Wild City // Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

It was 11 below zero when we awoke this morning. As we were eating breakfast, I heard that familiar wolf whistle outside the window — a cardinal singing. I pointed it out to my husband, the winter-hater. See, a sign of spring, even now, in early February.

When an ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted in an Arkansas swamp a few years ago, the frenzy of excitement that followed wasn’t due only to the now controversial claim about the reappearance of a supposedly extinct bird, even one so impressive that it is called The Lord God Bird (when people see it they shout, “Lord God!”). The sighting felt like a sign that earth’s creatures were more resilient than we’d feared. It made us hopeful.

Recently, thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve, seemingly giving us the opposite message. Now we fear that birds, in general, are doomed, and perhaps we along with them.

We lean our heads back and look at the sky for signs.

Several years ago signs began appearing on power poles on the major streets in our area, along Xerxes, and 50th. They were hand painted on narrow blue-grey strips of wood, and nailed up fairly high.

They appeared overnight, and had either politically progressive messages, like, “How much would you pay for water?” or whimsical ones, like my favorites, meant to be read as a pair. On one pole, the message was, “Drink Tea,” and on a pole a little further down the street its companion read, “Are you inspired?” I thought about adding my own pair, “Write poems,” and “Are you transformed?” but I never got around to it.

As we drove along with our daughter, we read the signs and wondered. Why did it seem as though we were the only ones to even notice them? Who was doing this?

If I had to guess, I’d say it was young people, 20-somethings, trying to shake us out of our mental ruts.

I had seen the underneath life of the neighborhood assert itself once before in the form of a sign. On a walk in southwest Minneapolis shortly after I moved here, back in the mid-90s, I came upon a message written in black magic marker on one of those metal boxes next to the street that holds circuits for phones. The message read: “Life is very bitter here.” The “very” had been written in above the other words, with a little mark under it pointing to where it belonged in the sentence.

I stood and pondered the message. I just felt certain these were a woman’s words. My heart went out to her. Did she feel so powerless that this anonymous cry was the only way she could express despair? Had she had second thoughts when she wrote the message, and had she added the “very” for emphasis then, or had she come back later in an even worse frame of mind and added it in?

Being new to this part of town, I wondered if life was very bitter here. I was nervous. I had just moved in with my husband. Though I was 40, I had not yet lived with a man. It would be years before I would agree to marry him, and more years yet after that before I became comfortable with the word “wife.”  

I was an unlikely candidate for marriage. I had shown zero aptitude for long-term relationships. I did not want to be subservient. I did not want to be the little woman, selflessly dusting and cooking. I was freaked out at the idea of being seen as a housewife. I did not want to acquiesce to what I called “the regular program.”

Shortly after we began to date, I warned my husband that I’d never been able to make a relationship last longer than a year. He said with a twinkle, “Well, we will just see what happens.”

Even when we finally made the decision to plan a wedding, I was a bit deer-in-the-headlights. We were having dinner at a quiet restaurant, and my husband leaned in, took my hand in his, and asked, tenderly, “What do you want to do about rings?”

“Rings?” I yelled. “You mean we are going to have rings?” I saw them as links in a chain, the symbol that a woman had given herself over, had become some man’s property.

We have come a long way since then. Maybe our New Year’s Eve ritual demonstrates that. As the clock strikes midnight, we dance to a Beatles song, and belt out the words: “Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains, And they ain’t the kind, that you can see, Wo-oh, Chains of love got a hold on me, Yeah.”

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.