A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to Janet Shannon’s house to meet with some of her friends and to sign some Maps, Markets and Matzo Ball Soup books. Janet is one of the Kitchen Table Girls—the group of women I write about in the Gail Hall book.
On her kitchen counter was a picture of Gail, a few special mementos, and a feather.
She explained that the Girls believed that when they saw a feather, it meant that Gail was with them. It was obvious that these women were still mourning the death of our mutual friend. The feather brought them comfort.
I told her that I too, had a feather in my possession, that I had found it on my road trip through Arizona and New Mexico in May. I kept it because I thought it was pretty.
“I was staying in this quaint little vintage motel,” I told her, “It had a courtyard lined with Ponderosa Pines and a water fountain with benches to sit. You could hear Mourning Doves cooing. It was in…” and I stopped to think, what city was it? I had stayed in 5 that trip. Oh yes, “It was in Santa Fe,” I said. We looked at each other, our eyebrows raising as the significance of Santa Fe dawned on us.
Santa Fe was the location of Gail’s first culinary tour. It inspired her cooking and led her to other cities and farmers’ markets around the world. Exploring the farmers’ market in Santa Fe made Gail wonder if offering market tours and cooking classes at home would work, too. She proved that it would. I went to Santa Fe because I wanted to walk through that market, I wanted to smell the peppers roasting, and I wanted to eat the green chile stew at the Pink Adobe. I wanted to see what she saw. I wanted to know what inspired her.
I got shivers, standing there with Janet.
When I researched the symbolism attached to feathers, one saying kept popping up on websites: Feathers appear when angels are near.
Was Gail with me on my journey to Santa Fe? She “appeared” a few times as I was writing her memoir, something I even state in the book, so, having her with me in the place that meant so much to her, well, I couldn’t completely disregard the thought.
Attach whatever meaning you want to feathers or other objects that fall out of the sky (metaphorically speaking) as you journey through life. A sign or symbol is only relevant to the person experiencing it.
I remember the moment I saw that feather amidst the pebbles and pine needles. The afternoon air was heavy and warm. It smelled of bougainvilleas and Ponderosa Pine. A fountain gurgled, a mourning dove cooed. The whole thing was like a scene in a Gabriel García Márquez novel and I felt drunk with inspiration. I could hear the words of a poem beginning to form, so I grabbed a pen and wrote.
Janet told me I should put that feather in a shadow box. So today, that’s what I did.
I found some nice paper and I printed out my words and put that feather with them. Now, when I look at it, I think of Gail and Santa Fe.
Upon the ground, a feather lay
White and grey and fine.
While up above,
A mourning dove
Perched upon a branch.
She sang a song of sadness
From the Ponderosa Pine.
Why are you so sad, I asked
And she said, in calm reply,
I have a lost a feather,
To me, as precious as a child.
And so, I mourn…
I simply cannot fly.
Feathers are powerful little things. To Native American tribes, feathers symbolize trust, honour, strength, wisdom, power, freedom, and more, and have long been used in ceremonial dress.
On that same road trip, I attended a Pow Wow in Albuquerque where I took some pictures of beautiful dancers. The importance of feathers was obvious.
Now that I’ve had a chance to look again at the words that came so forcefully that day, and after letting them settle, I understand better their meaning—which is weird being that I’m the one who wrote them, but you know, sometimes, the obvious takes a while to reveal itself.
I didn’t know about that saying (Feathers appear when angels are near) until today. Truth be told, I don’t put much stock in angels and other celestial beings.
I do know about loss. I know it can be debilitating, and I know that grief is inevitable. It is also personal, non-conforming and, thankfully, evolutionary.
Losing something (big or small), or losing anyone—to death or to the death of a relationship—or just as costly, losing yourself, can be paralyzing. The loss may be different, but the weight of grief is the same: we think that surely we will never fly again.
But somehow we do. We find strength—through kindness, through beauty, through nature, through counselling, and often, simply through the passing of time—and we carry on.
Sometimes, we even become a stronger version of ourselves.
The next time a feather lands at your feet, stop and pick it up—it could be the universe trying to tell you something… or, it could simply mean some bird out there is one feather short.
The interpretation is up to you.