On Collaborating With Chance
Anyone who has heard me speak or been in one of my recent classes knows that I have a new literary crush, the amazing writer Rebecca Solnit. I have been reading Solnit’s work slowly, savoring her sentences, the nimbleness and depth of her mind, the generosity of her spirit, her disciplined eloquence. This particular morning, I am staying in a friend’s New York City apartment, lying in an enormous bed from which, through a picture window, I can see all of Central Park spread out thirty floors beneath me. Fifth Avenue and Central Park West line either side of this vast, improbable expanse of green, buildings small as Lego’s. I skipped yoga class this morning and instead, in this gloriously empty apartment, communed with Solnit. Here is a passage that inspired me — as she does, often — to dig deep into my own consciousness:
“Edgar Allen Poe declared, ‘All experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.’ Poe is consciously juxtaposing the word ‘calculate,’ which implies a cold counting up of the facts or measurements, with ‘the unforeseen,’ that which cannot be measured or counted, only anticipated. How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate upon the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”
This passage stunned me, absolutely took my breath away. It speaks so succinctly to everything I have come to understand about how to live — how to attempt to navigate the great tapestry of this human condition, this glorious, catastrophic existence. How to ride the wave with an open heart and an open mind, holding the awareness that it is the wave carrying us, not the other way around. We are at the mercy of its whims. But when we know this, we relax. Our fists unclench. Our lungs expand. When we release to this idea — when we collaborate with chance — we are more likely to stay upright, to maintain our balance, come what may.
My life has lately been taking me in directions I never could have imagined, and this has happened by my releasing myself, in Solnit’s words, to the essential mysteries of the world. None of this has been according to plan, or by design. I have traveled an enormous amount in these last years, speaking about Still Writing and Devotion, teaching at retreats around the world. I spent an hour being interviewed by Oprah. I gave a lecture in New York last month in front of thousands — something I could never have imagined just a few years ago, when I was crippled by stage fright. Over the past three years, I have watched as my husband took a massive risk — an all-or-nothing roll of the dice — by putting his career as a Hollywood screenwriter on ice in order to make an independent film. Something deep in my gut told me that he was doing exactly the right thing, just what he needed to do, even though it was scary. Even though there were many nights I laid awake at three o’clock in the morning, staring at the ceiling, imaging myself as a bag lady. That movie — three years in the making — is opening this weekend in New York City. Our collaboration with chance.
I am well aware that this collaboration with chance is, at this precise moment, one of good fortune. That there will be those who think, well that’s easy for her to say. But I also know that this collaboration with chance has brought with it, over the course of my life, grief and fear and pain. And, without a doubt, it will again. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that risk actually means risk. Real risk. Not pseudo-risk with a safety net. This is — all of it — a high wire act. There are many moments, daily, hourly, where the willingness to fail, to fall, is the only way to move forward. But move forward, we must. From the window, I see tens of thousands of abodes. Cyclists and runners in the park. Glorious, teeming humanity. Bravely, skillfully, with grace and fortitude, calculating on the unforeseen.