Signs and Portents

Signs and Portents

The man in this photo is my grandfather. He’s just lit a fire in the sauna. You’ll notice the sauna has no chimney—it’s a savusauna, a “smoke sauna.” The smoke from the stove swirls around the building’s interior, then out the door. My family is Finnish by descent. I’ve been doing a lot of meditating lately on the importance to us of “sauna” and “the family farm.” My grandparents bought the land in the early 1920s. My mother was born there, and she and my dad eventually owned it for forty years. After Dad died, Mom made a hard decision—to sell the farm and relocate close to me. The whole extended family felt wretched about her selling, but we were accepting of reality. I was the one who walked the house a last time. It felt symbolic, a thing to be done with reverence, putting that key into the lock for the final time. Losing the farm was a family trauma, and of course, the mind needs structure and meaning to deal with such things—and equally of course, with structure and meaning, things that happen become signs and portents.

Signs and portents? Let me explain.

It seems to me that our human need turns the idiosyncratic details of our lives into prophesy. Our desires, our emotions, make the details of our days take on meaning, looking back. Even the smallest of them can become causal—not literally, at least not in a provable way, but in our perception.

Still with me? Then a bit of background is important.

My siblings and I are sky watchers, a habit learned on that farm at the knees of our grandparents. The farm is in the U.P. of Michigan. The night sky there is both breathtaking and calming—stars like a length of brocade spread out overhead. In the evening, our grandparents used to sit on the stoop of the house, watching twilight turn to dark, and dark into the Milky Way. When satellites began to circle overhead, we watched for those, too.

The family farm has often been the setting of my dreams, and the sky is always part of it. I see dreams as having structure that can be explored and taken apart. In a dream that I’ve had repeatedly, a plane glides in low and crashes on the farm, somewhere north of the house. What that dream means, exactly, I don’t know. There’s a sense of peril, a fear that seems prophetic. It’s pure relief to wake and find it’s not true.

One evening, years before my mother sold the farm, the evening flight into the local airport glided low over that field behind the sauna, on its approach to the runway, miles away. I happened to be outside. It was a dramatic sight, my crashing-plane dream almost come to life. After the plane disappeared safely over the trees, I wondered what meteorological condition had caused the flight path to be so altered. None of us had seen a plane so low and close before, nor did anyone see it again. I’m fascinated by planes. My grandparents used to take us grandkids along when they’d drive to the airport on Sunday to watch the afternoon flight come in. Any wonder I dream about airplanes?

I’ve been thinking about one particular dream, as part of my meditations on the farm. I dreamed it long before my mother sold the farm, and it was so vivid, I was compelled to write it down. Over the years, through various moves, the paper it’s written on has moved from a pending file to a closet shelf, from the shelf to a drawer, until at last it is having its turn, as part of my meditations, and has landed now on my desk and is revealing its mysteries.

Back when I was in grade school, my grandfather planted rows of spruce and pine on the west side of the house, between the house and sauna, extending maybe 100 yards to the pigpen and barn. By the time my parents had been on the farm for forty years, those trees had become towering things of beauty, caretakers protecting us from wind and snow. The particular dream described on that sheet of paper opened with my looking out the house windows to the north. I was middle-aged—home for a family visit at the farm—and a summer storm was coming in, the trees beginning to sway.

You should know this fact of geography, to picture the dream’s setting. To the north of the farm lies Lake Superior. The lake itself isn’t visible, but its weather is, a changing mosaic of clouds and wisps and smoke, boiling up from the horizon, or scudding by. I was alarmed, suddenly, to see a slender tornado rather like a waterspout approaching from the northeast. I retreated to the basement.

In reality, the basement is a dark space with heavy, hand-hewn beams overhead. Carved from whole trees, those beams hold the house up. But in the basement of my dream, there was a row of booths aligning large windows. Neighbors and people I didn’t know were sitting in the booths, talking with the other members of my family. As I stood there puzzling, I saw, through those surprising windows, day turn into night, and then daylight again. Puzzling even more, I went upstairs and looked out to the north again.

Now I counted nine tornadoes approaching as if shoulder to shoulder, moving north to south toward the field behind the sauna. Suddenly, at the porch door, I heard clawing sounds, and when I investigated, I found two large dogs outside the door. They were frantic, wanting to come in. My family had no dogs, but surprisingly I let them in, then illogically I went out to the sauna, where I found two women I didn’t know who had taken shelter there, the wind now thrashing the trees. 

All of us were afraid of the approaching tornadoes. I couldn’t talk them into going to the greater safety of the house, so I left and went back alone. As I walked the path through the spruce and pine grove, the air above me began to crackle. Tornado debris? No.

As I looked up, I saw the sky above me teeming with little animate things, fashioned from pieces of evergreen boughs, each small enough to hold in my hand. There were tiny airplanes . . . winged animals and crosses . . . all woven of evergreen, swooping and circling around one another, their wings humming like the wings of insects. The dream ended when they suddenly dissolved, all at once, leaving beautiful blue sky. I woke up happy for what I’d seen in that final image. Taking the dream apart suggested that no matter how complicated or harsh my life might get, blue sky would follow.

