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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

“Sign, sign…everywhere a sign…”

“Sign, sign….Everywhere a sign

Blockin' out the scenery, Breakin' my mind

Do this, don't do that!

Can't you read the sign?”

Sometime in my youth, songwriter Les Emerson penned the words to this anthem that became part of the American soundscape in some of our most turbulent years. Against the backdrop of the struggle for civil rights and a search for identity, the sentiments resonated with a generation seeking a kinder, more inclusive world, myself included.

That song has been playing in my head lately as I have become acquainted with trails in my new community in the Sonoran Desert. On one of the trails, older homes with large properties back up to the trail. The homes are mostly set back a significant way from the trail leaving an open desert space between the owners and the trail.

On my first few walks, I noted a radical difference in how these yards greeted the casual walker and various pets utilizing the trail. On a few properties, fences were erected with “No Trespassing” signs and other warnings in keeping with the sentiment expressed in the song decades ago: And the sign said, "Anybody caught trespassin' will be shot on sight.” This did not surprise me, as it was their right as homeowners to protect their property.

What did surprise me, however, were the welcoming signs. The first I encountered was a water station for thirsty dogs. No where could be found any admonition about pets - just a little bench, a water cooler and a bowl. And, of course, a dog friendly hydrant. Next, I encountered a large fenced yard with a “welcome sign” to encourage visitors to wander the property. Spaced tastefully throughout were antiques from our history-old wagons, cooking supplies, and even some funny recreations of tombstones.

But most welcoming of all was a yard containing several artists’ installations. At the entrance to a path leading to a replica of a little casita, a sign stated “rest area,” a welcome respite from the summer sun. Further down the trail on the same property, a little white adobe turret gleamed in the sun, a small plague stationed at a path leading to its structure.

The sign explained how a man grieving the loss of his cousin in Japan had established a non working phone in his garden so he could still have one way conversations with his beloved friend. After the loss of 20,000 people in the tsunami of Japan, his wind garden became a pilgrimage site.

On the plaque, the owner of the installation encouraged walkers to enter and spend time with a lost loved one or simply to just make a “gratitude call”. As I read the sign, I was moved to tears and had to enter. I was overwhelmed when I wandered in to the small structure and saw, on a shelf, a black dial phone connected to no source other than the heart. I wept again. It was a sacred space.

As I walked home from that first encounter, I began to wonder about the nature of signs - those posted along a desert trail and those posted on our spirits. When I encounter pilgrims on the path, am I a “no trespassing” sign assuming the worst and expecting a battle? Am I a welcome sign providing sustenance for the thirsty? Am I actively encouraging the stranger to a space in my life where tears are welcome, grief is shared, and gratitude is expressed?

In truth, though I often fall short, I want to be a “no membership required” kind of person, one for whom there are no prerequisites for being loved openly. I want to freely give water to the thirsty. And I want to turn every encounter as though my heart was stamped with a “Welcome” sign.

I did go back to the gratitude chapel a few weeks later to sit and write and pray and cry. I thought about signs again and remembered that at the end of his song, Emerson, sitting in a church and with no money for the offering, writes a little note for the collection plate. It is a note I have imprinted on my heart for today and everyday.

And I made up my own little sign.

I said, "Thank you, Lord, for thinkin' 'bout me. I'm alive and doin' fine"

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