Intersections

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!

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4 Responses to “Intersections”

  1. Tandemcat Says:

    How about the difference between “meant to be” and “planned by God”? Perhaps it might seem trivial that God would give the gift of the view of the man with the bulldogs, but OTOH the Bible tells us that the hairs of our heads are numbered. Intersecting lives–I think about that all the time on the school bus. There are kids that have been part of my life for a long time; now here are 65 or so more. How much will I interact with them? It could be minimal–if I choose to attempt making it more, how worthwhile is it? That is the sort of question which must be earnestly laid before God for an answer. [Please forgive any errors–on this computer screen, the text is mostly illegible–I’m typing as carefully as I can!]

    Outdoor transportation in the rain–there’s another subject! To escape high gasoline prices in the U.S., I’ve thought again about commuting by bike, but that is a serious business where a 22-mile round trip is involved, plus another two miles each way to my homeschooling location.

  2. Daylily Says:

    Nice piece, Fred! You’ve got me thinking about my own intersections or “divine appointments,” some of which have changed my life in dramatic ways. Perhaps I will pick up a pen or sit at a computer to write about them . . .

  3. I once caught Genghis Khan Says:

    Like Daylily, I am moved by Fred’s piece to consider my own “intersections.” A decision I made in the driveway of my childhood home in 1988 dramatically altered my life in so many ways it is impossible to count, and yet that decision had to be made in less than one hour. How often does this happen? Probably to everyone at least once, but, like Fred’s Mr. Bulldog, it leads you to wonder about “chance meetings, as they say in Middle-earth.”
    Tolkien was also a big believer in “eucatastrophe” the theory that, at the moment when everything appears to be lost in unfathomable disaster, the reverse happens.
    As I ponder “intersections” I wonder how many disasters and how many eucatastrophe’s happen in each individuals life at — and in — moments we call “chance.”

  4. Chris Says:

    I was recently discussing the concept of “serendipity” in relation to debates around “Intelligent Design”. I’m an atheist, so there is no “design” that I see in nature. But the desire to attribute some awe to a “statistically unlikely event” is strong in people. However, if you think of it, just about any individual event, when viewed from the RESULTS backwards to the precipitating cause can be amazingly unlikely when you “run the numbers”.

    But in reality, a random-walk winds up _somewhere_, and it could have been _anywhere_. Looking back over life I sometimes see “crucial points” that were, in hindsight, very important for me, but in reality really were just a statistical outcome not unlike flipping a coin.

    I think we make plans and enact events in our lives, but overanalyzing a single event can lead to, perhaps, a sense of “awe” when none is warranted.

    But that’s just my dos centavos.

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