My family had lived on the farm for ninety years. As a writer, I rely on the subconscious mind’s predilection for symbol making. In the dream I saw nine tornadoes. Ninety years, nine tornadoes. In retrospect, I had to ask myself, were my tornadoes prophetic? We had, after all, lost the farm. The dream tornadoes foretold a future in which our life there would end, wiped away not by one twister, but by nine of them. Could something so lost be found again?

Not long after Mom sold the farm, my brother drove by the place and told me he’d seen two large dogs in the yard. The next time I found and read the description of the dream, I staggered a bit when I got to the part about the dogs scratching at the door. My family had cats, never dogs. But the people who’d bought the house from my mother did have two such dogs.

I stood staring at the sheet of paper, wondering—were the dogs of my dream their dogs, not literally, but a sort of prescience? Were they premonition, to prepare me that the time would come to yield our place at the farm? Seeing the dogs in my dream as prophetic gave a meaning to our loss, some comfort that as people endure life’s changes they can find at least occasional lovely coincidences, curiously overlapping images between real life and their dreams.

     *     *     *

Six years after Mom sold the farm, she passed away, in November of 2021. She’d spent those years living down the street in a senior living apartment. In March of 2020 her building locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic. My mother, my husband, and I weren’t alone in the difficulty of our situation. But knowing that didn’t do much to assuage the pain of suddenly not being able to see one another, months during which my mother had to stay isolated in her apartment.

Under lockdown, it was hard for us to care for her. We could only get groceries and necessities to her via the staff. When I was finally able to go into Mom’s apartment again, my visits happened on a strict schedule, two days a week. I had to wear a mask and face shield and could go nowhere else in the complex. Even so, I worried that I would carry the virus in and expose not only my mom, but hundreds of elderly people. I expect you can imagine the nightmare scenarios my mind was able to conjure up. When Mom passed, suddenly, I happened to be with her. That I was there with her was a blessing. It also left me reeling.

It seems to me that grief, too, has a structure, a pattern that we navigate. The following months, November into March, were long, cold, and heavy with grief. One dark, early morning in mid-March, I went out to the yard with the dog at the exact, amazing moment to witness the fiery end of a falling star. The meteor was bright green, huge, and so close that it seemed I could raise my hand and touch it. The beauty of that green fire in the sky opened something in me. I went back inside transformed. I was so relieved by what I had experienced, I had to write about it. Take a look, if you’re interested in such things and are inclined to read more: “The Clear Dark Sky: A Season of Grieving.”

People have thought for centuries that shooting stars are harbingers, predictors of something to come, things extraordinary. After seeing my meteor’s green disintegration, what I knew without doubt was that those moments in the yard had transformed my grief into something softer, less painful. Could a star foretell the future? That falling star became my portent, signifying something to come. The thought that it could, or might, was an added comfort.

At the end of May, I felt confirmed when the phone rang one morning, and my sister Doreen burst out breathlessly on the other end, “The farm is for sale—and we’re going to buy it!”

Confused, I stammered, “The farm? What farm?”

The family farm, of course. The rest of our conversation is Doreen’s story, one that she is writing. She and her husband have returned the family farm for another generation. Are you thinking of the tornadoes in my dream? “Could something so lost be found again?” I am.

I’m thinking about every detail in my tornado dream—the twisters, the dogs, those puzzling windows in the basement that went from light to dark to light again, and finally the blue sky. Family, too, is a structure, a profound source of meaning. Ours had taken a blow with the loss of the land. With that unexpected phone call from my sister, I had to ask myself seriously, had the return of the farm been foretold by a fiery green meteor? Something in me told the skeptic in me, yes. It was at the very least a blessed turn of fortune.

In early July, I stood beside Doreen on the porch at the farm as she put the key into the lock and opened the door. There were seven of us crowded around, all holding our breath. It felt like a symbolically important event, like ritual almost, to turn that key in the lock again, something to be done with reverence. I’ve spent weeks there, since—amazed at how thirsty I was for it, my mind drinking in everything, from the trees, grown even taller, to the shelves in the basement with my mother and grandmother’s canning jars still on them.

Signs and portents. When I was trying to find my way into telling this story, the photo of my grandfather in front of the sauna came to mind. I pulled it out of the box of photographs that I’ve had since Mom died and began looking more closely. I don’t know when it was taken. Perhaps the 1950s? I’ll ask you to look at it again. Do you see what I saw—for the first time, despite looking at it for so many years? There are ghost numbers on the image, right over the sauna window. There’s a 2, and what looks to be another 2. I don’t know how they came to be there—my husband suggested they signify film speed, or that it’s the 22nd image. Perhaps, but how is it that the numbers are visible on the image?

I don’t know why the numbers are there, photographically speaking. But I saw at once their personal significance. Two 2’s, as in 22, as in 2022, the year the farm came back into the family. Are the numbers some mysterious prediction of the future, hidden in the image these many years? Or are they coincidence, curiously overlapping images between our perception of time and an anomaly in the photo development process?

Here’s the mystery—structured, examined, there’s meaning either way.

Donna Salli - Seated - Color

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