(Sometimes writing these newsletters can be relatively easy. I have some thoughts and ideas in my head, I sit down and the words just flow. I love it when that happens, but it isn't always that way. Sometimes I have an idea, I start working with it, and it just goes flat; the words just lay on the page and don't seem to have any life. Or I read what I wrote and think, "Boring!" Such was where things were today when I sat down to write. There was just nothing there.
Often when that happens I scroll through the dozens of newsletters I have written before and wait for something to catch me. Sometimes things click when I do that. I am planning on going to the Philadelphia Art Museum again soon, and I came across a newsletter that I wrote in 2016 that has to do, somewhat, with works of art. I read through it, liked it, and made a few changes. And here it is.)
“What if?....If this had happened rather than that?..- always two great ways to start a story.”
writer Lawrence Block
“I think there is often a 'what if'” proposition that gets me thinking about all my novels"
writer John Irving
I was having a cup of coffee with some friends a few mornings ago, and somehow the subject of our conversation turned to “What if?” and “If only this had happened.” One person started talking about it, but it quickly involved all of us. It became a fascinating and somewhat intense conversation that had all of us looking back at our lives and the various ways we got to where we are in our lives. We all started talking about choices we had made, some of the ways those choices had affected us, and ways they helped lead us to who and where we are today. This is something that is often in the back of my mind, but I don’t regularly talk about it out loud. So it was great to share ideas and thoughts about this with a few friends. Some of it was a little painful and humbling, of course; most of us easily mentioned choices which we now regretted and wish we hadn’t made. We all embarrassed ourselves a bit when we shared some of those things. But we were also able to recall a couple of choices that turned out to be very good and important ones-major ones in leading us to who we became and how we turned out. In some cases these were conscious choices- things that we did willingly in response to a situation that presented itself. It could have been responses to situations parents gave us, things friends faced us with, or something that life unexpectedly threw at us. We had to make choices, and we consciously did. In other cases, though, there were a lot of decisions we made without really thinking about them or realizing what we were doing. At the time we just made them, and we were totally unaware of how important they would turn out to be. Some of those were choices that had long range effects, for better or for worse, but we were totally unaware of that at the time. There were definitely a lot of those occurrences in my life, and it was interesting to reflect on the effect some of those specific decisions had on my life.
Of course, this often leads to ideas of ‘chance”, “fate, "or God. Were the things that happened to us just the result of coincidence, or was there some force or power guiding and planning things? Or was there some mixture of both? This was especially fascinating for me, because some of the most meaningful and important things in my life seem to have “just happened”; I seemed to have just stumbled into them, followed where they took me, and, “BOOM!”-I was somewhere else. These things did not come from my planning or intention; they happened, I responded, and my life changed. Take me long teaching career, for example. I did not set out to be a teacher, but I did a guest seminar on Jazz and the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance for a professor friend’s freshman lit class at Temple in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of high school kids auditing that class, and they invited me to give that seminar at this new experimental high school, Alternative East. I did that and I was invited to do a few other seminars. I got to meet the kids and the other teachers, liked them and the experiences I was having, and suddenly, somehow, before I knew it, I had quit my regular, well-paying job and become an underpaid part-time English and history teacher, something it turned out that I was quite good at and thoroughly loved. And it took off from there; that was my career for some 40 years. I just stumbled into it, and it was one of the greatest stumbles of my life.
Visiting the Philadelphia Art Museum as a junior high and high school student also led to some major changes that have had long-lasting effects on my life. I started going to the Museum with some friends to see art by Black artists such as Henry O Tanner and Jacob Lawrence, and modern masters such Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Joan Miro. But I also stumbled onto Impressionism, and in particular, the seaside and country road scenes painted by artists such as Pissarro, Monet, Eugene Bodin and especially, Giovanni Boldini. This was totally new to me, and it just stayed with me. There was something amazing about the way those artists painted the sky, the clouds and trees that totally captured this kid. I would return again and again to the museum to look at those wonderful paintings, especially Giovanni Boldini's Highway of Combes-le-Ville. When some of them were moved or temporarily taken down, I was upset. When they were restored, I was excited. And I still go to see those paintings each time I visit the museum.
It was those paintings that led me to become fascinated by clouds and weather and skies: to start looking up and out at the natural world. They were a big part of what led me to birdwatching, hiking and surprisingly, camping. Somehow this row-house raised, urban, West Philadelphia kid has been a camper and birder for nearly half a century. And a lot of it got started with stumbling onto Boudin, Boldini, Pissarro and those amazing trees and skies. Even now when I go to the Art Museum, I have to see some of those paintings. They still mean plenty to me.
So that morning coffee conversation was a great experience for me, and I think for all of us. I know it was good for me to take the time to look back, think about how I got to where I am, and to marvel and be grateful for the many twists, turns and plans, both successfully carried out and not, that have helped me get to where I am. And it definitely made me more aware of and appreciative of unexpectedness and chance and the roles they play and have played in my life. Often people in US culture like to think that we are pretty much in control of our lives-we lay out and follow our goals, go to the right schools, invest wisely, marry the right person, envision and plan for retirement, etc, etc, etc. And those things we plan definitely make a difference in our lives, no doubt about it. They put into place many of the things that play a part in our lives; I was able to retire when I did in part because I planned for it. But if we take a careful and as dispassionate as possible look at the whole of our lives, we have to acknowledge that a lot of our lives took place way beyond our plans and way outside our control. We were affected by things both beneath and beyond our consciousness and control. And they have affected us as much as, if not more than, our planned things.
I believe we need to notice that fact and appreciate it-to know that much of our world and our lives are really beyond our control and that that is not scary. That is relaxing and refreshing for me. It is important for me to know that I am not in total control of everything, and that I do not have to be in total control. If I can let go of that need to have control, then I can get to be aware of and enjoy coincidence, surprise, and chance. And stumbling. Those things have already often provided some much better things than I would have had I been making all the plans, and they may very well do it again. “What if? "If this had happened rather than that?” There can be a lot of beauty and wonder hidden within those phrases if we just give them a chance to play out