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Susan Orlean on the Strange Serendipities That Shape Our Lives

How the roads taken and not taken both lead us to ourselves.

Susan Orlean on the Strange Serendipities That Shape Our Lives

“The exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are,” Adam Phillips wrote in his magnificent meditation on the value of our unlived lives. Every life is a testament to these exemptions, each of us a Venn diagram in which the possible and probable form the slim overlap of our personhood.

I spent the summer before my fourteenth birthday like all academically ambitious Bulgarian kids did — applying to the country’s elite foreign-language high schools, the most popular of which were the English, German, and French gymnasia, and the most competitive and prestigious the American College of Sofia (which was, despite its name, a high school). Each prepared its pupils for higher education in the respective country of the language taught, so that most German high school graduates went to university in Germany, most ACS graduates in America, and so forth.

High school entrance exams in Bulgaria were brutal and kids spent months — sometimes years — preparing, with entire tutoring and testing industries dedicated to the process. All the major language schools had a single general entrance exam — if you got in at all, based on your score relative to the national bell curve, you could enroll into your first, second, or third choice. The only exception was the American College, which had its own special exam, admitting only fifty girls and fifty boys from the whole country.

Having gone to an intensely competitive mathematics middle school, I decided I wanted to go to the German school — in part because it had the strongest curriculum in mathematics, and in part as an act of allegiance to my father, who speaks four languages but is unambiguously a Germanophile.

My middle-school best friend, Yoanna, had her heart set on ACS, with the German school as her second choice — so she had to take both exams and persuaded me to accompany her to ACS one for moral support. She had spent a year and a half preparing for it and I, none — all my preparation had gone into the general exam, which had taken place earlier that month.

I walked out of the ACS exam — a standardized test and an essay — certain that I had flunked it, but unconcerned since I never cared to get in.

A couple of weeks later, the results from the general exam came in — I had placed in the top 1%, as had Yoanna, which meant that I could enroll into the German school as I had hoped and she had her second choice secured.

Later that week, with the results from the ACS exam yet to come, Yoanna and I left for summer camp with our middle school class — a festive two-week farewell at the Black Sea coast, on the other side of the country. But the most thrilling part was that the boy on whom I had the maddest teenage crush all year was also coming — a point of excitement about which I had enthused at length during the many hours Yoanna and I spent on the phone in the weeks leading up to camp.

After an eight-hour train journey, we arrived at the coast, high on vacation elation, post-exam relief, and teenage hormones. This was an era before cell phones, so every afternoon Yoanna and I made a trip to a nearby payphone to call our mothers and check in on the ACS admission results. And every afternoon we were told that the results were not yet in. One day, I couldn’t find Yoanna, so I went to the payphone alone. My mother was out, but her secretary answered and enthusiastically informed me that I had gotten into ACS, placing third out of the entire national applicant pool. Certain that I had done woefully on the exam, I instantly concluded she had misunderstood. Making nothing of it, I decided to return later and speak with my mother directly.

When I got back to the room Yoanna and I shared with eight other girls, I found her sprawled on her cot, sobbing — the kind of violent teenage tears for which there is neither consolation nor comfort. I knew instantly that she had spoken to her mother and found out that she hadn’t gotten in. I spent the rest of the evening trying to console her and we eventually made a pact to go to the German school together — it was her second choice, but the silver lining of continuing our friendship through high school seemed a decent comfort. When I finally reached my mother later, she confirmed what her secretary had said and urged me to consider enrolling — it was, after all, the best school in the country. But I was adamant — I was going to the German school with Yoanna.

The following day, on my way back to the room from our final dinner at camp before our evening departure, I spotted Yoanna behind the camp building, making out with my crush under a street lamp. My heart plummeted to my heels. I said nothing and just stood there in disbelief. Eventually, I went back to the room, packed the two giant suitcases I had stuffed with two weeks’ worth of teenage-girl vanities, and made my way to the train station in silence.

I have no recollection of where Yoanna was during the eight-hour overnight train ride, whether or not we talked, and what was said. All I remember is leaping off the train as soon as it pulled into station in the morning and running toward my mother, dragging the two enormous suitcases with a kind of Herculean fury, yelling: “To the car, to the car! We have twenty minutes!”

