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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, August 21, 2005

serendipity and destiny

A family-oriented day, with Kim's sister Dale coming over, along with Dale's granddaughter Lynn and her fiance Jason. Mission: to plan the cake for the wedding next June, which Kimmie is to bake and decorate. I had a chance beforehand to work on my morning notes (From Eden to Exile, A History of Technology) before being drawn upstairs to join in the lunch of of fresh sandwiches made by Kimmie.

While the women repaired to the living-room to look at pictures of Lynn's planned wedding dress, I fell to talking with Jason. He's 27, tall, slim, blue-eyed, friendly, and enthusiastic. He's also the survivor of a severe car-crash three years ago, and is still undergoing therapy for it. While riding beside a friend who was driving impaired, he shattered his face, broke his back, broke many other bones, and experienced a lot of other internal damage. He has had several reconstructive operations on his face, and had five lumbar vertebrae fused into a single unit. But he's fully ambulatory and mobile, and shows hardly any outward sign of having undergone such a trauma.

"Other guys I'm at the gym with," he said, "who've been in car-crashes, they have such a negative attitude. They're saying, oh, I'm in pain, ICBC is ripping me off, this is taking forever, I can't get my job back. But I think, I want to live a happy, normal life. I don't want to say I'm more disabled that I am just to try to get a bigger check. I want to have a normal job and be successful. I want to live my life."

I was impressed with his attitude. As we talked he went on to say that he felt that now, as he's considering going back to school to become a real-estate appraiser, the crash may have been a turning-point in his life, causing him to go in a better direction than what he was going before. I told him one of my favorite stories, about the famous Canadian cartographer David Thompson.

"He was a 19-year-old fur-trader for the Hudson Bay Company. One night he was heading home to his cabin and his dog-sled crashed. He broke his thigh. He was laid up in the cabin for a couple of months, and his cabin-mate, an older trapper, had to take care of him. During that time the older trapper taught Thompson mathematics. Thompson became excited and enthusiastic about this, so that when he got better he learned more about math and astronomy and became a cartographer instead of a trader. He went on to map much of western Canada. The Thompson River's named after him."

"Wow," said Jason, his bright-blue eyes wide, smiling with reconstructive braces on his teeth (they come off at the end of next month). "So you have to ask, was it an accident? Or was that meant to happen?"

"You have to ask," I said.

Meanwhile, I got an e-mail from my sister Mara, excitedly describing her own feelings of meaningful coincidence in encountering several articles in different magazines, all within a couple of days, reinforcing the message of how to find and relate with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, including interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks, and mention of James Hillman and his "acorn" theory of our seed nature that will out. It was as though Mara, through this serendipitous collection of writings (back-issues of magazines picked up at the thrift store, and so on), had been given a personally selected reading-list tailored to her current interest in investigating the purpose of her life.

It is exciting.

One of my thoughts is about the responsibility (if I can put it that way) of the storyteller to capture something of this dimension of life: the serendipitous-turned-significant. A good story proceeds by causality, the chain of cause and effect creating a sense of inexorableness. And yet that's not enough. If a story is merely an inexorable chain of cause and effect, it lacks the richness, the depth, the hidden dimension of life. I suspect a good story must contain some meaningful coincidence--the modern equivalent of magic--to give it its full sense of relevance. For cause and effect operate in life, but the hallmark of life is its unexpectedness: that things take a sudden turn for reasons outside our ken or control. These things lead on to our destiny.

Things are not as they appear. This perhaps is the storyteller's deepest message, and most powerful tool.


  • Hello, Paul, I've been absent for a while--my father passed away this month. Anyway, thanks for another thought provoking post. You articulate so well many of my on inchoate thoughts about life and writing. d:)

    By Blogger Debra Young, at August 23, 2005 12:11 PM  

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