What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open. (Jose Manuel Barroso)
[Note: Changes. We’ve had a decade’s worth in a year it seems. Maybe a century’s. Much of it troubling, even scary. But as we move into this familiar-yet-different, post (sort of)-COVID landscape, it’s worth remembering: Change is also possibility. Ch-ch-ch-changes, turn and face the strange, David Bowie advised. So, I’m re-posting this 2018 column to remind myself, you, all of us, that happiness, opportunity, love—they often arrive in different containers than what we first imagined. Enjoy.]
Since college days, my life has been filled with cats. There’s Phoebe, a tortoiseshell kitty who napped atop my turntable; Starbaby, a calico who cleaned out the bottom of my yogurt cups, then lined up the empties in the bathroom; Maggie, a stray I “adopted” from the Boston pizzeria that fed her; Tia Maria an opinionated, affectionate gray with a “hint of beige”—also mother of Brutus and Jasmine, both brown tigers. And Francesca, a tiny, gray long-haired kitten who was terrified of most everything, but loved Brutus and followed him everywhere.
Most of these cats had been rescued from one kind of immediate-need situation or other. I didn’t set out to choose them. More like our paths crossed serendipitously and I’m a big sucker. But when Brutus died at age 17 and Frankie followed four months later, I found myself catless for the first time in 27 years. After the worst of the grief subsided, I knew what I wanted. I wanted an orange kitten. I had always loved that color (too many “Morris the Cat” ads, perhaps), and now I could take myself down to the local animal rescue shelter and pick one out.
Most of the cats at the shelter were, like me, no longer kids. One heartbreaking duo, ages 12 and 14, had belonged to a woman who had died at the age of 93 (may we all get there!). I considered them because, obviously, like all aging orphans, they were not going to be most people’s first picks. But then I thought maybe they weren’t really up to life in a house with two teenagers (mine).
“If you’re interested in a kitten, we have four brothers here, eight weeks old,” the shelter attendant said.
And there they were, four little kitties romping about a boxy cage, tumbling over one other, each more heartbreakingly cute than the other. And none of them orange. Not even close. Not even a speck.
You know how this story goes. I chose a little gray guy, white-tipped tail, both spunky and sweet. I named him Mercutio on the spot.
Recognizing a pushover when she saw one, the attendant added, “It’s two-for-one month.”
Well, I had my daughter, Lauren, in tow, and between the two of them there was no way I was leaving that shelter with only one cat. I picked out a frisky black-and-white dude and christened him Tybalt.
So, no orange kitty. And yet, here I am 14 years later with gray Mercutio (Coosh) and black-and-white Tybalt (Tibby), and I know when they leave this world, as all things must, I will feel the kind of pain that just about does you in. Tibby is playful and good-hearted and would let you rub his belly forever. Coosh cuddles up on the bed beside me as I read each night to the strains of Mozart (he’s a big fan).
Two things here strike me: 1) It is in our nature to want particular things, to have definite plans, to map out pathways, goals, and 2) It is in the nature of life to divert most of these desires and plans.
The question is: How do we handle these detours and diversions?
When the Bottom Drops Out
Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes. (Hugh Prather)
Okay, it’s pretty easy to punt one’s desire for an orange kitten. But how do we deal with it when we love what we’re doing, and then the bottom drops out. The company closes. The funding evaporates. Our plans go up in smoke.
When my kids moved into the later elementary years, I enrolled in a competitive M.Ed. program at a local university. They only took ten candidates, so I spent the year prior to application substitute teaching and taking undergraduate courses like math for teachers. I was one of 50 applicant finalists interviewed, and I got in. But that was just the beginning. The program was a one-year intensive, and I do mean intensive. I did my practicum in the second semester while carrying a full load of classes and cooking/cleaning/ferrying my two kids to appointments, lessons, and friends. I did my coursework in the wee hours of the morning. I dreamed of sleep.
But then I got hired and taught six-year-olds for several years. First grade—teachers either love it or loathe it. I loved it. Those little guys are my chosen people. Whether we were immersing ourselves to the elbows in papier maché to make tectonic plates that became mountains when shoved together, or compiling lists of words where oa makes the long o sound: coat, goat, boat, float—we were into it. We grooved on observing and recording the life cycle of frogs. Bring a tank of tadpoles into first grade and you’ve got instant joy. Yes, we were happy campers.
And then the Iraq war happened and with it, deep budget cuts in federal aid to public schools. With only two years in the classroom, I was a prime target for staff reduction. This was a serious bummer. I loved teaching. After two years, I felt I was really hitting my stride.
So, what to do? Schools across the state were cutting staff. Getting another teaching job looked about as likely as a lottery win. The director of my M.Ed. program hired me to supervise student teachers in their practicum. I liked the work, but it was part-time for spring semesters only.
In the meantime, my daughter had graduated to studying with a new violin teacher, a faculty member of the music department at yet another local college (we’ve got tons of them) and an international recording artist. As we chatted at the first lesson, it somehow came up that he had come to England from Germany in 1939. Alone. Carrying nothing but his violin and several of his father’s paintings. An 11-year-old kid fleeing the Nazis. My heart turned over. I had to write his story.
I had done a cover feature for the local paper’s weekend magazine several years before, so I called the editor and she was enthusiastic. Over the fall of that year, I interviewed Philipp about his Jewish family’s life under the Nazis, his year as a refugee “orphan” attending a boarding school in the Midlands, and his family’s subsequent reunification in America. The feature ran just days before my M.Ed. director called to ask if I would be supervising the new interns for the upcoming semester.
