Lately, my left hand has been itching like crazy. I’m right handed, and I make it a point to stay out of the garden (ruling out poison ivy). Besides, anybody who grew up in a poor Puerto Rican household knows that itchy hands are a supernatural signal that you have money coming your way. It makes a great deal of sense when you’re poor to be on the lookout for signs of economic improvement (on a personal level at least, since the macro-level actions of government and industry are rarely noticeable, let alone helpful—you’re still poor either way). Watching for signs that portend a windfall may seem silly, but when you grow up among the urban underclass, those little omens are about hope. Hope that today will be better than yesterday. Hope that you can change circumstances that ultimately seemed aligned to keep you down. If you find a quarter on the ground after an episode of itchy-hands, your premonition came true, and you can struggle through another day, comforted by the feeling that the universe isn’t just arbitrarily cruel. It can be arbitrarily kind as well.
Even though I left the poverty of the South Bronx behind, and grew up to be a scientist, or at least a woman with a healthy respect for the scientific method, it’s hard to entirely leave behind the signs and symbols that were fundamental to my belief system and the beliefs of those around me throughout my youth. The other-worldly, the omens, the premonitions, and the belief the power of non-rational forces has a psychological leveling effect. The game may be rigged against the poor, but with proper attention to what the world is trying to tell you, you have reason to look forward to another day.
But lately my omens have, unfortunately, been a bit off. Perhaps, even more than a bit off. And, I am quite discombobulated by this. If I cannot count on my omens and premonitions, what can I count on? What is going wrong with the world? My rational mind analyzes what’s going wrong around me and comes up with action plans to resolve organizational problems. The little Puerto Rican girl in my head (the one that regards maduros as comfort food and recognizes the significance of an upside down broom by the door) feels a little bit betrayed by the spirit world.
You see, I had an itchy palm a week ago and I found out we got a small grant we had applied for. My palm had predicted money and funds came in. All was right with the universe. Well, it wasn’t really, for there were plenty of other things going wrong, primarily involving the uncontrollable idiocy of others, but in terms of omens, they were functioning properly. Or so I thought. A few days after that grant came through, my palm started itching again. I got totally psyched. Surely, this was a great sign of things to come that day. I got a little pep in my step, as a result. At 4 pm my office phone rang. It was an external caller. I don’t know about you, but it is a rare occasion when I pick up my office phone. This time was no exception. Ten minutes later I checked my voicemail. I was in shock. My itchy hand was wrong. Way wrong. How could this be? I had just been advised that one of my programs got a 10% cut due to sequestration. Thanks to our inept congress, instead of getting money I was losing money. My palm and congress were at odds. My hand was wrong and I couldn’t feel more disappointed. How could both my belief system and my elected representatives let me down? Okay, I’ve come to expect it from my elected representatives, but not from my omens.
Sad and disappointed, I went home that day and looked at my hand, focusing in on my fingers. I had the white spot in several of my fingernails. OMG. This had to mean that I was getting a gift. The white spots are often referred to as calcium deposits and leukonychia. Certain types of leukonychia are more often than not found in young children and nail biters. Urban myths and discourse note that these white spots are the manifestation of being deficient in calcium. And, I may very well be calcium deficient although I have a fabulous relationship with cheese. Cheese understands me. I don’t know how to quit cheese. I admit I have been a life-long nail biter as I am a very jittery person and so my white spots could be explained thusly. However, my entrenched Puerto Rican belief is that these white spots portend the receipt of a gift. It so happens to be that around birthdays and holidays, these white spots are spot on, so to speak. Spurious correlation? A mediator variable? Let us talk statistics another time. Around Christmas time you will find many Puerto Ricans walking about fixated on their nails. God forbid you chip a nail during that time. The gift that was to come may just disappear with the wind. Now, this Puerto Rican belief is not that far off from the traditions of numerous other cultures. For example, it was the custom in Devonshire, England many centuries ago for people to count the white spots on their nails and touch them one after another. As this counting and fingering was done the person doing the counting would supposedly say, “Gift—Friend—Foe—Sweetheart to come—Journey to go.” White spots have had a longstanding place in folklore and in particular have signaled something was to come.
Back to the story at hand. I had white spots on my fingernails. I was expecting good things. Instead of receiving a gift, can you believe I erroneously received a medical bill stating I owed the neurologist money when I had already paid it. Instead of getting a gift I was told I owed something. That was a perverted joke being played on me by the universe. It kept sending me signs with no follow through. Whoever was handling omens seemed to be asleep on the job.
I was walking around feeling dejected and wondering about the laws of the universe. All of a sudden, I started seeing a ghost of my dog. I kept spotting him out of the corner of my eye. I swear he was there. From a very young age, I was taught about the existence of ghosts. It was just a normal part of life. Ghosts were as common to us Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx as apple pie is during any American BBQ. When my mom was very young a major paranormal incident occurred in Puerto Rico. On April 23, 1953 the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico. Thereafter, many Puerto Rican children heard about this grand miracle and sighting and somehow strengthened the belief in ghosts. I kept trying to think of what my ghost dog was telling me. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to warn me about something or he was just there to say hello.
With images of my ghost dog following me about I headed over to see my neurologist. It has now been six weeks of arm numbness, three MRIs and two different sets of diagnosis. At the neurologist office, he finally settled on the diagnosis of migraines. Really? Migraines can cause arm pain, numbness and tingling? I was a tad bit skeptical. For sure, I have had really bad headaches as well these past six weeks. I even fell to the floor while watching a Japanese super-charged cartoon with my son. He then started asking me if I have been seeing spots and auras? Why yes, I have. Oh boy. Had I been suffering from migraines and not really seeing my ghost dog at all?
The auras, the itchy palm, the white spots had all let me down. Why was the universe conspiring against me? My omens had a bad week. But a bad week doesn’t dispel a lifetime of beliefs. Let’s see what the omens bring this week. Knock on wood, that it’s all good.