I sometimes read literature just beyond my understanding. That is why I pick up Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson at least once a year. I don’t think I’ll ever understand Emerson, but I still appreciate him. The appeal is not the challenge, nor is it a hope that eventually everything will make sense. The best I can discern is that I see the beauty without understanding it. I feel the same way about deserts. With my recent readings, I have gone to writing comments in the margins – and now I explore Emerson in the same way spelunkers map out caves. Each time I read excerpts from “Self-Reliance” or “Circles,” I use the notes from previous trips to venture deeper into the darkness.
My most recent case of pleasurable confusion came not from a book, but from the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once. I am sure I will stream it again someday, but it won’t be anytime soon. As confused as I was by the storyline, I knew there was something insightful in the craziness. I am even pleased the movie won best picture at the Academy Awards. Clare says she understands it, so I wonder whether the ability to follow alternate realities is a generational thing.
Watching Everything Everywhere All at Once got me thinking about turning points in life. As I scrolled back on some of the key moments in my own sixty-plus years, I realized most of the major events were a random blend of preparation and happenstance. For example, in the early 1990s, I applied for, received, and accepted a one-year position to teach in Taiwan. Every step in the application process had been carefully planned out. In fact, my efforts to get to Taiwan took longer (a full year) than the time I initially agreed to be there (10 months). In contrast, the decision to stay in Taiwan for not one year, but two, happened on a whim. I’d been in Taipei only a few weeks when my sponsoring agency offered me a contract for a second year, but gave me only a week to decide. The agency’s staff was preparing advertisements for the upcoming year’s vacancies and needed to know whether my position should be included on the list. It took me just over a day to accept the offer and tell my university in the States I was never going back.
Why did I extend my contract before I even knew whether I liked the job or the setting? I had no good reason for my decision, and it was little more than a coin toss. Still that one action probably affected my life more than anything I’ve ever done. Had I stayed only one year, Manyu and I would not be together now. By the spring of the first academic year, she and I were seriously dating, but hadn’t discussed marriage. Had I returned to the US the summer of ‘92, I would have gone alone. One year later Manyu willingly moved across the Pacific Ocean with her homeless, unemployed, almost penniless husband. My adventure had become her adventure.
Of course, Manyu’s and my situation is not unique. All of us live lives that would be entirely different had we, once upon a time, zigged instead of zagged. Should I think of it as fate or coincidence?