A sign indicates; a symbol penetrates. Shooting pains down your left arm is a sign to cut your jog short today, perhaps to see a doctor; waking up consistently at 3 in the morning indicates depression.
Sometimes signs go beyond indicating and are internalized emotionally, at which point they become symbols. For example, in the North a robin in March is a sign of spring. Let’s say, however, a particular winter has been a very hard one, full of inner dying, perhaps a lost job, a failed relationship, the death of a loved one, and you are thinking that life is too hard for you to go on. Perhaps you are thinking of ending it yourself, as you look out the window into the bleak March landscape, not a bud or leaf or blade of green grass showing, the ground covered with dirty snow, the sky gray and dreary. Then, in front of that window, hops the first robin, and maybe something in that patch of orange breast surprises you, corresponds to a forgotten, faded orange spot deep within your own breast, and you are reminded of the eternal rhythm of life out of death out of life out of death, and once again the seed of spring is opened in you and an unexpected smile surfaces in your heart. Now this particular robin has become more than a sign of spring. It is a symbol of spring. The difference is in the feeling, the depth of the significance.
My understanding of symbolism increased profoundly last winter while I was visiting my girlfriend, Fran, who was studying in Pamplona, Spain. Never having been to Europe myself, I thought I had to see Paris. Neither of us could afford it, but we went anyway, catching the midnight special at the French border, third class, sitting up all night in a compartment with six strangers, two of whom were chain smokers, and one whose stocking feet stank so wretchedly that I was thankful for the smoke screen.
We arrived in Paris at 6 in the morning, sleepless, with sore necks and stiff backs; as luck would have it, it was also raining. We couldn’t afford the luxury of a taxi. We couldn’t even afford a croissant and a cup of coffee in the train station without blowing half a day’s budget.
After the rain subsided a bit, we discovered we couldn’t find a place to stay. All the cheap hotels were already booked. To make things worse, we had over¬packed and our bags were much too heavy, our clothes had gotten damp, and the French were thoroughly living up to their reputation for rudeness, sneering, and belittling our poor attempts to communicate.
Naturally we began to take our frustrations out on each other. Why are you walking so fast? Why are you walking so slow? Why not eat here? Too expensive. Well, I’m hungry! Well, I’d like to eat tomorrow, too, if you don’t mind! Ask that person over there how to …. You ask him. I asked the last time. Asshole ….
We finally agreed on hamburgers and beer at a Burger King, but before we got one bite down I said something nasty and Fran ran off to the restroom to cry. I drank my beer and brooded until Fran returned. She asked me who I’d made love with while she was out of the country. A fine time for that question, I sneered, having learned from the French how to raise my lip in disdain. There’s never a good time for you, she shouted.
She started to cry, and I told her to go outside if she was going to make a scene. She ran out screaming at me; both of us were too numb to care much what people might be thinking. After I finished her burger, I went outside to look for her, another blast building up inside me. I found her a few blocks away, crying on a street bench. What an ass you are to walk off, I said. What if we had gotten separated? What kind of mess would that have been? What’s the difference now, she said. Go to hell then, I said, and started to walk off. I could feel my power over her. I could reduce her to submission. She came after me and grabbed my arm. I yanked loose, violently, now frightened by how much was coming, the bare-teethed intensity, the hair’s breadth from real physical violence.
She disappeared into an alley street. Each passing minute assured the greater likelihood that we would get separated, but I didn’t follow her. I was in a trance of fatigue, anger, fear, and power, with enormous guilt just waiting to arise, as soon as these more fierce, immediate emotions subsided. I had all the money on me. She would be helpless out there alone. But I didn’t follow her.
The morning rush hour traffic was now in full flow, four lanes packed abreast, both directions, frantically racing from light to light to save precious seconds to somewhere. There was energy, power, in that traffic, and I felt at one with it. A pigeon wading in a puddle at the side of the street flew too late and was hit. There was a great protest of pain and flurry of feathers as she thumped and bounced down on the sidewalk at my feet. In a spasm of death energy she gained her feet and assessed her new-found brokenness, circling some invisible center into ever-smaller circles, falling at last mercifully on her side, heaving a dozen or so breaths, peeping once ever so softly, open-eyed, and dying.
Oh my lord in heaven, I cried to myself. I have murdered love.