One way of looking at 13 cardinals 

On the third anniversary of my mom’s death, I was visited by more than a dozen red cardinals in five days. I otherwise hadn’t seen one since Christmas, a full six months earlier.

I looked up the meaning of cardinal sightings, though I had a vague memory that my mom had told me once that cardinals were signs of deceased loved ones. Google confirmed this: cardinals have long been regarded by multiple cultures as spiritual messengers capable of traveling between the Earthly world and the afterlife. Other online guides suggested that the cardinal is a sign of affirmation, meant to validate decisions and signify change.

The first of my thirteen cardinal sightings was significant by itself. Three birds came close to me at once, so that alone made an impression. But I have a tendency to overanalyze and then minimize things, so I assume the other cardinals came in large quantity so I wouldn’t disregard the sign. I wouldn’t get too hung up on what, exactly, the cardinals symbolized. After all, it didn’t really matter if they were some manifestation of the Spirit, sent to affirm my decision to return to teaching and writing; or a sign of affection from my mom herself, a nod from her as my former babysitter that my young kids would be fine in child care a few days a week; or a blessing from my brother to move forward with my existing memoir; or a sign from Nana…no point agonizing over what single message the red cardinals brought. Their gist was that things were generally very good for me. I was initiating a lot of forward momentum in my life, and the universe approved.

I’ve always believed in signs. Once, when I was contemplating an unprecedented move from my hometown in Indiana to the city of Boston, a city I had never even visited, I looked up at the ceiling above my dead-end cubicle and prayed, “If I’m supposed to go, God, give me a sign.” Aware even then of my tendency to overanalyze and doubt myself, I quickly added, “And make the sign really obvious so I can’t second guess it.” My telephone rang immediately. It was someone from my company’s office near Boston, an unprecedented call.

Most of the other signs in my life have been subtle. But those cardinals were unmistakably different. Like the immediate phone call from Boston.

A few weeks after the cardinal visits, an illustrator friend posted a photo of some art she was experimenting with digitally. It wasn’t something she intended to show or sell, just a glimpse inside her studio that day, a way she was pushing herself to try new media. The equivalent, perhaps, of me posting a photo of a notebook entry where I tried writing fiction. But her subject had been a handful of bright red cardinals. Immediately, I knew I needed her digital doodling, so I asked to buy a print of it.

Now, my friend’s red cardinals sit on my desk as a reminder of the real life cardinals that told me I should be writing again.


I am excited to resume my journey as a writer and teacher of writing.

About the title

As I thought about all those cardinals, I kept being reminded, too, of one of the first exercises in an undergraduate poetry course I took in 1995. We were practicing observation, and one of the mentor texts we studied was “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. The poem I wrote for my assignment was held up as an example in class, an especially significant feat because by common measure I didn’t belong in the class. I wasn’t technically an English major and had gotten special dispensation to enroll. So perhaps the cardinals weren’t the first birds in my life to tell me something, and that may well be worth noting, too.

Published by Julie Patterson

Julie is a copywriter, content writer, and creative nonfiction writer located in Indianapolis, Indiana.