Serendipities have been on my mind lately, and actually have been since I moved to Arizona. Things align in ways that seem random and coincidental, but I don’t and never have believed in coincidences.
My graduate classes often have books/authors/themes that overlap with each other that are then also somehow connected to the classes I am assigned to for my work as a TA.
Talks that I attend by visiting scholars or small informal gatherings I attend somehow lead me to information I wouldn’t otherwise have about my current research projects – small moments that interweave in a complex way.
As an example, I read a book for my borderlands history seminar entitled Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth, where she used as her methodology an indigenous one I only recognized because I took an American Indigenous Studies seminar on Indigenous methodologies. Floating Coast was the book I ended up assigned to discuss, even though the book itself deals with the Arctic and I’m an Atlantic historian focused on the Caribbean.
I wanted to lead the discussion for Sharika D. Crawford’s book, The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making, due to my research interests, but a classmate beat me to the signup for that book, so I had to choose another one. Floating Coast was that book. And, of course, since it wasn’t my first choice, I wasn’t thrilled about it – at first.
But I read Floating Coast in a very deep way, seeing in it the Indigenous methodologies I had previously learned about, as well as the complex abstractions of temporal imaginaries and the cyclical exchange and transfer of energy. I found myself glad that I was the one assigned to lead the discussion because I knew none of my classmates had any training in Indigenous methodologies and would most likely not see as deeply beneath the surface of the narrative.
An exceptionally well-received and well-reviewed book, we managed to find it one critical weakness that none of the reviewers had gleaned – the lack of a discussion of the Indigenous politics of the Bering strait in favor of a discussion of the competing temporal ideologies between U.S. capitalism and Soviet socialism – both seeking to create a potential future in the present through the exploitation of limited ecological resources. Both failed to contend with the reality of ecological time, and ecological time prevailed. Ecological time always does.
Of course, that also caused me to think about time and how it is conceptualized through the Norse worldview, a time that weaves the past and present together and does not imagine a future of any sort. What is present now is all we have, and it is here because of the actions taken by those who have come before us – human and non-human.
That, in turn, has led me to the consideration of serendipities present in my life and the working out of wyrd in my life in complex ways that I can never see because my view of wyrd is very narrow and limited. I can take small steps back and see some of those more complex patterns on occasion, but those are rare moments and I still can’t grasp the full pattern my life weaves in the fabric of wyrd.
Take, for example, my decision to attend a small luncheon and talk with a visiting professor, Allyson B. Brantley, the author of Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism. Both the time period and geographic area are technically outside my field of study, but socio-political protest movements are interesting to me. Especially right now, as I’m working on a research paper about 19th-century Spain and how Spiritism, in the space of 50 years (it was born in 1848 in New York) had become a critical political opponent of the Catholic Church in Spain by the 1900s.
Spiritism, known more often as Spiritualism in the United States, may seem like an odd research choice for a Pagan scholar. Except it isn’t, once you realize that many of the concepts about mediumship and spirit possession trace directly back to Spiritism. I actually started out wanting to research Espiritismo because it is, today, considered an Afro-Cuban religion and is prominent in both Cuba and Puerto Rico.
It has been really intriguing, over the course of this project, to see how Spiritualism started in New York, traveled to England and then to France where it became systemized as Spiritism by Allan Kardec. It is Kardecism (Kardec Spiritism) that traveled into Spain and from Spain into the Caribbean. Some scholars have asserted Spiritism played a prominent role in the 1898 Spanish-American War, which is what I wanted to learn more about.
However, due to time constraints and travel restrictions, visiting Caribbean archives was out of the question, so I turned my attention to how Spiritism became such a strong socio-political movement in Spain. I chose that direction because in 1861, Barcelona church and city officials sanctioned the burning of 300 French Spiritist publications in an auto de fé. By 1868, Barcelona was the seat of Spanish Spiritism. Such a drastic turnaround made me curious, of course, and the sources I have consulted thus far suggest that the Catholic Church saw Spiritism and Freemasonry as two its strongest opponents (and often referred to them as satanic).
For those unaware of the history of modern Paganism/western esotericism, the Golden Dawn had strong ties to Freemasonry, and Freemasonry had strong ties to Spiritism, which in turn had strong ties to the occult. What is really interesting in doing this research is that I am also gleaning information about the slow emergence of modern Paganism, even if that’s not currently the main focus of my research.
So, to go back to serendipity, it was at this small luncheon that someone suggested – when they heard what my research was – that I should consider making it public via either a podcast or as a pitch for a talk. Her suggestion made me consider the paper in a new light and think about what value it might have as a conference presentation.
Between the luncheon and the talk, I ran into a fellow graduate student who gave me references that may be useful for later research and reminded me of an upcoming dissertation defense about the folk appropriation of Santa Muerte from Catholicism throughout he southwestern United States, which I’m sure will be fascinating.
So, how does all this relate to wyrd? These are small moments of serendipity, small ripples that connect in ways I cannot fully see. But though my sight is limited, I get the feeling that the connections are present, that there’s an unseen pattern that my presence is weaving in the world. A pattern that I contribute to in meaningful ways when I make decisions that may seem trivial and meaningless on the surface but may be unlocking the potential for a wider variety of patterns for the Norns to use to weave the web of wyrd.
Wyrd is both fixed and mutable, as there are points that can never be changed – a person’s birth and death are fixed points along the weave, but almost everything in-between can be changed. Wyrd conceptually refutes the idea of a dichotomy of free will versus determinism, allowing for the co-existence of both free will and determinism. Some moments cannot be changed, but the amount of fixed points in someone’s life is often directly correlated with how their ancestors lived and the choices their ancestors made. This is because, from the perspective of the Old Norse, we are all our ancestors in a single form- we inherent all their deeds, good and bad. Our opportunities and obstacles are a direct result of the actions taken by our ancestors, who we embody in the present.
Regardless of how many fixed points a person may have in their wyrd, there are always moments of choice. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we can always recognize those moments. Decisions that seem small and insignificant can catalyze a series of events that result in global disasters; conversely, decisions that seem critical can turn out to be insignificant. That is somewhat of a truism within history. Many small things can lead to global phenomena while one big thing may end up, in the scheme of things, not mattering much at all. Historians often chase after an understanding of why things happened at X instead of Y, when Y seemed to be more likely to cause the event that X orchestrated. Life is complicated, people are complex, and wyrd is a mystery that we will never solve.
However, it is good to keep in mind that every decision we make in life has the potential to create a ripple that echoes, regardless of how small it may seem. Sometimes, just replying to an email can catalyze a series of events that, while we may not be directly involved in, only became possible because we chose to reply to it. Small things matter, and they often matter in invisible ways. As a friend once reminded me, we are never truly able to see the impact that we ourselves have on the world around us.
We can never see the impact our words truly have on someone else, can never know what words that someone else will hear us say that they will internalize – in good or bad ways – and we can never know the full impact we make on the world with any decision we make. If we could see further than we can, we would, most likely, be paralyzed with fear. And a life lived in stasis is not a life at all. Such a life is anathema to the Norse cosmos, which takes as its core dichotomy dynamic movement and stagnation.
Being unable to see the potential far-reaching effects of our words and our actions is a blessing in a cosmos ruled by a dichotomy of change and stagnation, a blessing that allows us to live freely but also forces us to contend with the illusion that we make no impact on the world around us. We all impact the world in ways we will never see, catalyze events and moments in the lives of those around us in ways we can never truly understand. This is, I think, both the greatest blessing and the greatest misfortune that we hold.