Monday, January 2, 2012


January 2, 2012:

This one is, you'll have to admit, close to spectacular. My wife and I were visiting my daughter and her family, who live in Shrub Oak, New York, where my first wife and I spent our last years together in a large beautiful house on Main Street that was built around 1810 and had accumulated twelve or thirteen rooms, depending on how you counted them (one was really an anteroom), over the years; and we stopped at the deli two doors down from this old house of mine and then went through the graveyard behind it to look at the back yard, and we saw the owner in the yard looking for his dog. Lorraine, my wife, being bolder than I, went over to him, introduced herself, and told him I had lived there many years before, and he invited us in for a tour. The vegetable garden in the back where I had grown corn, string beans, innumerable tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, zucchini, peas, strawberries, melons, was gone. That was sad. Also gone was the flower garden I had put in. But the house had been fixed up. Heat in the kitchen when I lived there came from a radiator set in the middle of the floor; we put the kitchen table over it. He had changed that. There had been renovations inside, but no architectural changes. The house looked great, better than when I owned it. He took us upstairs, even to the third floor, where my first wife and I had put heat in; previously it had been unheated. The bookshelves I had had built into the back parlor downstairs were still there. Altogether it looked just grand, and I missed it. It was a great house, big enough for my library, handsome, with the slate mansard roof, the giant old trees--I missed it.

At the end of the tour I thanked him, and we exchanged business cards. And we both gasped a little. My name is Anthony Brandt. His last name was Abrandt.

I've had many coincidences in my life, but this was more striking than most; this had enough of an impact that when the house came up for sale a year or so later it occurred to me that it was some kind of message, that I should sell my house in Sag Harbor, buy back the house in Shrub Oak, and change my life. Once again. Not that that was possible. Lorraine would have had none of it, all our friends are here in the Hamptons, they're close friends, people we regard as family--it was just unthinkable. But I did love that house. It had a two-story barn, attached sheds, lots of land, it was closer to the city than Sag Harbor, and there was so much space. It was tempting. It was impossible. I was locked into my life. I wasn't free.

So what did it mean, this strange cosmic cross-reference, this reminder? That's the thing about coincidence, it seems always to be full of meaning, but what the meaning is tends to remain obscure. Or it may be that we simply read meaningfulness into it, that there's really no meaning to it at all. Where you stand on this issue, in fact, says much about who you are. Do you think the universe has a meaning, that life has a direction, that in the end all will be explained? or are you a rationalist, do you see life as just one thing after another, without a story to it or any kind of purpose?

I haven't totally made up my mind on this issue. Right now I'm reading Carl Jung on the subject; Jung thought synchronicities, which is what he called coincidences, highly meaningful and used them in his therapeutic work. He was plugged into various spiritual disciplines and they tend to take these kinds of events quite seriously. Read Jung and his followers, and there are a great many, and you find what amounts to real faith in the meaningfulness of coincidences. Read a mathematician, on the other hand, and you find explanations full of statistical probabilities that tend to dismiss any chance of them being meaningful. They have a point. Among the infinity of events that make up human existence, it only stands to reason that at some point you will run into somebody with your name, or a name very close to yours, in a situation that is important to you. How many degrees of separation are there among any two persons in the world? Only six. And I read recently that the figure is actually lower than that, more like 4.7. The most amazing coincidence, one of these mathematicians said, would be if there were no coincidences.

So that's where I am right now, walking a wire between these two positions, and that's what I'm going to do this winter, walk the wire, investigate, write about coincidences. Call it a long essay. My memoir about my family and my childhood, which I finished this past September, exhausted me. I spent the fall trying to decide what to do next, how to survive in these economic circumstances, which are hard on writers. It's a way of taking a break, not writing a long book. I'll keep the readers of this blog up to date on my progress. I've neglected the blog. I'm not going to do that any more. In the meantime, here's another coincidence.

Lorraine and I were in Venezuela in 1981, working, if that's the word, as quality control inspectors for a hotel chain, and one of the hotels was in Ciudad Guayana, on the Orinoco. We noticed on a map that El Dorado was about 140 miles to our south and we decided that it would be a shame to be that close to El Dorado and not go see it. It was only a little village, but still, the name--and it was right where Sir Walter Raleigh had thought he would find the "real" El Dorado, i.e. the legendary city of gold so many explorers sought for so long. We rented a pickup truck and headed south, down the road, the only road south, into light jungle and abandoned farms, and we got to El Dorado and took a room at the only accommodations there were, a rough (to say the least) motel of sorts with units made of concrete and thatched roofs. That evening we went out to the gazebo next to the river that ran through El Dorado and encountered a BBC film crew, staying there on their way to the tepuis further south where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his fantasy The Lost World, where dinosaurs still roamed. We spent the evening with them talking, and at one point Lorraine mentioned that she knew somebody in London, a photographer named David Redfern.

"Oh, really," said the crew's producer. "I used to date his secretary."