Cultures throughout the globe use symbolism to help describe and understand spiritual truths, including the Red Bird. As a kid, I didn’t understand what my cardinal sightings meant and I didn’t have the intelligence to ponder signs or symbols. All I knew at the time was I was a ‘ward of the court’, a foster kid who kept getting shuffled ‘through the system’. I thought no one wanted me.
I was too young to realize the adults tasked to care for me in this world…couldn’t. Their problems ran too deep. I was passed around, first among relatives, and later by the court, remanded into foster homes.
As a fourth-grader, a priest performed a full-blown, throw-holy-water-in my-face exorcism, after a group of teachers and parents tied me down and told him I was possessed.
Imagine my ten-year-old terror when I learned the devil had taken up residence in my body! I tried desperately to locate this Satan, first under my tongue, then in my ears and finally, in my belly button. When that failed, I thought for sure he must be hiding someplace I can’t see him, maybe someplace impure, like a butt cheek…or worse!
I can only conclude, years later, that small town living must have been excruciatingly boring for grown ass adults to rope a kid into such hysterical nonsense.
By age eleven, I’d experienced more trials and tribulations than most adults encounter in a lifetime. My mother was a suicidal/homicidal schizophrenic, in and out of psychiatric hospitals, after trying to kill her child. If that weren’t enough, my father was ordered, grudgingly, to take custody of me, but he wasn’t my real dad. Once I got settled on a remote farm, he was barely around.
The man I thought was my dad actually left me miles from the nearest hint of civilization, alone, sometimes for days, more than I can count…but it wasn’t bad. I learned how to be resourceful, to forage for food if I got hungry, or to take care of abandoned or wounded wild animals. And I made friends…imaginary and not.
The Bible was one of the few books our little community encouraged me to read, and sometimes I carried it with me, setting off for a summer swim or winter sledding, not returning until the last remnants of daylight got claimed by dusk. I had to get back in the house, I thought, before Bigfoot and Vampires awoke and roamed the countryside looking for little girls to devour.
As I befriended Nature on my treks, cardinals often visited, alighting on branches or boulders, their bright red feathers a series of checkmarks against fresh snow, autumn leaves, or bright green Spring. They’re songs filled me with warmth and wonder. They made me wish, I too, could fly—far away from here—like maybe to a pizza with extra cheese.
During these outings, one particular Red Bird kept showing up. I named him Edwin. He always seemed to arrive when I felt my worst—and I swear that bird once led me back to the road when I became horribly lost in a strange part of the woods.
It wasn’t until years later I learned birds are said to have spiritual significance.
As I researched and wrote the initial drafts of my first novel, I wondered about Edwin. I now lived thousands of miles beyond my childhood and that lonely farm, in a subtropical paradise, where I’m more likely to encounter roseate spoonbills than Red Birds.
One evening, I shared dinner with my best friend at a downtown restaurant. We spoke of cardinals and how I’d been seeing more of them, which I found weird. As she pulled into the driveway to drop me off, she screamed so loudly I jumped and dropped my cell phone.
The royal poinciana tree in my front yard was… loaded with cardinals. My husband, a devout realist, met us outside. We stared in complete awe at this spiritual spectacle until the birds flew East in a bright red flurry of flapping wings.
“I’m going to have to rethink some things,” said my husband. He put his arm around me, kissed my head, and we walked into our home.
Folklore and legends claim that “when a cardinal appears, angels are near”. Notably, the Red Bird might be representative of a deceased loved one trying to make contact. Cardinals, I learned from various sources, are considered a symbol of light or messengers.
Native American cultures believe Red Birds are messengers from another realm while some Christian sects believe cardinals represent the blood of Christ and may symbolize the Holy Spirit, combining the fire element of the Spirit’s work, with the energy of Christ.
For me, the cardinals were a sign of encouragement and love during times of great stress and difficulty. They, especially Edwin, gave me hope and symbolized a pivot in my life—something I couldn’t articulate as a kid, but just knew was going to change—for the better.
Native Americans believed the Red Bird is connected to their ancestors and call it a messenger of the spirit world or ‘daughter of the sun’ that brings good fortune. The native tribes also associated red birds with monogamy, loving relationships, courtship, and passion.
After discovering the works of Zitkala Sa (Red Bird), a Native American writer and poet, I’d say my cardinal represents strength, resilience, and perseverance. Born in the year of the Battle of Little Big Horn, she wrote brilliant works that illuminate the tragedy and complexity of her life and those of her people.
After living in our home almost twenty years, we downsized. The first evening in our new place, after unpacking copious boxes, I took a break. I stepped onto the lanai where I noticed a pull chain. On the end of it hung a small plastic cardinal. At that moment, my husband said, “Look behind your head.” There–a real cardinal, sat in the bushes just over my head, watching us.
Zitkala Sa was an expansive and powerful agent of change and she left an indelible impression of the Red Bird upon my soul. Her works, among many others, inspire me to thrive in the face of adversity, and even though we never met in person, I’m convinced she was, somehow, with me (and Edwin) during my lost childhood…and maybe, just maybe, she pays a visit now and then.