Molting Feathers and Darkness: My Confession
I have a confession. I have been living a lie. What people have known about me for ten years is not so. What they thought they knew never was. I have been carrying this secret. I’ve been ashamed to admit the truth. I didn’t want to betray people who felt they knew a core truth about me. I didn’t want to disappoint people with the truth. How could I admit that this staple, this centerpiece of how others knew me, was not me at all? But it’s time to come clean. Family, friends, former students, owls are not my favorite animal.
It’s true. They are not even my favorite bird. Mourning doves are. They have been since I saved one as a child. Since I pulled a young dove still covered in downy baby feathers from a bush, before it was attacked by a dog, alert to its presence. I’ve continued to love mourning doves, since I’ve found warmth and comfort in their haunting coo, filling me with a sense of peace whenever one was sent to nurture over me. Owls? I like them. I think they are neat. I do, but there never was an obsession.
I know, it’s shocking. But there’s a simple explanation. I have this grandma who likes to buy thoughtful gifts. One day, not long after watching Disney’s Brother Bear, I mentioned liking moose, finding them to be amusing creatures. Grandma latched on to this, and she latched hard. Do you know how many moose-themed knickknacks there are in the world? Way too many. Do you know how many of them are actually charming and not creepy to the point that they warrant nightmares? Way too few. I was desperate to get her off the moose track. (Not to be confused with moose track ice cream. That’s delightful.)
However, I could not dissuade her from buying moose stuff. Since I could not stop the moose madness, I developed a brilliant plan. I didn’t have a favorite animal, but I did like woodland creatures. I preferred the idea of having a variety of animals decorating my space. I decided I would tell my grandma that my favorite animal changed. I would tell her I liked owls. This would give her a new focus for shopping. After a while, I would tell her foxes, then deer, then squirrels or chipmunks. I would mix it up. Brilliant! Problem solved.
So I told her I liked owls. And it worked! At the time, there weren’t a lot of owl things to buy, but Grandma is persistent and I started getting owl items like a glass bank, antique jewelry, and even a cookie jar. Then I started getting owl-themed gifts from others who noticed my budding collection. From there, it snowballed. At the same time, owls suddenly became popular. I don’t know why. But there were owls for all seasons, owls of all sizes and styles, owls for every occasion. I got a lot of variations of owls on tea towels. Let me say that again, I had a plethora of owl tea towels. How was that even possible?
But there was the next step of the plan! I told Grandma I had changed. I now liked foxes. Foxes are curious, resourceful, vibrant creatures. I started talking about foxes more and more. Then I waited. The next birthday came around and I opened my gift: owls. Christmas, more owls. I talked about the deer, the squirrels, the chipmunks, the racoons, the rabbits, the bears? Nothing. I just got owls.
They did grow on me. The owls. I loved that people would see an owl and think of me. They’d be excited to send a picture of one. They’d be thrilled when they returned from some adventure with an owl souvenir. I loved the gesture more than I ever loved owls. I still treasure my Barcelona and Belgium owls. I wear my owl slippers with pride. I hang the owl ornaments on my Christmas tree next to the moose ones.
By the time I became a teacher, I decided to embrace it completely. I had been drilled to understand that one small rumor could destroy a young high school teacher’s career. One inappropriate bit of gossip, no matter how untrue, can cost a newbie her job. I preemptively shut down the rumor mill; I decided I would be the equivalent to the crazy cat lady, as cat ladies are safe from scandalous rumors. However, as I am mildly allergic to cats and clearly a dog person, I could not wear the mask of the crazy cat lady. Unfortunately, crazy dog lady wouldn’t work. Thanks to Roger, Anita, and their 101 canines, people do not immediately raise an eyebrow at one who loves dogs to obsession. Seeking a boundary I could deploy, I looked around and I saw all my owls. I developed a second brilliant plan. I would be the crazy owl lady. Owls merely cats with wings. A crazy owl lady is liable to be found talking to her plants in the garden. A crazy owl lady is kooky, a bit unsettling, but harmless.
I put up owl posters. I was gifted one of an intimidating great horned owl on a white background. In Sharpie marker, I wrote, “Owl be watching.” I laminated and displayed it with pride, chuckling over my corny pun. I put owl borders around my bulletin boards. I had owl-shaped erasures. I wore my owl necklaces in regular rotation. It was effective. It worked so well that when “YOLO” became a thing, my students brought in a Ms. Mason version: “YOLO! You obviously love owls!” I fed into it. I even signed some yearbooks with owl puns.
The owls became this running joke, a point of entertainment. It became fun to be the crazy owl lady. Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed how much other people loved the idea that I was obsessed with owls.
