Yesterday, while running* in my neighborhood, I saw a coyote. A COYOTE!!! Can you believe this? I mean, this is Chicago, Illinois, and it’s not even that close to the suburbs (where I assume there are tons of coyotes and bunnies and maidens). I know that this was a coyote for two reasons: (1) I have seen pictures of a coyote before and I know what one looks like — this coyote was like 100 feet away from me at most; and (2) There was a guy walking his (small, savory-looking) dog who also saw the coyote, and I asked the man if it was a coyote, and the man said yes. (On a separate note, if I owned a tiny morsel of a dog, and I saw a coyote, I would have run in the opposite direction. So this was probably not this man’s dog. It was probably his girlfriend’s dog or something.)
The only word to describe this coyote is “whimsical.” She trotted along the sidewalk with a sort of jaunt. She seemed to be smiling, and maybe even winking. She seemed like maybe she was a puppet, or one of those animatronic animals they put in movies before computers could do everything.
When I got home, I wondered if the coyote crossing my path could have been some kind of omen or symbol or indication of what I ought to expect in my life. I remembered reading lots of fables about coyotes in school as a kid. It would be a good storytelling device, I thought, if my coyote had meant something.
So I looked it up. Coyotes are celebrities in Native American culture, but the exact meaning of the coyote varies from tribe to tribe. It turns out, coyotes symbolize a lot of things.
Pretty much everyone agrees that coyotes are characters of great intellect, imagination, and trickery. The jury is out about whether that is something to be revered or feared: For many tribes, Coyote is a god; for many other tribes, she is a clan animal. In terms of symbolism, however, here are the Three Big Theories.
- Because Coyote accompanied the first man and the first woman into the entrance of the physical world (!!!), Coyote is seen as a bringer of life and a new birth symbol.
- Coyote indicates an ending. Seeing a Coyote brings natural shifts in balance, and bringing the end to some chapter or stretch of time.
- Coyote may indicate a youthful, humorous disruption of monotony; an invitation to solve a problem in an an unexpected way.
Here’s a trick about life (a trick? Coyote may have been involved, wink wink): At any given moment, something is always ending, and something else is always beginning. Yesterday was my first day of my second year of graduate school. Yesterday, I saw a coyote, and it was appropriate because my summer — long days of book-writing punctuated by nine-mile bike rides along the lake — was dying; but at the same time, a whole new academic chapter of my life was being born. Had I seen the coyote last week, however, it would have been appropriate because I had just finished writing my book (the death of my endless complaints about not ever finishing this book), and I’d just gotten really into eating salads (the birth of yet another Sophie Salad chapter).
I liked being able to stop and see the coyote; I liked taking inventory of my life. Usually, things move too fast to be able to do that.
For me, as a person who did not grow up in a culture that embraced animal symbolism (unless you count the bordering-on-maniacal relationship my mother has with cats), a coyote should have just been a coyote. I had to borrow someone else’s tradition. This is something people who weren’t born into cultural communities do a lot (read anything about cultural appropriation; it makes sense why we do it, although that doesn’t make it right). And still: I like that the coyote gave me permission to see the truly extraordinary angles of being alive.
And so, because I’m not counting on seeing a coyote on a regular basis (there is a good chance I will not run again for another 11 months; that is how long it had been since my last run), I am going to let a few other things be symbols in my life. By “symbols” I mean, “reasons to stop.” I mean, “permission to breathe into the weird magic of being alive.” I mean, “a reminder that you can’t plan or know or anticipate anything; we’re all just getting carried around on a crazy marble, with no real sense of anything."
Here are symbols that I will use from now on, and which you can borrow if you want; or make up your own; or, if you’d rather, post in the comments about how wrong and insensitive** it is for me to DIY a spirituality.
A book on the ground outside symbolizes a shift toward language, and an elevated value in the kind of academic intellect my parents like so much. Seeing a book on the ground should be met with a decision to watch less television.
Chalk hopscotches symbolize youthfulness and play; a return to the simplicity of a nostalgic yesteryear.
A tattoo of a barcode symbolizes a departure from systems and a gradual move toward greater humanness.
A mattress propped up against someone’s house symbolizes clarity; the clearing out of something to make way for something better.
A baby who makes eye contact with you symbolizes kindness — both the kindness of others and the kindness that lives inside oneself.
A baby animal of any kind symbolizes that this day was, at least in part, custom-made to be a good day, and that some higher power hoped that you would find some joy in being alive.
A food item that hasn’t been eaten, but is somehow on the ground anyway (like how sometimes you see a wrapped Three Musketeers on the sidewalk or something, and you don’t pick it up, because, gross; but you think about how it got there) symbolizes mystery and wonder.
* By “running” I mean “jogging;” and by “jogging” I mean “walking with a little bounce in my step occasionally."
** You're probably right.