Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Coincidence, Precognition, Rock Stars

I’m writing this in a cafe where I am the sole customer. A forkful of herbed chicken salad with greens, a bite of crusty peasant bread, a series of keystrokes, a sip of iced tea, repeat. Words and phrases emerge from the blank white screen. Out the window is a forest shrouded in mist under a low gray sky. The old Lovin’ Spoonful tune, “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” plays softly in the background, taking me back to high school days in Colorado, when I had all their albums, when John Sebastian was a hero of mine. Is it a coincidence that much later and thousands of miles away, I am growing old in the town where he lives? That I had a nice chat with him at a mutual friend’s home?

This is not about John Sebastian. Maybe it’s about coincidence… I’ll find out as I follow the lead of my fingertips.

Recently I’ve been thinking about coincidence (a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection), wondering about how it overlaps with precognition (knowledge of something in advance of its occurrence) and intuition (the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning). I’ve wanted to boost my ability to recognize coincidences in my life. I’ve been thinking about writing on the subject, but no door was opening.

Until right now. Maybe this is a form of serendipity (a happy accident): I was wanting a way into the coincidence topic, and then while I’m having lunch this old song plays….

I’ve recently connected with Dr. Bernard Beitman. He is a psychiatrist and the author of Meaningful Coincidences: How and Why Synchronicity and Serendipity Happen. He has initiated The Coincidence Project to gather people’s stories of meaningful coincidences in their lives, to encourage awareness and discussion, and to bring the study of coincidences and their meaning into the field of science. Synchronicity, serendipity, seriality, simulpathity, the psychosphere, the collective human organism (CHO)… Learn more at Coincider.com and on YouTube.

Now the cafe soundtrack is “Small Town Talk,” written by Bobby Charles and Rick Danko, first recorded here in the town of Woodstock, NY – but what I’m hearing now is the great Paul Butterfield’s Better Days version, also recorded in Woodstock. This is the version I loved since I first heard it when I was 21, living in Utah – when I hadn’t the faintest clue that the album cover image was taken in the Catskill Mountains just a few miles from where I would spend my senior years. I live on the same road where Butterfield once lived. It All Comes Back, indeed. *

What does it mean that the literary podcast I now co-host is recorded in a home studio not a hundred yards from where Bob Dylan lived at the time of the mysterious motorcycle accident (1966) that allowed him to retreat from the cacophony of fame after his electric revolution, and do the woodshedding with The Band that would result in yet more world-changing music that I listened to avidly as a young man… what does it all mean? Is this some sort of cosmic synchronicity?

Well, let’s think clearly about this. These were famous people loved by millions all over the world. I’m just one of those millions. And Woodstock is a very small town. If you live here for a few years, odds are extremely high that you’ll come into direct contact with the artifacts of its world-famous musical history. The few incidents I’ve related barely scratch the surface of my experience.

Also, Woodstock is a destination town, a lovely, artsy little place just two hours from what John Lennon called the capital of the world, New York City. Many people visit; some stay. Its association with the widely known 1969 concert that bears its name is, of course, one reason. My wife-to-be had moved here from “the city” in the early 90s and I soon followed her. So… if synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) is defined by numerical odds, then the fact that I ended up here surrounded by reminders of my heroes of the distant past is probably not synchronicity, not even coincidence at all.

Nevertheless, it feels meaningful. To me, just a nobody from an anonymous suburb out west, it feels highly unlikely. After all, to live in Woodstock was never a goal of mine, and none of my high school or college friends ended up here. If synchronicity can be defined by the feeling of meaningfulness, then maybe it qualifies.

Does precognition create coincidence? Can tastes be shaped by precognition? How does precognition figure into my youthful attraction to Sebastian, Butterfield, Dylan, others who are specifically associated with the town of Woodstock? Did the fact that I would feel the pleasure of living in their neighborhood as an older man guide me to their music as a younger man? Why was it these particular artists whose music I loved? I was the only person among my high school friends who was a serious Lovin’ Spoonful fan. And my choices as a limited-budget record buyer did not go in directions that many people my age followed – toward, for instance, Led Zeppelin, who have no connection to Woodstock. I was certainly a Jimi Hendrix fan… but Hendrix lived for a time in a house just two miles as the crow flies from where I live now. He practiced for the Woodstock concert at Tinker Street Cinema, the little movie house near the center of town.

