I saw the sign

Because it was literally that — a sign.

I’m smiling at the camera, perched on a wall with graffiti that reads, “IT’S OK 2 CRY.” 

It’s the last photo that Jamie took of me, captured just two weeks before he died. I had no idea that would be the last photo of me that he’d shoot, just as I didn’t know how much I would later need that message.

I rediscovered the photo four days after Jamie’s death. Earlier that same day, I went to the funeral home to finalize his cremation. Hours later, I was at Jamie’s favorite brewery, arranging flowers, setting up framed photos, and preparing to greet hundreds of guests for an impromptu memorial service. The day after, I’d make the seven-hour drive to Atlanta, with Jamie’s ashes and keepsakes in tow, to prepare for his funeral.

I was juggling loads of logistics, all while running on very little sleep and food. Instead of processing reality, I was thinking about the next task on my very depressing, entirely self-imposed to-do list. At that moment, in between the preparations and arrangements book-ending my day, I decided my next job was to post something to Instagram — the social platform on which I hadn’t yet shared the unexpected news of Jamie’s death.

That’s when I saw the photo of me on that wall.

IT’S OK 2 CRY was the sign I needed at that moment. I hadn’t cried much at all during those past few days. I was too disoriented, too shocked, too overwhelmed, too busy to let the tears flow. Instead of letting myself fall apart, I was doing everything I could to keep things together. 

Not surprisingly, falling apart was exactly what I needed to do.

That night, after swapping stories, sharing hugs, and drinking many beers with many people who also loved and missed Jamie, I went home and cried. There would be far more tears to come over time, but this marked an important step towards healing.

In the years since then, I’ve seen plenty of signs as I walked with grief. They always seem to appear when I need them most. There was the “Keep Going” sign that greeted me when I felt especially stuck, just like the “Open” sign that beckoned as I was feeling closed off. On a particularly overwhelming and exhausting day, I spotted an illuminated restaurant sign, with only the first four letters — REST — lit up. And on an evening when I was insecure about being single, I discovered that the “IT’S OK 2 CRY” graffiti had been replaced by a new message: “UR PRTY.”

These signs were all just that — literal signs — but in my need for direction while feeling lost in my grief, I interpreted them as cosmic messages meant for me to follow. Keep Going. Got it. Stop. OK, I can do that, too. One Way. I guess that means forward!

Of course, there are plenty of signs out there that aren’t so literal. Early in our relationship, I invited my partner to a party hosted by some friends. It was a big step for me. I had been pretty quiet about dating after Jamie died, and this was the first time I’d introduced a group of friends to anyone I was seeing.

Thankfully, the evening went well. My partner and I relaxed, friends were lovely and welcoming, and everything felt right. We left the party happy, and walked back to my house. As we reached the porch, a lizard darted across the front door. 

“Did you see that?!” my partner asked excitedly. “That lizard is definitely a symbol for something!”

Never mind the fact that lizards are EVERYWHERE in South Florida, and that on any given night, there are a handful of lizards hanging out on my porch. None of that mattered. This little dude was definitely a sign. 

When we got inside, my partner pulled out his phone to search the symbolism of lizards. He quickly found a website that described lizards as a symbol of survival. “[The lizard] tells us that we can will ourselves to be whole again, even after a particularly nasty event in our lives.” 

I’m a widow. My partner is divorced. Many of our early conversations centered around whether we were ready to date — if we were individually whole enough to once again be part of a couple. The lizard, we agreed, was a really good sign.

The truth is, anything can be a sign. As long as we’re looking for guidance from the universe, we’ll find it. Whether it’s reassurance, inspiration, or advice, the answers are out there. The key is to remain open and humble, and be still enough to find the signs you need. 

I think this is especially true when you’re going through a difficult time. Think of the person who begs, “Lord, please give me a sign.” When the sign comes, I believe it’s not because a higher power sent it. It’s because that person was looking for it.

In “H is for Hawk,” Helen Macdonald’s memoir about her father’s death, she writes, “Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.”

On most days an “Open” sign is simply an indication that a shop is available to customers. An arc-lit sky is a stunning sight. A lizard is just a lizard. But when you need those things to mean something more, and you’re open to a deeper meaning, they’ll fill that role.

I spotted the “UR PRTY” graffiti, arguably one of the less straightforward signs I’ve documented, on April 12, 2018. I wrote a Facebook post about it, on what I described as “a clear-headed, forward-thinking kind of day.” I felt inspired to walk the long way home from hanging out with friends, which took me past where the “IT’S OK 2 CRY” graffiti used to be. 

“That spot has remained blank for months,” I wrote. “Today, I discovered new graffiti that read, ‘UR PRTY.’ I stopped, took a photo, and felt so damn happy. I have no idea whether it’s supposed to mean, ‘You're pretty,’ or ‘Your party,’ but either way, it's a message I need right now. One of the most confusing things about piecing life back together is feeling content with a reality that Jamie isn't part of. Feeling joyous still feels wrong, and I still suffer from sporadic survivor's guilt. But, I truly want to believe what everyone tells me: Jamie wants me to be happy. And whether this graffiti means he's telling me that I'm pretty or that it's my party, I'm going to trust it and take it.”

Keep your eyes (and your heart and mind!) open. No matter what message you need right now, I hope it finds you soon. 



Good job, brain

I'm reading:Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” by Ingrid Fetell Lee. Fittingly enough, I’m finding a lot of joy in reading this book. I won’t give too much away, because I think I’ll write about it in a future newsletter, but Lee offers a smart and surprising look at our environments and how they affect us.

I’m inspired by: The Nap Ministry, an initiative exploring the idea of rest as resistance.

I'm aiming to: Work less and relax more.

Additional resources

  • I love this quote from Erica Jong: “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” 

  • Gabrielle Bernstein gives a beautiful and vulnerable talk on surrendering to the universe

  • Tarot cards are having a moment. “A tarot reading, while providing no certainty, definitely helps to break down the stress of romance/job/house/children into manageable segments; a welcome remedy to the ball of failure that’s constantly thrown at us.”

For your sweet dumb brain

Last weekend, I spotted “Everything will be OK. I promise,” scrawled inside a bathroom stall. It got me wondering whether the person who wrote it knew that someone else would need that message, or whether she needed it herself. Why not both?

I’m not encouraging tagging a bathroom wall, but I do love the sentiment. This week, leave a message somewhere for a stranger to find. 

Here are a few ideas:

  • Paint a rock and leave it in a park. (Bonus: This is a fun activity with kids!)

  • Etch a hopeful word or short message in the sand on the beach. 

  • Leave a note on someone’s windshield.

  • Write a message in sidewalk chalk.

  • Post a pep talk on social media.

What’s something you need to hear? Chances are, someone else will appreciate it too. 

p.s. If you do leave a message, let me know about it! You can email me, or share your plan in the comments.

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who sees the number 1138 everywhere, and is unsure what it means!