On Synchronicity and Writing
I was raised by a mother who was fond of advising me, when out shopping, that if a particular something—say a blouse, or once it was a mirror at a flea market—“spoke to me” then I should buy it. Worlds of meaning were enclosed within this simple phrase, worlds that came welling up out of her Argentine girlhood with all the force of a magical incantation. I loved my Latin-born mother for this; it was a side that made my American life just a bit different: more enchanted, more mysterious, more interesting. Her gift of sight passed down to me, allowing me to sometimes sense the interfaces between the world outside and the one inside my psyche.
For if we are to believe—as I do, as my mother and shamans do, as artists, mystics, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, biologists, and many others do—that the world itself is animated and alive, then it makes sense that the things we are drawn to are in turn drawn to us. How else to explain, for instance, that after twenty-two years of living in the same house, and after nearly that same amount of time spent working on two big books that turned on the rather grand theme of America and how its history and psychology shapes us as individuals, I suddenly found myself, after a move, living in the shadow of the George Washington Masonic Memorial Temple?
When on my first night in my new home my son took me outside, and pointed to the illuminated stone tower capped by a pyramid perched atop the hill looming behind me (the Memorial was in fact inspired by the lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World) and that broods over the city of modern-day Alexandria, Virginia like a set piece out of a Cecile B. DeMille movie, it was as if, well, as if George Washington himself had had something to do with my move. Perhaps that’s taking things a bit far. But still, I couldn’t help but think that some larger force operating behind the screen of my everyday life had conspired to bring me to this very spot.
America compared to other countries is not that old—newness and futurity have been our lodestars—but after my move I found myself surrounded by landmarks and historic sites that marked the country’s beginnings. Alexandria was one of the new republic’s earliest cities, and walking the historic King Street neighborhood I daily passed by the church where George and Martha Washington (accompanied by their slaves) rode in from Mt. Vernon to worship; the humble townhouse where they stayed while in town; and the local Gadsby’s Tavern, where Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, James Monroe, and other founders had gathered to drink and hash out the details of founding a democracy. Down by the Alexandria wharf, I could imagine the tall ships with their billowing sails that had once filled the harbor. I could even imagine my own ancestor, Master Commandant John Cassin—reputed to have been a friend of Washington’s since fighting alongside him during the Revolution—docking his ship and joining them all at the tavern for a drink. For that is the other thing about this move: it brings me closer to the ancestors who once lived in this area, and whose existence I only discovered while writing my memoir, American Icarus. It also brings me closer to America, that subject that has also preoccupied me throughout the writing of both books, including America on the Couch.
I’ve been writing for more than three decades now. Because so much of writing is made up of hundreds of thousands of mundane moments searching for the right word, correcting spelling and grammar, painstakingly arranging sentences and paragraphs, and checking facts, when that time finally arrives when what you as a writer have been crazily, intently, bent on finishing suddenly coheres into a pattern and makes sense, it can feel like a kind of annunciation: a sign from the gods of writing that you, the humble wordsmith, are indeed on the right path.
In his book Synchronicity, the psychologist Carl Jung illustrated the dynamics of how this principle works with a case study. While in a session with a young woman he was treating, she began telling him about a dream she’d recently had about a golden scarab. While his patient was recounting this dream, he writes, he sat with his back to the closed window when suddenly he heard a noise behind him, “like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from the outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle . . .which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.” Jung goes on to write that prior to this incident, his patient had clung stubbornly to an attitude of rationality and that “something quite irrational was needed which was beyond my powers to produce.”
It’s been some years since I last read this selection from Jung’s work. But as I was out walking my new neighborhood one evening some days ago, I decided to hike up the hill behind me to the Masonic Memorial Temple—that place that had come to feel like a guardian presence, a place that, as my mother might have said, spoke to me. Standing on the high steps with its commanding views spread out before me, I could see the spire of the Washington Monument and the Capital dome on the far rim of the horizon. I took in King Street with its toy-sized cars and the railroad tracks; in eerie resonance the clackety-clack, hooting sounds of a train passing through instantly summoned the spirits of my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather who’d once long ago labored on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Descending back down the hill to my apartment, Jung’s episode with his patient and his thoughts on synchronicity came back to me as I mulled over the interlocking pieces of my move, the pattern these pieces had assumed, the timing of it all, and, call it what you will, that unseen hand that had seemed to arrange my life circumstances in an elegant symmetry of past and present. That night, as if in a further, mysterious confirmation of all that I’d been thinking, I dreamed that I opened my hand: there, on my palm, was a beautiful emerald and gold Egyptian scarab.