Guest Post: Talismans
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, at the MPCE (Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation), we worked in a high white room reached by narrow marble stairs at the top of the building. We drank coffee served in silver, with raw sugar in pale gold grains like the sand on beaches.
It was late afternoon. The sun leached in still, palpable, white-hot like the walls. And as I stirred in the sugar, as I clicked my silver spoon around my porcelain cup, I felt a strange and sudden sensation wash over me.
It felt like waking up.
I googled ‘semiotics graduate degree’ (I had always liked semiotics the best from undergrad) and the first one that came up was Cognitive Semiotics, in Aarhus, Denmark—a place I had never heard of in a country I had never seen.
And I took a breath.
I did not think; no, I knew, that this was my path. Some months later I was on the plane to Denmark.
I would not think about this experience too hard until some years later.
I like things I can hold on to; things I can see and touch and feel and trust. I like talismans: my rose-gold rose thorn necklace, my moonstone wedding ring (moonstone, for intuition and healing and mystery). I have a hard time getting rid of old gifts because of this—to me, they are talismans of love and affection.
The English word ‘talisman’ takes a long route to us here now, etymologically, like most old and culturally universal words do. But a good guess is that once it travels back through words meaning ‘ceremony’ or ‘consecration’, it’s related to ‘telos’, or ‘end/culmination’. Telos, in its turn, is from an older word meaning ‘revolve, move round, sojourn, dwell’.
A talisman: what you could carry with you of what is holy, when you were on your own and had nothing else you could see.
I always considered my emotions to be overwhelming and unreliable. I preferred to analyse a situation and proceed from there. You could rely on what you could puzzle out; you could walk through logic paths like high white halls to the same location every time. There is a security in this.
As I grew up (LDS, going to seminary and then BYU), I kept coming to the worrying conclusion that the only path laid out for me as a woman was one of silence and subordination to men. The way I saw it: if I was lucky enough, a priesthood holder would choose me, and preside over me. In the next life I feared I would be one of any number of ‘wives’, unable to speak, unable to do anything but be a submissive vessel, dependent on the kindness of men.
(And like many women, from what I had experienced, I did not have faith in the kindness of men.)
That was if I was lucky, of course. My destiny seemed not to rely on if I could be smart or kind or strong (the traits I valued in myself), but rather only if I would be pretty enough to be wanted (and I was not a pretty girl).
Why would God listen to me, when he didn’t seem to know me? If that’s the best he had in store for me? And, given what I knew of the temple, that He didn’t even care to talk to me Himself?
No, I decided, based on the available data set, God didn’t care about me at all, much less enough to talk to me.
I was on my own.
I never thought I’d meet a man as kind and wise as my husband, nor that I would meet him in Denmark.
One late night, like we often did, we discussed how we saw the world. It was winter now, and it had already been dark for longer than the sun had been up all day, and we sat on top of our white bedspread printed with lacing grey flowers.
(We had this exact conversation a few times, before I could accept that he might be right.)
“I think God has been listening and speaking to you all this time,” my husband said, when I told him about my relationship with God. “You maybe just didn’t recognise it, because you considered it impossible.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Maybe.”
“How,” he said, “did you know to come to a small town in Denmark, a country you had never even been to before? How did you know to leave a stable job in your favourite city in the world?”
“I just felt it,” I said, and shrugged. “I just knew. Sometimes I just know things.”
“I think He found ways of speaking to you that you were open to hearing,” he told me. “Your gut feelings, as you call them.”
And he brought up other times: Demanding an interview, though I had been rejected, and then being one of two hired for a job by that company that semester. Finding my first best friend. Going back to BYU. Coming to Denmark.
“What about finding you?” I asked.
“Tell me how we met,” he said, and I did—the whole impossible unlikely story.
“I believe God sent me to you,” he said when I finished, “as much as I believe He sent you to me. Because He loves us both, and what we needed was each other.”
This, I could begin to believe. This, I could be reminded of whenever I saw or felt my ring—not only my husband’s love, maybe, but God’s as well.
The other parts I was still doubtful about. But I could promise my husband one thing—that when I prayed now, I would pray assuming I was heard, and I would try to listen in return.
Something I had never really tried before—after all, I was just a girl. And who cared about them at all? Who cared about me, but myself, and now, my husband?
When I did listen, I began to hear God in my heart, and how He loved me.
This is a new path for me, not relying on only what I can see and feel. I am taking my first tentative steps, sometimes stumbling, as I walk on what feels like blindly.
I had never considered that I could be wrong about God not caring about me, because based on the information I had and could see, it made logical sense.
I had never considered, though, that I might not be using the full data set. That the world could be so much larger and kinder and more miraculous than anything I could hold in my hand, anything I could see or point to or consult.
That I could carry my own answers inside me, and not only look to what I could see and hear and parse.
When I pray now I believe I will be heard, and that I can receive an answer. I keep a journal now of such answers, that I carry with me—my own talisman, for when memory and confidence fails, as it often does.
I am still finding my way forward in the dark. I still do not know very much.
But I do know, in my deepest heart, that we are all heard and valued, equally, by God.
Bird is a compulsive traveler and writer, wending her way back to her original home.