It’s been a decade since it all began, and I still get sent owl memes and owl household goods. Though, every once in a while, my grandma will get me something with a moose on it.
I left teaching two years ago. A year ago, I lost the need to fit the expectations others had for me. Therefore, the truth is out. While I do like owls, they are not my obsession. They are the obsession of people who love me. The gifts I receive and the thoughtful owl-themed comments I am sent are the enchanting symbols of people who have showered me with love. For that reason alone, I love owls.
Now, I have another little known truth about me. It is owl-related. Admittedly, it seems to contradict the idea that I’m not obsessed with owls. Before the owl craze, before my identity seemed to be tied to that creature of the night, I got a tattoo, my first tattoo. And yes, it is an owl. Not many people have seen it. It’s no secret I’m keeping, but it doesn’t come up much. It’s hidden. I was young and didn’t want to disappoint my parents or grandparents. No one else had a tattoo, so for rule-abiding Sarah, this was quite the rebellious action.
Yet, I didn’t permanently mark my body with the owl because I thought they were cool. Symbolism is important to me. I did it because the tattoo held a truth for me. I designed my tattoo to serve as this reminder of a truth I wanted to retain.
Owls may not be my favorite animal, nor even my favorite feathered creature, but I had once read something that resonated with who I wanted to be as a person. I had read that the owl, with its illuminated eyes, brings light to the darkness, making it serve as this appropriate symbol of Jesus Christ. I had read this and noted that this was an idea of who I always wanted to be: one who, rather than hiding or fleeing from the dark, soars in with her own inner light and shares it with others. I tattooed an owl on my body to serve as a reminder of the person I wanted to be. I tattooed my skin with a reminder to keep being a light in the darkness.
In high school, a teacher handed us each a keepsake bookmark. On it were the words, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” We were asked to write what those words meant to us. I wrote about how, instead of shunning something or someone, if we bring our compassionate light, we can rid the world of darkness entirely, because, with just one small light, darkness can never win. Darkness is merely the absence of light. Darkness is snuffed out the moment a match is struck.
I have always been naively optimistic. I have always held onto the belief that man is good at his core. I have always rejected the idea of avoiding flawed people. As a high school student, I was warned to avoid bad influences and I balked at that idea. I countered, asking why I couldn’t be a good influence instead. Why did they believe that only corruption could occur rather than redemption? I wasn’t a Christian in those days. I just read way too many novels of knights and heroes. I was a bookworm who didn’t judge books by their covers. I was a girl who believed in second chances.
When I did become a Christian, I continued to rebuke the idea of avoiding darkness. The pastor told our congregation that to be friends with a certain type of person was to condone sin. We must not even befriend that person. I didn’t know much, but I did know my faith said we were all sinners. To avoid friendships with sinners was to avoid friendships. To deny a sinner kindness seemed anti-Christian, anti-love. My faith said I was to love rather than to judge. (That church was no longer my church after that sermon.)
So my owl tattoo was to remind me of this person I wanted to be. This person I want to be all my days: one who brings light into the dark rather than hoarding it selfishly. I had thought I would be going into others’ darkness. I thought that the darkness would be someone else’s struggle and I would be there to give hope. Instead, this past year, a year marred by grief, this tattoo served as a reminder to bring light into my own darkness, to bring hope and joy and laughter when all seemed bleak. I intentionally seek moments of beauty in the midst of ugly. I intentionally pause and absorb at the loveliness I stumble upon. I deliberately seek the good that I know still exists even when my brain wants to say life is meaningless, life is chaos, life is hopeless. I find my own light when the dark creeps in.
Finding light in my own darkness has helped me move forward step by step. But here’s where I am no owl. Owls are primarily solitary creatures. I’m no owl. I’ve got a support team, my flock. I once thought I was independent; I didn’t ask for help. I was arrogant believing I was to bring light to others throughout my life, never needing light in return. When darkness hit my life, when loss struck my family, when grief threatened to consume, I fought to keep my flickering light illuminated alone. Others soared in, unbidden and willing. While my light helped me find my footing in the dark, theirs helped me find a path. They brought their glorious, hopeful light alongside mine. They braved my dark, dauntless.
Maybe my next tattoo should be a thousand starlings, my dazzling swirling cloud of support. Maybe I need a sleeve of a swarm of fireflies, my army, lighting the night sky. Probably not. I don’t think I need to be reminded that I am loved. I don’t think I need to be reminded that I have people who can’t help but think of me when they are out shopping at TJ Maxx and see an owl-bedazzled t-shirt. I don’t need a reminder that I am loved and supported. I don’t need a reminder that I have a flock, a swarm, a herd, an army.