THREE SHORT TAKES

COINCIDENCE

There are things that happen in real life that you would never believe if you read them in a novel – too coincidental, you’d think. Not believable.

But this really happened.

We were watching the vice-presidential debates when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s carefully coifed silver dome. When we looked a little later, we realized we had been mistaken, the fly was in our living room, crawling above Pence’s head on our TV screen. It buzzed over to the coffee table and across to the kitchen. Odd to have a fly in the house, we thought, especially this time of year.

Then post-debate commentators confirmed there had been a fly on Pence’s head. But what about the fly that seemed to come out of our TV? Too coincidental. Not believable.

This morning the Twitter world is atwitter with photos and comments about that fly on Pence’s head. In a New York Times column, Frank Bruni wrote: “How could [Pence] be expected to register or exile an itty-bitty pest when he routinely puts up with a great big one? That fly was some crazy combo of metaphor, visitation and karmic joke.”

What meaning would he attach to the doppelganger fly on our TV?

I am intrigued by coincidence. Or maybe it’s synchronicity? Like when I pick up the phone and the person I was going to call is already on the other end. Or that time we hiked miles down a trail on Orcas Island and found our old neighbors sitting on a log.

I once came out of a BART station in San Francisco and a busker was playing Wagon Wheel, the song that had been running through my head all morning. Another time, I opened the gate into a fancy garden party just as the jazz combo leaned into Laura, the song I was named after.

These coincidences stand out exactly because they seem uncanny, unbelievable. But in a bigger sense, synchronicities shape your life – you are there at the precise right moment to meet the people who open doors and teach and help you along the way. That leads to my second item.

12:34 – WHO LOVED YOU INTO BEING?

Whenever I happen to look at the clock and it is 12:34, I stop and take a minute to think about someone who helped me along the way. I got this idea from Fred Rogers, who called it “One Silent Minute.”

He urged kids to take a whole minute to think about a person who had “loved you into being.” Turns out a minute is a long time to stick with this, so just like Fred, I time it. Sometimes I think about someone from the past, like Doris Fletcher, a neighborhood mom who worked with us sixth grade girls so we could have a singing group, The Six Belles. Songs she taught us still give me comfort. I imagine us standing behind her at the her spinet singing, “May you always walk in sunshine…” Other times, I think about present friends and relations. As Fred reminds us, “Wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self.”

Who will you think about the next time you notice the clock at 12:34?

EMPATHY

With the divisiveness of the presidential election and rising racial unrest, it seems empathy is needed more than ever.

On his brilliant podcast, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores the topic of empathy with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast, but here are some highlights that will hit home for children’s book creators.

SV – “Deeply written narrative fiction has the ability to pull us deep into the lives of other people.”

JZ—”Absolutely… this is why I love fiction… It allows us to effortlessly voyage into the lives of other people and not just see them from the outside but see them from the inside.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence now that the more fiction that people read, the more empathetic they become. There’s a number of correlational studies that show, for instance, that children who read lots of storybooks (for instance, those who read less nonfiction) become more empathetic.

“There’s also some experimental evidence now that even small doses of fiction produce small but reliable improvements in people’s empathy, especially important because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different than us…

“There is evidence that when people read novelistic, vivid accounts of, say, experiences of Arab Americans or people of different gender identities than themselves, they form greater empathy for those other groups.”

Zaki argues that empathy is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with exercise and it can atrophy when idle. Fiction is “the empathy gym.”

Shankar Vedantam, host of the Hidden Brain, and his guest, psychologist Jamil Zaki

So there it is: buzzing coincidence, brimming silence, bountiful fiction.

16 responses to “THREE SHORT TAKES

  1. Thank for these three ways to feel better about everything. I especially love Fred Roger’s remembering moment. It’s like visiting a garden Inside you someone else planted for you. 🙂

  2. what a good way to think of it. thanks.

  3. Ha ha, Laura! I loved that episode of Shankar Vedantam’s podcast (his name is spelled with an “m” at the end, BTW–South Indian names often have that Sanskritic final consonant). As for the fly on Pence’s head, I was perfectly content at its symbolism, but having read your post, I am now deeply jealous of you for having your own personal Musca domestica.

  4. These are all good thoughts. I will go read a fiction book. I tend to read more nonfiction.

    • That’s exactly how i am spending this rainy day — and I highly recommend Niall Williams’ THIS IS HAPPINESS. wonderful writing!

  5. I loved this Laura. It feels like I notice 12:34 on clocks an unusual number of times. I’m so glad to now have a reminder to be thankful for the meaningful people in my life. I will have to time it, but taking a whole minute means I’ll have to relish that relationship. And your real fly is awesome. Too many ways to meme that fly to count.

  6. I’m still in awe of our doppelgänger fly. I don’t know what it meant but I’m glad it was fodder for your wonderful take on all things coincidental. Keep on writing!

  7. I enjoyed reading your thoughts this fine morning. I also just read a little bit about the history of flies in art. It symbolizes the transience of human life, humility, impermanence, illusion, death….I plan to start the 12:34 practice. It sounds like a positive way to focus my energy. Thanks for sharing that idea! And wrt empathy, I don’t need any convincing. That’s why I write children’s books.

  8. This is wonderful, dear Laura. So much to take with us, thank you. I’m also a big fan of Hidden Brain & Shankar Vedantam.

  9. Lovely and thought provoking. I love what you said about readers of fiction having empathy.

  10. Maybe that’s why it is so fun to hang out with readers — they can imagine others’ lives clearly enough to draw the circle that draws everyone in.
    (“He drew a circle that shut me out-
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle and took him In!” ― Edwin Markham)

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