Tributes, colonies, and the symbolism of pelicans

Sudden loss and trauma. Certain rituals are in place to guide a person through the heart-wrenching process of grieving. Many religions have proscribed traditions for funerals. The realm of psychology gives us signposts of stages we might experience, thus helping us understand normal behavior versus–well, in truth I’m not sure. Socially unacceptable behavior? Perhaps the type of behavior that chains us in place rather guides us through a darkness to whatever state lays beyond.

While we have standard cultural practices of grieving and acknowledging loss, there are also personal rituals. The night before my aunt’s funeral, some of her sons, my mom and I went to a bar and “had a drink for her”. I was so conflicted about this. She had just died, had fought to live the entire duration of her illness. Physically she was a different person in the end, barely able to speak or move. And yet she was still cracking jokes, and comforting the rest of us. We all knew what was coming.

So to be in a bar where people were laughing and talking as if nothing in the world had changed, while we sat there with this choking heaviness was uncomfortably incongruent. When the drinks came, we lifted our glasses, toasted to Aunt Joan, took either a meager sip or a deep, void-filling gulp. Then the stories started. The sadness was still there, how could it not be; but we were also remembering and honoring her life, and not her death.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. I’m dealing with loss again. My best friend (yes she was a dog, who cares) passed away. After a couple of hours of sleep, Aaron asked what I wanted to do. Staying inside and moping was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to be outside. I wanted to be around life, and in the sun. We took some pastries from Cardamom to La Jolla Cove.

And there it was. Tingling, vibrating, shimmering. Life was all around us. The requisite people were there. More fascinating were the tide pools. Crabs scuttled and feasted. Mollusks yawned and sifted algae. Anemones waved their sharp tongues. The ocean surged its usual dance, rumbled against the cliffs. The pelicans, however, entranced me more than the rest. Dozens of them perched on the soft sandstone cliffs. They preened, slept, flipped their pouches inside out.

Pelicans are not an unusual sight on the San Diego coast. Squadrons of them glide over the water, six-foot wing spans casting brief shadows. They demand a certain amount of awe from me, although I’m not sure why. The qualities of pelicans have sufficiently impressed certain cultures enough to become symbols. Christian traditions associate them with piety, self-sacrifice, and even a representation of Christ. In India, the pelican is a symbol of resurrection and repentance. Both of these derive from a myth that a mother pelican cut open her breast so that her babies could feed from her own blood since no other food was available.

But why are they a totem for me? It could be their size, their grace and majesty. They are not frantic squawkers, like seagulls for instance. They don’t hover or dart. They seem to move through life with a measured carefulness. They appear to be full of intelligence and wisdom. They are flyers, but they’re also grounded, in a sense. In the midst of my grief, discovering them on the cliffside calmed me, brought me peace. Even though I already knew that everything was going to be alright, they seemed to look inside me, and slowly nod.

At the end of that day, my ritual couldn’t have felt more right. Honoring and celebrating life instead of dwelling on death. An act of remembering.


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