This time of year, here in the U.S., there’s a lot of Religion on display. Not just twinkling lights creating glittering outlines of reindeer striking poses in people’s front yards – but also gossamer angels floating in trees and homemade Nativity scenes gently lit to suggest the candlelit birth of the Christ. I live in a ‘county island’: an area of super-wide streets devoid of sidewalks and street lights, and lots of trees. People near my home tend to go ‘all out’ with decorations and, in the darkness of night (coming so early now, in the Northern Hemisphere), their efforts are pretty dazzling.
Despite Christmas being a Christian celebration, I notice that, all around my city, the excitement and anticipation of Something New Ahead is palpable. The Universalist church and the Buddhist temple happen to be on the same street, less than two miles from each other; I pass them on my way to visit our nearby mountains. I’ve noticed that both gathering places are looking particularly festive, in their own ways, at the moment. More color; more lights; flowers and wreaths; paper lanterns, ornaments and mini-lights strung outside along fences and in trees.
Who doesn’t love a reason to celebrate? It feels like we’re all looking for one, and maybe even desperately in need of one.
I wasn’t raised in a religious household. My mother (who died when I was only 9 years old) was an Agnostic (despite her mother’s Mormon beliefs). My father couldn’t decide – it seemed to me – which was more appealing: an Existential nonchalance (he’d been schooled in France, and definitely ‘schooled’ by authors Sartre and Goethe) or flat-out, unapologetic Atheism. Still, during the holidays there was always a pine bough with a red bow hung on the door. I never asked my father why he did it; but it made me smile. Even the hardest, most cynical hearts can find seasonal joys almost irresistible. To my mind, that pine bough and a single satin ribbon bow was a symbol of my father’s desire for, and belief in, Hope. For a new day; a better tomorrow; happier times.
When I moved to where I live now, over sixteen years ago, I did so to be near my father – as his care provider in his last days on earth. To cope with the strain of his care, and the emotional drain of watching him slip away from us, I began taking daily walks in and around my neighborhood. Nature is a great healer, and I was in dire need of help.
On my walks, I began noticing the many red-tailed hawks that apparently nest in the large pine trees of my neighbors. I loved looking up, as exhausted as I usually was after working, and then caring for my father, and watching them lazily circling the pines in the twilight.
Hawks are beautiful, fierce and mysterious creatures. They’re also excellent hunters, as well as very shy birds – they keep their distance from humans and mind their own business. I suppose that’s why – when I came across my first beautiful hawk feather as I was walking, it seemed magical to me. I picked it up and took it home with me. Then, a very strange thing began happening. About once a week, I’d come across a new hawk feather. Each time, the feather I found was both longer, and different colored: rust-red stripes; golden brown chevrons; creamy beige with black flecks.
I’d read somewhere that, in Native American culture, feathers are symbolic of the connection between the owner or ‘finder’ of the feather, the Creator, and the bird that gave the feather. Hawk feathers, in particular, are supposedly portents of Something New: often, the birth of something, or someone. In any event, I collected about 9 feathers in all, and then they stopped appearing during my walks. I bought a very light and delicate mobile (online, from Germany), with little clamps on the end of each filament. I clamped each hawk feather into the mobile, which now hangs in my bedroom, as a reminder.
As I’ve lived life more fully – in joy, and through many sorrows, I’ve come to believe that there’s a kind of universal connection between all people, of all faiths – and even people of ‘no faith’ at all. It’s so delicate, yet so fundamental, instinctual, and strong in our human family. Its symbols are everywhere. Whatever form they take, in whatever time of year, they offer comfort, peace and the assurance of hope for tomorrow.