When you live without a car as I do here in Japan, you pay a lot of attention to the weather. What the weather is doing makes about a forty-minute difference in what time I leave my apartment to get to work. It makes a difference in what I wear (all the way down to my shoes), how I pack my book-bag, and what I carry.
So, here’s a glimpse at the first twenty seconds of my day: my alarm clock rings. I struggle free of my futon, shut off my alarm, and then cross the tatami-mat floor to my window. Instead of curtains in my sleeping room, there’s a traditional wood-lattice window covered with opaque white shouji paper. I slide it open (standing a little to one side to peek out, since I get enough attention from the neighborhood without showing everyone what I wear to bed)–and I take a good look at the sky and the pavement. Is it mild and sunny, or are leaves, cats, and small children blowing down the street in a white squall?
This morning, at about 6:40 a.m., I glanced out at the precise instant an elderly man was walking his two bulldogs. You know how people say that pets and their owners begin to resemble each other over time? This was certainly the case–this man and his dogs clearly belonged together, all businesslike gait and bouncing jowls. Yes, yes–I know that with my kewpie-like futon hair I looked a lot funnier than anyone outside–but I had shouji to hide behind. Anyway, the scene got my early-morning mind to thinking.
If I’m doing the math right, there are 86,399 seconds in the day when I’m not looking out of my window. I don’t mean that it’s miraculous that I saw a man and his dogs. There’s a steady flow of traffic up and down my street throughout the day. If I’d looked out at another time, I’d have seen something else. But the point is, that particular man, those particular dogs and I all converged at 6:40 on this particular Monday morning.
Even when fully awake, one has to wonder to what degree such “chance” alignments are purposeful.
I remember being a little kid on car trips, looking out the back window at the Midwest farmlands flashing by; and I remember being staggered more than once by this thought: I’d pick out some house on a side street of some tiny town–or I’d find a lone tree growing far out at the edge of some field–and I’d marvel at the idea that the people in that house had lives of their own. They had whole histories, families, lifetimes of experience–but they had nothing to do with me. If you grew up with siblings, you likely weren’t as amazed by this revelation as I was, being an only child. It was eye-opening for me to figure out that entire vast populations of the world were getting along fine without ever knowing or interacting with me. I’d look at the tree in the field zooming past, and I’d think (with a bit of wistfulness) that I’d never stand beneath it; I’d never climb it or know its shade. I’d never see what the world looked like from just beside its trunk.
My point is, isn’t there something wondrous–something numinous–about the intersections that we do experience in life? I’ve always had a strange, inexplicable sense that I’m living at precisely the time and in the place that I was meant to live. Perhaps it’s just that old only-child egocentrism at work . . . or perhaps it’s not.
Tolkien’s work is built on the underlying belief that certain things are meant to happen. Bilbo was meant to find the ring; thus, Frodo was meant to have it. . . .
At the end of the film The Untouchables (the one with Kevin Costner), a reporter asks Ness for a comment on his triumph as the man who brought down Al Capone. Ness says, “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”
We live every instant in that moment: the time when the wheel comes ’round. I certainly feel it with the students I meet in my classes. Each of our lives is like a looping, curving line going in all directions, but all those lines intersect, for one brief semester, in a particular classroom. That’s something not to be taken lightly. What we do with our time matters.
For us as writers, too: we each bring our own unique background to the writing table. We are the only people in history who have done exactly what we’ve done up to that point. We’ve grown up on our side streets; we’ve seen the world from under our trees. At any given time of life, there’s a story we can write then and only then.
Need I say more? I’ll grab my pen if you’ll grab yours!