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We strode into the service with one short rehearsal behind us. The congregation watched with a bit of skepticism as five people fumbled with microphones and chairs at the front of the sanctuary. We sat in our ragged semi-circle, and the narrator began to read. We all read and a story took center stage. Some of us mugged and mimed, and some simply read with feeling, The children moved to the front of the room or stood on their parent’s laps to see this minor gaggle of readers as they told the story of La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch.
Reader’s Theatre is a very low-tech, low budget technology for story-telling. It requires a nicely developed script, a few props, willing readers, and an investment in rehearsal time. It’s that simple, almost too simple to work. But, it does work. We all love to hear a story. Our very brains are designed to follow a plot, to anticipate twists and turns, to dash ahead to our own imagined ending and back again to hear what is really happening.
After the service, one member commented that his son had a book about the holidays, and in a pictorial representation he’d noticed a witch on a broom. He said he’s always imagined the Italians had some special Halloween celebration, and now he’d connected that picture with the legend of Befana, the woman who refused to follow a shepherd to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus.
We are all driven to made connections, even between a child’s picture book and a story told at church. We can’t help but gather all the bits of information at our disposal and make something out of them. That is how stories of every kind came to be in the first place. A good story satisfies something deep within. In the story of La Befana, the message of hope the story conveyed was a bonus, a pleasant connection with our first foray in the simple world of Reader’s Theatre.
The universe wants to be heard on the topic of synchronicity. Last week I complained that ‘miracles’ were few and far between in my life, even the narrowly defined miracles of Littlewood’s Law.
I was leaving the hospital when I almost stumbled on the machine that exchanges dollar bills for the special coins that guarantee an exit from the parking garage. While it is hard to miss the big signs that herald a $1 parking fee at the entrance of the garage, I often drive around with nothing more than a credit card in my pocket. Confronting a machine that dispensed tokens, and having not one, but two, $1 bills in my possession I decided to purchase two tokens.
I approached the automated booth behind a small red truck. A few moments passed and truck didn’t move on. I watched then as the driver tried to insert a $1 bill into the machine, time and time again, with no success. He carefully smoothed the bill out and re-entered it. The machine spewed the bill back at him every time like a belligerent child sticking out a thin, green tongue. The line of cars behind us grew. Remembering that I had a token to spare, I walked to the head of the line and asked the gentlemen if I could try a token in the defiant machine. Even while he asked if I really had a token to spare, I dropped it in the proper slot, and the gate responded. He stuffed the useless $1 bill in my hand with thanks, and drove off, unblocking our mini-traffic-jam.
The first time I ever bought tokens, I bought two, and both were needed that very day. But, I’d already had one miracle this month, so now I’ve exceeded the limit of ‘one in a million’ exceptional experiences of note. Yet, we live in a random universe. Random events, even Littlewood’s miracles, can cluster in twos or threes, spread themselves out evenly in thirty day cycles, or go into hiding for years. The folks at MacIntosh learned that most people don’t appreciate the truth about random events when they programmed the first iPods. So many people complained about the same song showing up two times in a row that the inventors had to reinvent ‘random’ to prevent a truly random repetition.
We may not like it, but, all signs point to a random universe that disregards our need for an orderly progression of events, and likely doesn’t care about the meanings we attach to simple events. But, that makes us the meaning-makers, doesn’t it? It gives us the power to define ourselves and our lives even in the random intersection of tokens and bills, to make a memorable moment in an otherwise ordinary exchange with machines.
Some people find miracles around every corner. A good few of that number attribute the miraculous events to divine intervention in otherwise pedestrian lives. People name miracles when they escape unscathed from disasters great and small. Miracles are attested when the slow process of recovery yields to unexpected healing. Miracles are prayed for, expected, and lamented when they don’t arrive.
Littlewood’s Law of Miracles suggests that each of us should expect to experience a ‘miracle’ about once a month. A mathematics professor, Littlewood posited one experience per second and a common sense definition of miracles as noteworthy, ‘one in a million’ occurences to calculate that it would only take 35 days to accumulate more than a million experiences – and therefore, at least one miracle. The good professor wasn’t implicating the divine in these miracles, just an amazingly large number of events.
I have not set my personal expectations on divine miracles, but, even using Littlewood’s Law as a guide my life seems a bit short on miracles lately. When I cull back over the last 35 days I can’t recall any experiences that would meet the common sense definition of a miracle. I do recall thinking that I needed to jump up and dash away to retrieve my cell phone during a meeting in progress – and nearly the moment I sat down again the phone rang. I remember, too, searching for an important bit of bureaucratic paper, only to find it two days after I paid for its replacement. Both notable moments, neither one high on my list of miracles.
Perhaps what Professor Littlewood calls miracles, I find to be the effects of synchronicity – two events that have no causal relation but come together in a meaningful way. This week a professor returned unexpectedly from a long sojourn in Beirut and Lebanon to hear a sermon pondering the Eid al Adha festival he just left behind. There was no miracle in the juxtaposition of those two events, but, I choose to ascribe a bit of meaning to them. I think of it as an unplanned, warm, welcome for a highly-regarded friend. It was the welcome he should have received anyway brought to life by a pocketful of synchronicity.
In 1978 I was living and working in Massachusetts. One lunch time, a co-worker and I left the church in a gathering storm. But, snow in New England is like sunshine in Florida, it’s easy to take it for granted. When we got back to the office, my co-workers husband called and queried, “What are you still doing there? Don’t you know this is a big Nor’easter?”
A quick glance out the window confirmed that a foot of snow had already accumulated. I lived thirty miles from the church, and sighed as I thought it might take twice the normal commuting time to get home. Tracing several possible routes in my mind, I decided that there was no access to the highway that wouldn’t involve at least one steep hill. The route I chose was almost deserted, and covered in slushy, white snow. Climbing up the short side of the hill, I breathed a sign of relief for the snow tires that gave me sufficient traction to make it to the wee summit. On the long downside my car quickly began sliding out of control. Soon, I discovered the only way down the hill was to turn gently toward the curb, hit it softly, come to a brief stop, and then resume rolling and sliding down the hill only to hit the curb, stop, and slide again. Soon I joined a long line of traffic moving ever so slowly toward the highway. Snow drifts were taking over the interstate. A thirty minute drive took three terrifying hours, and an unnamed snowstorm became known as The Blizzard of ’78.
There’s a lesson here, possibly more than one. First, that day reminds me of the role chance plays in all our lives. It was chance that the route I chose was passable just at the moment I traveled on it. By chance I made it all the way home, unlike thousands of motorists who were stranded in snow-covered cars that night.
There’s another lesson, too, about being ‘out of control.’ Had I been determined to stay in control of how the car made it down the hill by holding to the middle of the road and giving it more gas, I would have come to some bad end. I had to give up my need to be in control in order to make it to my destination. Just so, when I realize I am not in control of the people and the events around me — even though I firmly believe I ought to be in control — then I can begin to make a useful contribution.