My mother was thoroughly confused, but indulged me, grabbing one of the suitcases and rushing to the car as I explained that the enrollment deadline for ACS closed at 9am that morning. It was 8:40am and we had to make it to the other side of town. I said nothing about the Yoanna incident, and my mother didn’t ask why I had changed my mind — she must have simply been relieved that I had decided to attend the school she considered the best choice.

An excellent driver, she navigated rush hour traffic with admirable deftness and questionable legality. We pulled into the ACS parking lot at 8:56am and I sprinted to the guard’s booth to get a sign-in time stamp before the cutoff. I must have looked deranged — disheveled from a redeye train trip, ablaze with a teenager’s rage and a manic determination. But I made the deadline — and so the rest of my life was set into motion.

Had Yoanna not made out with the boy, had the train been delayed by four minutes, had my mother gotten pulled over for running a red light, had any of the innumerable elements in this Rube Goldberg machine of chance-choices been different, I would be living in a different part of the world, reading and writing and thinking in a different language, dreaming different dreams, loving different people. There would be no Brain Pickings.

That strange Rube Goldberg machine is what the inimitable Susan Orlean explores in her beautiful contribution to Airmail: Women of Letters (public library) — an international compendium of pieces from the Australia’s wonderful literary salon Women of Letters, co-curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire.

Susan Orlean (Photograph: Kelly Davidson)
Susan Orlean (Photograph: Kelly Davidson)

Orlean recounts inheriting her grandmother’s Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition — a bulky, outdated volume she was about to discard. But in leafing through it one last time, she came upon a small yet significant astonishment somewhere between Luna Cornea and lustless — a pressed four-leaf clover:

All of its leaves were facing upward, and its long stem was curved into a lazy ‘J’. The clover was still green, or at least greenish, and the leaves were dry and perfectly flat, but hardy and well-attached to the stem. A little stain of clover juice was printed onto the pages it had been pressed between.

The clover became a sort of speculative second-person time machine for Orlean as she came to wonder about the particulars of her grandmother’s life — where she was when she found it, who she was with, why she put it between these two specific pages, whether she looked at it frequently or forgot about it entirely. And out of those questions sprang a newfound intimacy across space and time:

It was the first time I had such a distinct sense of my grandmother. I could imagine her as I’d never actually known her, a sense of her as a young woman with the time and patience to sort through blades of grass, looking for four leaves on a clover, believing in the luck one might bring her. And I believed I was lucky, too, having been so close to losing it, to discarding it, to never knowing what I had in my hands.

But the clover also awakened another, larger intimacy — not with the happenings of a particular life but with the happenstances of which every life is woven. Orlean writes:

That moment, with my inherited dictionary, was the first time I really took stock of the strange serendipity that life is, the near misses and the surprise encounters and the accidents that make up who we are and what we know. My life wasn’t changed dramatically by finding that clover. I didn’t find, say, a lottery ticket, or a priceless diamond she had tucked away for a rainy day. What I found was something both awe-inspiring and slightly disconcerting — the idea that life is a bit of a wild animal that will not be tamed or managed. Or maybe life isn’t really like a wild animal. Maybe it’s a maze, full of turns taken and not taken, and you will never know what would have happened if you chose one rather than the other way to go. You only have what you did choose.

For the first time, I took the measure of luck when I found that clover, because it was such a small incident that could have so easily not happened, and honestly, I was shaken up realizing that the way my life turned out was just a series of tiny, incremental bits of chance and choice. That night, I lay in bed unwinding everything I really am happy about, and saw how many accidents had played into them. What if I hadn’t answered the phone that morning ten years ago and hadn’t ever had that conversation in which a friend told me that she wanted to fix me up with someone, and then I might have never met my husband? What if I hadn’t forgotten to register for the law boards and ended up taking them and going to law school and being a lawyer rather than a writer? What if I hadn’t found that discarded newspaper and hadn’t read the article about an orchid thief and hadn’t decided to write about it? What if I ran that red light? What if the boyfriend who perhaps gave my grandmother that clover had won her over, and she’d married him instead of the man she did marry, and everything, everything, would be different, because my mother wouldn’t have been the girl she was, and I wouldn’t be who I am?


This is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night.

And then I realize that luck, and fate, happen how they’re going to happen, and that the missed connection and the accidental encounter align in some sort of cosmic balance, and things are what they are. That helps me fall asleep.

Airmail is a terrific read in its entirety, featuring contributions by Tavi Gevinson, Lev Grossman, and Moby. For more of Orlean’s genius, see her advice on writing.

Published December 4, 2015




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