The picture you see on the left is a postcard I keep inside a cabinet door above my desk. Every time I open the cabinet, I see the card—a reminder of a vacation in 2006 that took an unexpected, but fortuitous, turn and taught me a valuable lesson.
I'll come back to the postcard and the story behind it in a moment. First, I want to share a more recent experience that prompted me to think back to that trip and its unanticipated consequences.
On a drizzly Sunday afternoon a few weekends ago, a group of us gathered at a friend's house to talk about enhancing serendipity in our lives. We were brought together by Maadho'okiid Marsha Reeves, a local holistic nurse and keeper of Anishinaabe lifeways.
Our discussion began with thoughts about what serendipitous experiences have in common: a surprise that shakes up our plans and expectations, but leads to something new that "feels right" (and often, downright delightful).
Because of that element of surprise, I'd always thought of serendipity as a random occurrence. But as the afternoon went on, I came to see that there are ways of promoting "happy accidents," or at least being more open to their possibilities.
One way is through the Gifts of the Seven Grandfathers, Marsha told us. In the Anishinaabe tradition, these teachings—Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth—are tools we can use to live a good life. By actively using these qualities, we can connect to the spirit realm where serendipity comes together. "All we need to do is be willing for Spirit to act through us, and it happens," Marsha said.
Though this was my first introduction to the Gifts of the Seven Grandfathers, I could see how valuable these teachings would be when life goes in unexpected directions.
For me, Humility is a big one to keep in mind. Even though experience has taught me that life doesn't always follow the script I write for it, I persist in believing things will unfold the way I expect them to. When they don't, I'm incensed. How dare anything thwart my plans, my well thought out, logical plans! At such times, it might help to pause and remember that plans are only plans and that reality may have a better idea.
That's where Bravery can come in. It takes courage to let go and trust that the new way will turn out all right, even if it it's not what I had in mind.
Then there's Truth. When I get hung up on over-planning, my mind is too full of its own chatter to hear anything else. It's only when I quiet the commotion that I can hear messages that seem to come from a deeper place and ring with truth. Ceremony and ritual—even something as simple as lighting a candle—can help us settle down and access those deeper truths, Marsha said.
I knew nothing about Anishinaabe teachings when Ray and I set out on that vacation I mentioned earlier, but I think the spirit of serendipity was with us on that trip. Read on and tell me what you think:
There we were, rolling along through Colorado in our small motorhome, bound for the Grand Canyon. The GRAND Canyon! Can you blame us for scurrying a bit as we passed through Denver and on down toward the New Mexico border? Near the border, we passed through the town of Trinidad, but I'm not sure I noticed anything about it.
A few miles beyond Trinidad, we ascended Raton Pass. As we started back down, Ray got a worried look and said, "Uh-oh, hang on," as he steered—no brakes, no power—to the shoulder. The engine had stalled and wouldn't start again. A couple of hours later, a tow truck arrived and hauled the motorhome back to Trinidad for repairs.
But guess what: it was Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and the repair shop was about to close for three days. The motorhome came back to life enough to limp across the highway to a "campground" that looked more like a long-neglected parking lot. So instead of grand vistas, we found ourselves staring at weeds and power lines.
Now we had three days to kill and not a clue what to do with all that time except drive back to Denver in our tow-behind Jeep to pick up a part the repair shop had ordered before closing for the holiday weekend. Did I mention that daytime temperatures were in the broiling range, the Jeep had no air conditioning, and the rest area water fountains were out of order?
We made the Denver trip early Saturday morning. Then, eager for distractions—and cool refuges—on the drive back to Trinidad, we took a side trip to Manitou Springs. There, we wandered the art-filled streets, drank from the mineral spring-fed fountains, encountered colorful characters, snacked on chicken wings and Fat Tire Amber Ale and felt thoroughly refreshed in body and spirit.
The next day, we slept in and lounged around all morning, then drove the Jeep to nearby Trinidad Lake State Park, where we hiked to the top of a hill overlooking Trinidad Lake. Maybe the views weren't grand, but they were pleasant, we were outdoors, we were hiking on a beautiful afternoon and life felt fine.
From the park, we wandered along Highway 12 and came upon the town of Stonewall, where a 250-foot-high wall of sandstone juts out of the earth like the dorsal fin of a gigantic subterranean creature. Later, I read that the spring waters around Stonewall are said to be enchanted. Easy to believe.
Perhaps some of that enchantment led us to our next stop. Just when hunger overtook us, we saw a sign for Monument Lake Resort, followed it and found an adobe-style structure built in 1937 by the WPA and the Izaak Walton League. We ate lunch on the resort's pergola-shaded patio overlooking Monument Lake—another lovely vista.
Legend tells of two Native American chiefs who, searching for water for their people, met at this spot and embraced in peace. A lake formed at their feet, and a volcano erupted, enclosing the two leaders in rock in the center of the lake. Their peaceful spirit still prevails and settled over us as we looked out on the lake.
Back in the campground that evening, we reflected on how much we would have missed if our trip had gone as planned and we'd hurried on to our destination. Before we left Trinidad, I bought the postcard—a view of Fisher Peak, Trinidad's most distinctive feature—as a reminder to let serendipity disrupt my plans more often.
And by the way, the Grand Canyon was still there when we finally arrived. And it was just as grand as ever.
Do you have a serendipity story to share? Have you found ways of enhancing serendipity in your life?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.