Words are inadequate to describe certain experiences that happen outside the law of cause and effect. Although they are universal, they are often so weird that to recount them makes most people uncomfortable, unless they are New Agers, spiritualists, or mind-curers who believe in the great American tradition of the happiness machine and revelations on every bathroom wall, Jesus’s face in cloud formations, or apparitions in every shadow. I am none of those.
But strange, real experiences do happen, however, usually very infrequently in one’s life for those who are accessible but not looking for them. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called them synchronicity, meaning a meaningful coincidence in time without a causal relationship between a psychic state and a physical event, or dreams or thoughts, also without a causal connection, that occur simultaneously across physical distances. Since a recounting of their outward manifestations is bizarre, and their meanings are personal, and since we live in the era of science as the dominant ideology, and a culture of pseudo-science, schlock weirdness, and “miracles,” it is easy to skeptically mock with a condescending grin their reality.
Because American culture has always been replete with charlatans and scammers who have preyed on people’s gullibility and ignorance, such experiences have gotten a bad name. To admit to experiencing such a meaningful coincidence is to open oneself to derision, despite the testimonies of such esteemed authorities as Jung and William James, to name but two.
But I think I’ll take a chance.
I have been living in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts for forty years. It is beautiful country, known for its peaceful rural roads, lakes, streams, and vast tracts of mountain forests rife with wildlife. It is paradise for fishing and hunting, and the woods are filled with gorgeous hiking trails that attract urbanites in search of peace and quiet, those proverbial country escapes.
Ever since we moved here, I have made sure to get outdoors to run or walk in all kinds of weather, preferably alone and when few people were out. To be alone by a lake or stream in sun, rain, or a snowstorm is my idea of paradise. With my family I have hiked many of the mountain trails. And over the years I have seen many animals: bobcats, deer, bald eagles, herons—the list is very long. But my great wish has never been granted: to see a bear and to see it up close. Friends and neighbors find this hard to believe, for anyone who has lived in this area for just a few years has usually seen one. Not me, for forty years.
When I was a boy, the only son with seven sisters, my father told me a story that has always stuck with me. In the early years of the twentieth century, his father, my grandfather, was picnicking with his family and a few other families at Bear Mountain in upstate New York along the Hudson River. As they were reclining on their blankets preparing to eat in a meadow below the mountain, a huge bear came roaring toward them out of the tree line. This was 1905. Seeing the bear approach, everyone except my grandfather got up screaming and ran downslope away from the bear. My grandfather stood his ground, as my grandmother and great-uncle told my father; he stood very tall and straight and started to play the penny whistle his father had brought with him from Ireland. What the tune was I never really knew. My father said my grandmother remembered strains of Amazing Grace but his uncle, Uncle Black Jack, a NYC Police Department blacksmith, remembered a lively jig. Who knows? The bear came running toward him and the blankets spread with food, stopped just short, stood huge on its hind legs, let out a fierce roar, then dropped down, turned, and lopped back up toward the trees where he disappeared into the mountain forest.
My wish has never been to stand down a bear in such a manner. Just to see one up close would be enough. My grandfather had a fierceness that I lack, and anyway, I don’t have a pennywhistle. When I try to whistle with my mouth, little sound emerges, and what does isn’t tuneful, and he was a master whistler as well. But bears have always been eluding me, as if the time was not ripe, or I was not prepared for their arrival.
Then just yesterday, Father’s Day, I was sending an article—“My Father’s Voice”—to my only son and daughter. It begins like this: Although my father, whose namesake I am, died twenty-seven years ago, I just spent a hilarious and profound afternoon with him. For a few hours on a beautiful late spring afternoon, I sat out on the porch and listened to his inimitable voice beguile, instruct, and entertain me. He had me laughing out loud as I read through a large folder of letters he had sent me over the years. We were together again. It was his voice I heard, his voice speaking to me. It could be no other. In the beginning and end are the words. If we are lucky, we hear them.
I heard my wife scream from the kitchen for me to come fast. I ran to it and there, eight feet from the open window, was a bear facing us and almost swinging from the bird feeder and the branch above, its feet akimbo, an almost mischievous look on its face. It watched us as we watched it for 4-5 minutes. Then, afraid that it might break the open window that had another bird feeder stuck to it, I cranked the window in, the bear walked over, stood up, looked at us and the feeder that was too high for it, went down on all fours and started walking away as we rushed out to see it walk across the driveway and the neighbor’s lawn. I feebly whistled after it; it stopped, turned and looked back, then continued on its merry way.
My wish had been granted, shortly after the summer solstice, the first day of summer, my wife’s and my anniversary, and Father’s Day. It immediately felt as if my father had sent me a gift. My wife quickly sent the photos of the bear she had taken to our son and daughter.
The night before, as a Father’s Day gift, my son and girlfriend had taken us out to dinner. As we sat at an outdoor courtyard under the trees of an old inn, I was asked to speak of my father. Unusually for me, I was a bit lost for words, except to say he was a wonderful father, the best I could have hoped for and how close we were. At the back of my mind, I saw a photograph I love of him pushing in a stroller the son who sat to my left when he was very young. It was taken on the street outside the inn where we were dining, right behind my back.
Shortly after the bear had come to visit us, still amazed, we went for a long walk, and when we returned, there was a video on the computer from our son to whom I had earlier sent the article about his grandfather. In January, our son had moved back to town with his girlfriend after ten years living down south. They had bought a house about a mile away near the lake and woods where we had just walked. The same bear had walked through the woods adjacent to our walk, pushed over the fence around their large yard, and was in their yard eyeing their bird feeder. My son couldn’t tell if he was whistling because his dogs were barking too loud.
But I heard my father laughing at the message he had sent.
I recalled how his letters that I had just read and written about were like mini-short stories, akin to a father sitting beside a child’s bed and telling him a goodnight tale. They always ended on an up-note, no matter how serious what preceded. He was a storyteller talking to an adult son, just as in my childhood he would tell me bed-time improvisations on the Pinocchio story, tales of lies and deceptions and bad actors. Those stories had to have an edge to them, a bit of a question mark, just as his letters are peppered with the phrase quien sabe (who knows?).
Those letters came through the mail.
The latest message came by bear. That I know.
Quien sabe? You?
Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He taught sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is edwardcurtin.com.