What do we mean when we use the word soul? What is the indescribable quality we intend to convey? Humans have souls; music has soul; summer’s soul now slips into quiet sunsets.
In The Meaning of Meaning, a seminal book on language and thought first published in 1923, C.K. Ogden argues that words, in themselves, have no meaning. Rather they are symbols of thought. Oh! Of course: why hadn’t I thought of that – me, the curious seeker who turns to her American Heritage Dictionary for entomological insights whenever possible. I’d searched for meaning, but without realizing I’d also searched for thought. My actions led me to thought but my thinking named it meaning.
It’s like reality: reality is what we are taught to see and taught to name and in that naming make sense of the unknown. But if words are only symbols of thoughts, we’re still rambling in the shadows.
Take hummingbirds, for example. They’re a pretty concrete, abet fast, reality. Last evening, as I sat on the back porch, a hummingbird zipped past. They don’t often come this close to the house – I’ve put the feeder back in a shaded corner where some white, sweet-smelling flowering vines tumble over the fence from the neighbor’s yard. But this evening, one of them came across the yard for a brief hello.
In Mexico, where I once lived, an Aztec myth said that when a warrior dies, his soul becomes a hummingbird. And I wondered at the thought process that made a hummingbird the soul symbol for the people of Mexico.
I remember standing outside one evening, watching across a gully to another hillside as the sun disappeared from the arc of horizon. A hummingbird zipped up and circled me, flitting from red bloom to red bloom on my silk dress. Mistaken for a flower as the fabric ruffled in the breeze, I froze, not wanting to betray my own humanness. The hummingbird inspected me, zip, zip, zip, all around, coming to pause for half a moment of fierce inspection in front of my face. I still didn’t move although I did feel delighted in the other-worldly sort of tap on the shoulder.
That same curiosity and fierceness seems to characterize the hummingbirds in my yard here in Kansas City.
Here, they like perching in the willow. Perhaps because even while sitting still, they’re still able to move with the breezes. But they’re also territorial. If a cardinal or finch comes to sit and admire the graceful drift of a willow branch, the hummingbird will dart at them and drive the intruder away. Dart; dart; Leave!!
The intruder leaves.
But I was not an intruder as I sat in my screen-sheltered porch. I’d gone to sit and ponder this journey I have no name for and the struggle to find the words to frame it.
What was I to learn from this visit?
Perhaps that a warrior defies the odds, regardless of the challenge. If I do not have the words today to define my passage, I may tomorrow. If I am bowed by the responsibilities of writing, I will ride a new wave tomorrow. Or the next day.
If that’s a warrior’s soul that’s come to visit, perhaps I could say that defeat isn’t an option. That whatever the challenges, the answer is again and again and again to keep going, darting or inching, to the answer or resolution.
And perhaps that’s the reality of souls: unwilling to give up, willing curiosity, willing courage.