Two roads diverged … in the nanoseconds before I replied, I thought I could make my life writing. I had earned a living from writing before as editor and main content contributor for a women’s retail monthly. I had completed two novels and was writing a third.
“I’ve decided to try my hand at freelance writing,” I said. And that was what I did, pitching pieces and writing for magazines. It was the best career “move” I ever made.
When New Facts Contradict Old Beliefs
Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. (Stephen Hawking)
In the early ‘70s, when Nixon’s Watergate scandal was ramping up to tsunami level, the deeply conservative rep from my Michigan district made national headlines with these words: Don’t confuse me with the facts.
Sometimes, when we’ve invested a lot—years, dollars, hope, energy—we’re tempted to don blinders and ear plugs against anything that threatens our status quo and calls for a rethink.
Charles Darwin was a creationist when he first visited the Galapagos Islands as part of the HMS Beagle expedition to chart the coastline of South America. In fact, his father had sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge to earn a B.A., as the first step to becoming an Anglican parson.
As a creationist, Darwin believed the particular adaptations of many species were simply proofs of divine design—that each species had been created for its special place in nature. Fixed. Immutable. What he observed in the Galapagos challenged everything he thought he knew.
Faced with a conundrum—either sweep under the proverbial rug all questions raised by the variations among tortoises and mockingbirds he’d witnessed in the Galapagos OR investigate—Darwin investigated. His Journal of Researches suggests it was a slow investigation, and likely painful entertaining the loss of old notions, but he could not turn away from the search for what is—for truth. Twenty years of conversations with zoologists and ornithologists followed that visit to the Galapagos. Two decades of exhaustive research. When at last he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, Darwin was a true believer in evolution.
In his article for smithsonianmag.com, Frank J. Sulloway wonders aloud why Darwin was the only person to embrace evolution out of all those exposed to the evidence in the Galapagos. “In the end,” Sulloway writes, “it is perhaps a question of courageous willingness to consider new and unconventional ways of thinking.”
When you Least Expect it: Recognizing the Gift in the Moment Before You
We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance. (Harrison Ford)
In the summer after my junior year of college, I did a semester in London, studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre and poetry. I saw 27 plays in six weeks. I lived in a dorm on the edge of Regent’s Park. I reveled in the British Museum, the Tate and National Galleries, the Victoria and Albert, and Kew Gardens. I browsed the wealth of Charing Cross bookshops and enjoyed the camaraderie of the pubs, the remarkable kindness and generosity of the British people. In short, I fell in love with the city. London became and has remained the home of my heart. At the end of that summer, I hated to leave but I had two terms left to finish my degree. I vowed I would someday return for good.
Fast forward to 2007. Knowing that my marriage would bite the dust when my youngest finished high school, I was combing real estate ads for flats in the greater London area. I was going to make the move. Realize my long-cherished dream. Nothing would stop me.
And then, on a Friday afternoon in July, Ed happened. To riff on Casablanca: Of all the coffee shops, in all the towns, in all the world, he walked into mine. That day, as he was leaving, he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a good weekend. I vaguely recognized him—one of the regulars who was often there when I arrived mid-morning to work on one freelance assignment or another.
Over the next two months, Ed and I started talking. I began arriving earlier. He stayed later. We ran the conversational gamut from silly to serious with total ease. Even our silences were comfortable. And we shared many passions. Travel, books, baseball, progressive politics, cooking, dancing, a fascination with language generally and word-play specifically. A love of laughter. We were both freelance writers and editors. He was reading a book on Bletchley Park in World War II. I was writing a book centered on Bletchley Park in World War II. We began going out to lunch and taking long walks together. In between, we e-mailed constantly.
The time for filing my divorce was rapidly approaching. With it, the need to start putting things in place to make London happen. From the viewpoint of my plans, it was a most inconvenient time to fall in love, But fall I did. Over my head. Out of my mind. Passionately, joyfully, crazy in love.
London aside, the relationship was not without risks (is there ever a seismic move in life without risks?). Ed was on a transplant list at the time, waiting for a new liver to replace his rapidly failing one. Would a donor liver be available in time to save him? Was I giving up my London dream for a situation that might quickly devolve into a nightmare of hospitals and end in tragedy?
I remember standing in my driveway on a warm September night, summoning all the reasons that following my heart might be foolish. But I kept coming back to the simple truth: I loved him. And then I thought the only true foolishness would be to give up a man who was perfect for me in every way. Who made my heart sing. The liver situation was a gamble, yes, but everything in life is a roll of the dice. A seemingly perfectly healthy person can suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm. There are no guarantees. But I knew what I had in that moment. I had Ed and he was the love of my life. Eleven years on, and one successful liver transplant later, he still is.
And now, we visit London annually. He has become quite a fan.
At one point or another in my life, I’ve wanted to be one of the popular kids, have string-straight hair like Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton, and move to the desert. None of these things happened, thank god, because as it turns out there’s far more freedom outside the clique, I’ve come to love my wild curls, and I need lots of green in my environment.
We don’t always wind up at the place we started out for. The road curves. Circumstances change. New facts emerge. Unexpected opportunities erupt.
Yes, we don’t always get what we want, but that’s not the end of the world. Sometimes it’s just the beginning.