From Coincidence to Serendipity

I first posted this story over a year ago, just after I started this blog. It begs the question of whether there is coincidence or serendipity in the little treasures we find as we “scavenge” our lives while writing about them.  It’s also connected with a motif of trash, scrap, salvage, and scavenge in my book Scrap: Salvaging a Family (thanks to Renee for helping me with the subtitle).

Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste.  They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.

Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.

At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.

“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?”  I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.

“In an airplane.  You’ll see.  You can come with me when I take him.”

The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket.  His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour.  He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side.  He kissed the top of my head.   I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes.  Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.

She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane.  As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.

The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly.  As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.

I’ve never been able to leave this image behind.  The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.

I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.

It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently.  I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.” 

Why was this memory so important?

Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.

Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother.  The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss.  Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life.  After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.

Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss.  I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.

Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment.  But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.

When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy.  I had him back.  That part I don’t remember.

When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day.  When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine.  When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self.  That stanza felt ready-made for me.

But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading.  My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water.  I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.”  These are the final lines:

Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know

you were entered by incomprehensible light

in the hour of lemon & water


& the great wound of the world has slipped a code

into your shoe


A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground


It is the wing

It doesn’t abandon you

What serendipity.  The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me.  The plane I wanted to follow behind.


Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?


Filed under Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

27 responses to “From Coincidence to Serendipity

  1. Love the new layers time has given you for the repost! Renee

  2. A beautiful post! This makes me feel like writing again.

    • Luanne

      Oooh, I love your comment! Yes! Go get your pen/pencil/keyboard/iBrain!! Personally, I can’t wait for the iBrain. What a lot of work that will save my fingers haha.

  3. This is a lovely reminder of what the world looks and feels like through the eyes of a child. Yes I do experience serendipity all the time…to me, that is the magic of reading and writing (“how did that person put in words exactly how I feel?”…as you did with this post.)

    • Luanne

      Do you?! I love that you experience serendipity all the time. I also have that happen a lot, and it’s such a marvelous feeling. I think it’s how metaphor gets created most organically, too. Thank you for your very lovely comment!

  4. jeannieunbottled

    I love the connections. They hit the emotions like a clapper hits a bell.

  5. I remember watching my father pack his suitcase in preparation for business trips, it always made me sad. Lovely post, Luanne!

  6. You’ve got a shoe thing going on! I love the description of your dad’s wingtips. My dad traveled a lot, too, but I never went to see him off. I would like to say there are coincidences, but if they occur, it’s because something has been brewing in my subconscious and gets triggered by something else.

    • Luanne

      Haha, I do! Do as rhymes with shoe and all that. Ahem. Interesting about the subconscious brewing you have going on. Yes, that has happened a lot to me, too. But I also find a lot of serendipity where there is little brewing(I only have so much room to brew, so to speak).

  7. I had to chuckle over the shoe. You’ve woven this story together very well, Luanne. I imagine you’re doing the same with your patchwork quilt.

  8. And I meant to comment on the sawdust burner. When I was young and lived in Dawson Creek, they had one of those in the lumber yard. One day the whole yard caught fire. BIG fire. I wonder if it started with this sawdust burner. I rather think it did. (Long time ago).

    • Luanne

      Oh my, that would be very frightening! I would think the whole thing was a hazard, especially air quality! Thanks so much for comments, Anneli!

  9. I am an avid dreamer, as well as reader, and I guess you could say writer too. I will often dream of one of the main characters from the book I’m reading and then come upon someone in life that reminds me of them, and then find myself writing as if I knew the character. As if maybe he wasn’t just a figment of my imagination. Coincidence? Hmm maybe


  10. This was a hauntingly detailed memory. So glad that you found out what the ‘shoes’ were. Your father sounded very dignified and well dressed. This must be a special memory, even with its scary parts in it. I am amazed at your memory of the embroidery and the holes in the pattern of the shoes, too. I am sure that when you wailed, your mother comforted you. This is an interesting analysis of a memory. Thanks for all the interesting dialogue we have had this year! I am glad we are connected and look forward to more in the future. Merry Christmas and the happiest of holiday seasons, too.

    • Luanne

      Robin, I was writing a different memory this week and I realized that the memory of the plane was behind it because both were about feeling abandoned by my father. That plane event must have really “traumatized” me because I think feared being abandoned by him, although he was definitely the opposite personality haha.
      You, too, dear!

  11. Very, very fine piece. It rings absolutely true. And it means a great deal to me as an adoptive parent. Our daughter came to us when she was two days old; we held her in our arms when she was one hour old; we helped give her her very first bath on the night that she was born. Yet I have realized lately that she has a sense of loss. (Ours is an open adoption; we keep in contact with the birth mother.)

    I’m rambling on. Enough about me. Let me reiterate: great piece. Thanks for writing it.

    • Luanne

      Although my kids are now adults, it’s taken a long time to realize that even though they were adopted as babies they experienced a profound loss. What I didn’t realize was that I had felt that way as a little kid and for no good reason as they do. Thanks, SOS. I value your comments.

  12. Love this post, Luanne. My father went away briefly and rarely, it was always traumatic for me. Have you read this book? I can’t decide if it is a must for the memoirist, or if one should stay away from it, but once you read it you can’t unread it.

    Amazon reminded me that I read this in 2003 and I still think about it a lot. It explains the holes in your dad’s wingtips, but you have to ask yourself if you want that (result). Thanks for this fine, thought-provoking piece.

    • Luanne

      Jaye, I love your comments. So glad you enjoyed this piece. I checked out this book and I think I’ve heard of it. I”m actually going to get it and hold on to it until after I get my book done. I won’t read it before, but I might before one of the final revisions . . . Thanks so much!

  13. Loved this post, Luanne. Amazed at your memory at that age. My mom and aunt have long memories also. The details and layering with poetry and memories and a bit of analytic thinking added in! Just great!

  14. Lovely post. And yes, coincidence and serendipity are real–I think they increase in frequency when we create art, and dip our toes into what Jung called the collective unconscious.

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