Did I precognize my future? Is it a case of “retrocausation”? I’m sure Eric Wargo would have some ideas about that. Wargo has been a recent guest on Dr. Beitman’s podcast but I have followed his blog, The Nightshirt, for years, and my fiction writing has been influenced by his ideas. His latest book, Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self, is a tool I’m currently using to explore my dreams and how they interact with my waking reality.

Quantum physics has shown that, at the most fundamental levels of reality, no distinction can be made between cause and effect. The relation between two events can be either causal or retrocausal. I imagine time not as a line but as a surface – let’s say the surface of a pool. An event in my consciousness, perhaps given power by emotion, is like a pebble dropped into the pool. 
Ripples flow outward in every direction in time. As a 15-year-old, I felt a connection to John Sebastion because fifty years later I would meet him. But wait… doesn’t the power in that moment come only from my pleasure in encountering my boyhood hero? What if as an old man I hadn’t met him – would my young self have paid no attention to his music? What is cause and what is effect? It’s an endless loop, an Escher image of the mind, like the cover of Eric Wargo’s first book, Time Loops.

The time loop trope is common in fiction, but I don’t use it. My novel Ponckhockie Union and my story collection The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, as well as another novel and another story collection in progress, use coincidence, synchronicity, and other riddles as the atmosphere in which recognizable characters like you, me, and our neighbors face life’s multiplicity of challenges. My premise is that the world is not as it seems – it’s much more wonderfully mysterious. The unanswerable questions are my inspiration.
But… skepticism is also very high on my list of values. I do my best to live by the motto: Believe nothing; question everything. I am always self-monitoring for cognitive bias, confirmation bias, or any unfounded assumptions. I am a self-diagnosed “epistemological obsessive,” always demanding of myself and others, “How do you know?” So with all this talk of invisible interdependence, I have to ask: How much am I a victim of apophenia? Apophenia – a common condition that in its extreme form is a precursor to schizophrenia – is the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. The conundrum here is: who decides what is “unrelated” and exactly how do they decide? While I don’t want to be apophenic, I also do not automatically accept someone’s authority about whether I am or not.

Speaking of untrustworthy authority, which is increasingly evident as the world falls to pieces around us – is there a valid reason for rambling about coincidence and fiction? One writer friend of mine can’t write because of his anxiety about the problems in the news. Another only wants to write about the problems, in protest. My own preference (or is it intuition about what is healthiest for me?) is to follow my perennial interests no matter the current events, but I harbor an old secret fear of being a dysfunctional daydreamer – most likely, a vestige of parental voices in my head. Right now I am consciously putting that fear aside – my own small gesture of sovereignty.

I appreciate Wargo, Beitman, and others such as Dean Radin (see his book The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena) in their efforts to give solid scientific study to “psi” or parapsychology. After all, who knows what truths about the universe we may be missing when ultimate authority is given to reductionist, materialist Scientism?

So I continue with my quest to enhance my awareness of coincidences in my life, and to interrogate their meaning. Old songs, rock stars in Woodstock, my meandering path to this place and time… I’m glad intuition led me to follow that unexpected trail of thought as I ate lunch. What does it mean? After some pondering, I can say this: coincidence, synchronicity, precognition, intangible vectors of influence – the vast, intricate web of interconnectedness that sparkles just outside our normal sight – this is what inspires me to create. And creation is what keeps me sane and somewhere on the edge of happy and content in this Insanity Stew of a culture. Without a doubt, my fiction will continue to explore those mysteries.

“Artmaking is making the invisible visible.” ---Marcel Duchamp

* For more information about the musical history of Woodstock, see the book Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns.