I’m feeling lucky.
This morning, when I put cream into my coffee, I managed to get in just the right amount so that, when I stirred it, none slopped over the side. I’ve been failing at that recently. So this success must be a good sign of more success to come.
When I opened my laptop, there were cookie crumbs inside. Definitely a good omen. Cookies make everything better, and clearly, my laptop held onto that tiny bit of cookie just to make me smile, to remind me that there is humor everywhere, and sometimes, I get to see it. When I’m lucky.
We just moved into our new house, and while we were still in the preparation stage, we were coming over here every day after work, dropping off some things because this house is quite close to the school where we teach, and also watering the new sod we put in as a food source for our tortoise Neo. And there was a dove that had a nest in the eaves of our carport. At first, we weren’t sure she was alive, because she didn’t move much and never flew away when we drove in with our noisy people-carrying-machine; but we did see her little head tilt this way and turn that way, and so we realized that this was, in fact, a real dove that lived in our new carport. This is, for us, a lovely thing (even though – or perhaps partly because – my father’s response was “Hm. Doves’re dirty birds.” So sad.) because we cherish life, and want to keep others’ lives safe and comfortable whenever we can. So we greeted the dove every time we came, and tried not to move too quickly or make too much noise.
And then, the morning after the first night we stayed here, we heard a terrible thump. We ran to the back door and looked out, and indeed, the dove had flown into the window. We have no idea why: the window is small, and was covered with blinds on the inside, and the carport is completely open on one side. Perhaps the dove was scared by something coming into the carport and tried to escape; perhaps she had been sitting so still in her nest in the first place because she was hurt and trying to recover, and her first attempt at flight was ruinously bad. Maybe she just got caught in a bad crosswind that came up at just the wrong moment: just bad luck. All we knew was, there she lay, twitching and bleeding on the ground. Her head seemed twisted to the side, the blood coming from the top of her wing. We went away, unable to watch her suffering; I came back and checked, and she was lying still but for the tip of her tail, which still drifted up and down gently, like a leaf in the wind, like the line of light on an EKG as it shows the last beats of a dying heart. I walked away again, hoping she would die soon.
Trying not to think of this as an omen. But how could I not? Here we were moving into a new house, and the original resident was dying on the concrete in front of me. Surely we had somehow disturbed her. Maybe she was trying to escape the fate of losing her private nesting ground to loud, obnoxious humans. Maybe Nature was trying to tell us something.
But then, Toni came to me. “The dove’s still alive. She’s sitting up.” “What?!” I jumped up, went to the window — and indeed, the dove was now sitting upright, head on straight, looking around, still with blood on her wing. We put a towel into a box and I got some gloves, so we could pick her up and make her comfortable, at least; we had to do what we could for our neighbor. We went out the door, moving quickly but gently, trying not to scare her.
She took off. Flew around the carport, and then off into the bushes nearby. Later that day, she returned to her nest in the eaves; we put out some food and water, and left the towel in the box in case she needed it. But we were happy: because now it was a good omen. She was the dove that lived. So that must mean our new house was willing to accept us.
The dove left, a day or two later. Hasn’t come back.
What kind of omen is that?
Last night, a week after moving in, we were coming back from a celebratory dinner – celebratory because yesterday we finally finished moving out of and cleaning up our old rental – and as we turned into the driveway, I saw something perched on one of the rocks at the end of the driveway. As we drove by, it took off and flew. But it wasn’t the dove: it was an owl. A large and magnificent owl. It flew to our mailbox and perched there, not moving, for the next half hour, at least.
So is that an omen?
Did that owl eat the dove?
So are we welcome here, or not? Teiresias, the blind prophet from Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, reads the actions of birds in order to know the future (He has a servant describe them to him; one of the earliest examples of an author making a great symbolic statement and then having to come up with some ridiculous bullshit to make it work. “You say he watches the birds to see the omens? But I thought he was blind, and could only see the future clearly.” “Uhhhh – there’s a servant who describes them. Yeah, that’s it. A servant. So anyway…”); what would he make of this chain of events?
We had Chinese food for that celebratory dinner, and of course I had a fortune cookie. My fortune said, “Next week, green will be a lucky color for you.” Okay. Thanks. Though I’m not sure what that signifies. Is it about money? Should I wear green? Will that create good luck for me? Should I look for things that are green, that I can take as signs, so I can find luck?
And is it going to be good luck, or bad luck?
I wanted to write that I don’t believe in luck. That’s what I meant to say. I was trying to think of a good insight for this blog, something about how luck is mostly a misunderstanding of probability, that we underestimate the chances of certain events happening, and overestimate the chances of others; that confirmation bias makes us believe we are seeing a correlation when really we’re just noticing things that fit into our beliefs (“Every time I see something green, something lucky happens!” Right: because you’re looking for green things, and when you see one, you look around for something lucky. And it’s most likely something like “Hey, I didn’t trip and fall into that cactus patch! Thanks, Good Green Luck!”). I was going to write something about the multiverse, about the infinity of possibilities that we live in, and how the particular reality we are in doesn’t show great good luck: it’s just one of uncountable alternatives, most of which are not lucky at all. There’s a great short story that I am currently hurting my students’ brains with, called “The Garden of Forking Paths,” by Jorge Luis Borges, about how reality forks as it moves into the future, creating alternate realities where things are different, sometimes coming back together as two different causes have identical effects; in the story, when this truth is pointed out the main character imagines a forest of ghosts: versions of himself and his interlocutor, living slightly different lives, some where they are friends, some where they never meet. Then the protagonist goes on with the reality he is currently living, and he shoots the other man dead. It’s a story about coincidences, and how there really aren’t any; it’s just that in the infinity of possibilities, some of the forking paths into the future seem highly unlikely, only because we don’t see the others. The chances of this one thing happening may be a million to one: but if slightly different versions of you are walking on all million-and-one paths, one of those versions will seem incredibly lucky. The others? Probably won’t even notice. I mean, do you know how many chances you have had to win the lottery? How many times you could have played and the machine would have spat out a winning ticket, just for you? Somewhere in the multiverse, that’s happened.
