Decision through semiotics, observed​




I am in the middle of authentic ethnographic fieldwork that has been ongoing for months but personally, I have also been in the middle of trying to make a decision as to whether to fly back to California toward the area of Sacramento to visit, perhaps for the last time, a good friend's dying mother. Or, should I return home on the East Coast? Since I am currently in Chicago which is about halfway across the country, the thought that I should go to California instead of heading to New York City when the fieldwork ends has been on my mind. I did not know what to do, and the movement yes has been equally counterbalanced by no for days.


On this morning's run near the big Lake close to The Drake Hotel on Lake Shore Drive, I asked internally what should I do: Go to Sacramento or return to New York City tomorrow? The weather was chilly, wet, and the lake was wild, spewing waves crashing over the piers, as I ran by, making the atmosphere feel indeterminant, liminal, transitional, and slightly risky. Within two minutes of this inner wondering, I saw an old director's chair on the concrete embarkment close to a lighthouse on a stone pier next to the lake; the chair was bedraggled and ready to fall apart, as if no one had sat in it for years. Near the foot of the chair was a thick book, overturned. I ran by it. Then, I ran back and turned over the book. It was Peterson's Guide to Birds East of the Rocky Mountains. Then I saw large convocations of Canadian geese (perhaps 200 geese flocking together) and then another large grouping of sparrows as I ran back. Archetypally, some indigenous cultures feel that gatherings of birds can be a sign of dying.


Upon reflection I knew it was a clear message to return to New York City. The title of the book, the word East, and the birds all felt tangible and clear. NYC is east of the Rockies. California is west of the Rockies. Returning home without visiting the friend's mother feels like the right thing to do, and there was tangible relief to have the decision made from the outside world of semiotic signs that came at the right moment.


Some call this synchronicity. Others feel such observations are simply food for thought, i.e., intuition, for the right decision.


When I returned to the Drake for breakfast this morning, I heard that things in California had shifted and it was much better for me to return to New York City--now, for the time being. The time was not right to go to California. This also freed me up to start a difficult final analysis of the fieldwork I have been working on with a team of researchers and my cultural anthropologist colleague, and to let go of any further complexity of whether yes or whether no, yes or no. It is no: Go home. My place for now is East not West of the Rockies.