Jeffrey Eugenides: How to Believe in Yourself—Even If You Sometimes Don't
By this time we were entering the flea market. I looked up at the first table we came to and stopped in my tracks.
Arrayed on the table were a few hundred owl figurines. There were wooden owls, metal owls, owls carved from stone and jade, owls made of colored glass, owl bookends, owl ashtrays and owl lamp stands. The German guy who ran the stand must have thought it was his lucky day. Here was this American, who didn't even know the German world for owl, suddenly buying up much of his stock. I got about 15 different owls that morning.
Ever since that day, with increasing discrimination, I've hunted for owl-themed merchandise at any secondhand store I happen into. For Christmases and birthdays, my wife and daughter invariably give me something owl-related. I have owl cuff links, an owl tiepin and a wonderfully informative book by Desmond Morris titled, simply, Owl. From the shelves of the room I'm writing this in, these owls stare down at me. I keep them around to remind myself of the dream.
Of course, there's a perfectly rational explanation for all of this. I was in the middle of writing a long and difficult book when I had my dream. My unconscious, processing the anxiety of my waking life, sent me the owl as a kind of psychic Zoloft. The owl is sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom. Traditionally, the owl represents vigilance, knowledge and sagacity. Morris tells us that, for the ancient Greeks, the appearance of an owl was a good omen.
Likewise, my happening upon all those flea-market owls isn't that remarkable. As I've since learned from my collecting habit, there are always owl figurines for sale at flea markets. I'd just never noticed them before. That's how coincidence works: The signs from God people are always claiming to find are really a function of their own brain's selecting, from the myriad objects in the world, those that cohere to the story they're telling themselves.
All right. But explain this to me. We now jump forward 10 years. I'm living in Princeton, New Jersey, writing the last chapters of my recent novel The Marriage Plot. It's winter, and my editor has given me until the end of the year to hand the book in. Working day and night, I soon reach a state of anxiety at least as great as the one I suffered in Berlin. In this predicament, lying in bed late one night, sleepless with worry, I hear what sounds like an owl outside my bedroom window. An owl, hooting. Of course I think I'm imagining it. It's probably some other kind of bird, or not a bird at all. But the next night, it returns. Then a week later. Next, a few days after that. Finally, I go on YouTube, type "hooting owls" and am rewarded with a video of an owl that sounds exactly like the one I'm listening to in the darkness. A great horned owl. Indigenous to New Jersey. It's real. And it's right outside my bedroom window.
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