That’s luck. So I believe. It’s only a lack of awareness of the other instances.
Good. That feels insightful. Certainly more so than freaking astrology, which I learned was bullshit when I was told that my star sign (The uncomfortably named Cancer, which I can’t believe is still accepted blithely; because the people who follow astrology believe in signs and omens, right? SO WHY THE HELL DO THEY NOT INSIST THEIR STAR SIGN NOT BE NAMED AFTER THE MOST DEADLY DISEASE OF OUR AGE? Can you imagine if one of the signs was named “Gangrene?” Or “Sucking Chest Wound?” [To be fair, they did try to change the name at one point, but they tried to change it to “Moonchildren.” Oh, please. That’s the worst King Crimson song. Should have gone with Crimson Kings.]) showed that I was a romantic introvert, a person with overpowering emotions, who therefore drew into his “shell” to protect himself from the harshness of the world. Sure, kind of accurate. Except my brother is also a Cancer, and he is logical, extroverted, and entirely free of romanticism. So apparently Cancers are romantic introverts except when they’re not. Very handy.
So I’ll write about that. About how luck is simply one possibility that occurs, and we attach more meaning to it than we should. We almost won the lottery once, you know. Picked five of six numbers, and the sixth was – no joke – one off, a 2 when I picked a 3. If I had picked a 2, we’d have won $42 million. Since I picked 3, we won $1300. Was that good luck? Or bad luck? I know which it felt like, which it still feels like. Feels like the universe was screwing with me. Like I’m doomed to come close, but never quite reach the ultimate success.
But at the same time, I feel very lucky. Because there is one way that I feel like I have achieved the greatest of glories: in my marriage. A long series of unlikely events led me to a specific place and time where I met my wife. Who is my perfection. She is my ideal beauty, my ideal partner, my better half, my best friend, my soulmate. She is all those things, and somehow I was lucky enough to find her and capture her attention, because somehow, against all odds, I am all those things to her. (Okay, maybe not ideal beauty: she swoons whenever she sees old pictures of Chris Cornell. And rightly so. But I’m close to ideal, and that’s good enough. Still lucky.) And our paths happened to cross, and we were both single at the time, even though she had just before sworn off of long-term relationships. Lucky. And because despite my star sign, I have not yet developed a fatal cancer. (You want me to knock on wood right now, don’t you? Admit it.) Because I have been able to find my way through life to where I am right now, in this lovely new house, typing on my trusty laptop, while my dearly beloved dog dozes beside me. (Pause for petting.) I don’t think I live in the greatest country in the world, but it is a good country. And I don’t think I live in the best time in history, but it is a good time. I’m a lucky man, living a lucky life. Except for that whole Can’t-get-my-books-published-and-so-my-life’s-dream-remains-unrealized thing. But hey, at least I have this blog, right? And some people read it, and even like it. I’m very lucky.
I can’t escape that feeling, or using that word for it. Because really, luck is just a name for something we notice, but can’t explain. We like to think we can control it, summon the good kind when we need it and banish the bad kind to some dark dimension or shadow realm where it oozes around looking for someone on whom it can inflict suffering – just so long as it isn’t me! – but the truth is, we just notice it sometimes but not others. I notice my luck in discovering my life’s love; maybe I don’t notice my luck in avoiding a serial killer who almost chose me but not quite. Or, more realistically, I don’t notice my luck in being the inheritor of a planet, set in the Goldilocks orbit where liquid water and a stable atmosphere are possible, where the dominant species was wiped out by an asteroid impact that was just large enough to kill them but not large enough to kill my ancestors or to scour the Earth free of life. Still there; still lucky; but we don’t notice.
I only notice how lucky I am that I can listen to my wife’s heart beating.
If I was a religious man, I would call it a blessing; if I was more prosaic I would call it coincidence; I think I may actually prefer the term “luck.” It’s just a word, after all. What matters is the noticing.
The noticing is always what matters.
Then, this morning, even though my love told me I should write, I read instead, because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to end this particular ramble. And then my book – the good and fascinating Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie R. Sorensen (Review forthcoming) – gave me this, as the epigram to one chapter:
“To a brave man, good and bad luck
are like his right and left hand.
He uses both.”
– St. Catherine of Siena
Yes. Luck may be luck or fortune or fate or chance or a forking path or an iteration in the multiverse or a glitch in the Matrix; or it may be nothing at all.
What matters is what we do with it.