Friday, December 9, 2011

On Synchronicity

In early November, I was in Chicago, having lunch with my friend Tony Trigilio, who teaches at Columbia College. Before his cat, Shimmy, died, she and Tony wrote a brilliant blog in the cat's voice--about everything from Donald Rumsfeld to Gertrude Stein and the pope. Then the other day I was driving on the H-1 toward the university off-ramp in Honolulu. I found myself behind a small SUV with a Columbia College-Chicago sticker on the back. I thought vaguely of Tony, Chicago, and lunch. We both exited, but I lost the other car. As I drove up University Avenue into Manoa, I found myself behind a car whose license plate read SHIMMY.

It had happened again. A website devoted to Carl Jung's ideas (many of which you can pay for) tells me that "the term synchronicity is coined by Jung to express a concept that belongs to him. It is about acausal connection of two or more psycho-physic phenomena." Or, as Rod Serling notes, "There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition."

This chance event, which connected me back to a moment a month earlier, is hardly earth-shaking, but it joins a long list of such events that I've noticed in recent years, more and more as I grow older and coincidence becomes less coincidental, more personal. A friend tells me she also notices synchronicities but doesn't talk about them much, since such perceptions are thought to indicate an unbalanced mind. Under "apophenia," The Skeptic's Dictionary reports: "
Those of us who have had the pleasure of spending some time with a person having a psychotic episode have often been asked to see the significance of such random things as automobile license plate numbers, birthdates, and arrangements of fallen twigs." I remember being told about a man with psychotic bi-polar disorder who thought of Robert F. Kennedy every time he saw white socks, which he remembered RFK wore. What's unbalanced about that?

I've got the license plate covered, I guess. And the automotive thread runs deeper than Shimmy's plates. A few years ago I was teaching Catch-22 in my American Literature Since the 1950s course. In that book, you may recall, there is a "man in white" in the military hospital who lives inside a cocoon of bandages, or swaddling clothes, his one leg in traction. No one quite knows if he's still alive, and so he gets yelled at, teased, and otherwise used as a foil for Joseph Heller's arch wit. On the way home from class one day, going the other way on H-1 from where I saw the sticker the other day, I needed to merge into the right lane to get closer to the Likelike exit lane. So I looked over into that lane. I saw an ambulance such as I'd never seen before, like a long station wagon with windows in the back, through which I could see . . . someone lying on a cot covered in white sheets, with one leg up in the air.

That semester took an odd turn for the synchronous, even as I nearly drove off the road after spotting the man in white. (I exaggerate for effect, having learned that from my mother, but more on her in a bit.) Let's just say that our readings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison featured episodes of amazing synchronicity. The week of China Men found me at a lawyer's office with a Chinese graduate student trying to stay in the USA. The week we read Morrison an email appeared in my box from a man in Alabama who was writing the memoirs of his time working for Stokely Carmichael (and who wanted publishing advice from me, of all people). The students starting finding the readings in their worlds, too.

After my mother died this summer, I wrote about what happened later that evening in this blog post:

Ellen took me home with her and Steve. They & Max asked about my father. I offered history: Michigan farm, auto plant, air force (when it integrated, he knew Tuskegee airmen), IBM, Western Union. Ellen said, Jerry Lawler. Jerry Lawler! My father's Irish friend, office roommate of Col. Dudley Stevenson, Tuskegee airman. Steve called Jerry; we explained the coincidence. He darted off to find a letter. Please, do you mind? I'm looking. Dear Jerry, the letter read. My father's voice, Irished. Jerry, you never put yourself above others, gave credit to them & did not take it. The experience of an Irish immigrant. Martha & Susan join me in wishing you a long & enjoyable retirement.

Not too long after, I got a Tinfish order from a Korean-American woman in McLean, Virginia, who lives very near the road my mother lived on for well over 30 years (and I for some of those). The other day, I met a Korean-American poet new to Honolulu, and found that she grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the small town north of Pittsburgh where my mother was born and where she attended Allegheny College. I don't know what to make of this. Gestures from the beyond, happy coincidences, random chance events that attach to the velcro of personal experience? The question "what do they mean?" might be part of the answer, in fact. These events are not results (as in effects that follow causes) but triggers.

While the meaning of these events remains mysterious, their forms and processes do not. These are poetic links, poetic forms. Perhaps I write the way I do because the world is structured in this way. Or perhaps the world is structured in this way because my work in poetry has trained me to see it so. These are instants that contain meaning, though I'm hard pressed to say what these meanings are. Their message may have more to do with the making of meanings than in any stable meanings themselves. Making is usually more interesting than what is made, is it not? I find comfort in hearing my father's voice on the evening my mother died; I enjoy meeting unlikely people from the place where she was born and near where she died. But is comfort in itself meaning-full? Or does it come from a brief brush against what just might be meaning? The world's wit putting two things together that never seemed to fit before? The notion that the world itself generates meaning, that it's not all our minds? I just don't know. Nor does it bother me over much. I'm not Thomas Hardy, though I do appreciate his coincidence-laden books more now (at least in my memory of them).

I suppose that half the fun is in following the synapses, the lightning flashes, and then detaching from the meanings that arrive. As an adoptive mother, I often resent the discussions about "who gets what from whom," as if DNA were a certain marker of such qualities as humor or sense of direction or love for ketchup. But then again, I enjoy moments when I realize that my daughter's utter lack of a sense of direction is like my mother's (if she turns left, go right), or that my son's sweetness resembles my father's. Meaning is a guide, but it doesn't get us anywhere certain. Except perhaps on H-1 at rush hour, looking for more random chance events to occur.

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