirit guides and all that stuff. She felt we knew each other in a past life and should explore that. I felt maybe she was misguided.
One day after my longest set of classes I got home tired and hungry. I opened the kitchen cupboard and from the back of the cupboard out jumped the open bag of white basmati rice. I stood there, rice all over my feet, trying to figure out 1) how the hell did a bag, at the back of the cupboard, jump to the front and dump its contents all over, and 2) what did it mean? Was it a sign?
I did the only thing I could think to do. I called my bestest Chinese lesbian friend and asked her.
“I dunno. Fertility?” she asked.
Then she asked her mother and reported back. “Fertility.”
“Ya, right.” We laughed.
She commented on my revolving dating door and how it could be perceived as a symbol of fertility in the lesbian world. I distinctly recall furrowing my eyebrows at what she said. My friend was well aware of my position at the time: dating only, even though lesbian dating for the sake of dating was and remains essentially illegal, I didn’t care. I didn’t care if someone sent the lesbian hall monitors after me. I could take ’em.
We talked a bit about dating fertility and made plans for the weekend to go girl hunting for her. Not for me. But after the conversation, the furrow between my younger self’s brows deepened as I considered how quick I was to jump to the idea that falling rice was trying to tell me something. I was looking for a sign and that struck me as something interesting, powerful and silly.
I had called my friend because hers is a rich culture that included rice and ancient superstitions. I’d read Amy Tan and knew enough Chinese people to be in awe of how they intertwined signal and sign and superstition within parts of the culture. Because I had no context within which to understand a jumping bag of rice, I assumed it was a sign of something and needed to find out what and called someone who might know.
Interpretation is everything. I wasn’t buying fertility, and seriously, I didn’t think my friend was either. After the phone conversation, I let it go. A bag of rice wants to jump out from the back of the cupboard? Fine. Clean up the mess. A woman wants to crush on me with explanations of unseen things as the reason? Fine. Be more clear that I didn’t feel the same way.
If I derived meaning from it, it was in that retrospective, lessons learned kind of way: to deal with what’s there.
Some days, I can and do imagine signs everywhere. When that happens, it’s me trying to make sense of something that’s pinging around in my brain. Those days, it’s easy to imagine being a superstitious cave dweller trying to glean what the spread of bones on the ground signals for my tribe. Nothing is as it appears. It’s fun for creativity. It’s magic and wonder. It’s being alive.
Other days, I see things as they are: not as a metaphor, not as a simile, not as a signal and not as a sign, not as a thing that means something else. It’s life. And that’s not a thing I ever need to go looking for because it’s here, now. All the time for all humans including us humans who happen to be lesbian.