Earlier this week I read over the first draft of my latest novel that I wrote during National Novel Writing Month this past November. I had completely forgotten that I had created a character who was a former priest from Argentina. For random reasons during the slap dash of the first draft I made him a Franciscan, but I named him Ignacio after the founder of the Jesuits.
In case anyone missed it, this struck me in a Twilight Zone kind of way because the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals recently elected a new pope: a Jesuit from Argentina who chose to give himself the name Francis after the founder of the Franciscans.
I know! Weird, huh?
Truth be told, this kind of thing has happened to me before. A few years ago I wrote a novel in which the main character, Samantha, becomes pregnant with twins. One of the embryos implants in the uterus like it’s supposed to, but the other one implants in a Fallopian tube, which causes big problems. We writers like to create big fictional problems, tension, drama and conflict. It’s what we’re taught to do. I didn’t even know if this weird twin problem was medically possible, but when you’re writing a first draft you just go with it. You worry about so-called reality later.
A few months later I went to consult with a co-worker about a student, but when I stepped into her office she was on the phone. I started to back out but she waved me in. She was just hanging up. She told me she’d been talking to her father about her sister who had just had surgery for something called a heterotopic pregnancy. Come to find out what was happening to my friend’s sister was the exact scenario I had created for Samantha just a few weeks earlier. Her sister had to have one of her Fallopian tubes removed—just as Samantha did. The other embryo eventually grew into a healthy baby and she gave birth a few months later—just as fictional Samantha did.
When my friend told me about her sister’s experience, I said, “Oh, that happened to the main character in my novel,” as if I was telling her about a secret sister of my own. I certainly didn’t intend this, but I guess it sounded a little “been there, done that.” My friend looked surprised. “The doctors told my sister they’d all heard of this condition, but it was so rare that none of them ever thought he would see it in his career.”
I was stunned. No, I did not feel that I had caused it, and I did not feel that I had predicted it. However, it did seem somewhat beyond coincidence.
These synchronous twists started, I guess, with a poem I wrote after I visited Ireland with my family in 1985. I love Celtic mythology and I bought several books of fables when I was in Dublin. When I came home I wrote poetry based on a few of the stories. Some of the poems were published in my chapbook Life on the Flood Plain, (Butterfly Tree Publications 1987) others were included in the anthology Unlacing: Ten Irish-American Women Poets, edited by Patricia Monaghan (Fireweed Press, 1987).
One poem imagined Finn MacUail, a hero of Irish legend, as a prophet who has a vision of “the troubles” yet to come. As we writers know, a vivid scene needs colorful, specific details, so I wrote that Finn saw a “bomb explode in an Omagh shop.” I used the town of Omagh because family legend has it that is where my great-grandfather Bernard Moss was born. I didn’t worry about accuracy. I made the foolish assumption that most towns in Northern Ireland had seen their share of bombs.
Well, I was wrong.
It was thirteen years after I wrote the poem, but a car bomb did explode in Omagh’s main market place in August 1998. It made international news because the carnage was so horrific: twenty-nine people where killed, 220 people where injured. The bomb was set by an IRA splinter group that was opposed to the peace process agreements in which both sides had pledged a commitment to non-violence. Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and tourists were all among the victims of the blast. It was the single worst terrorist act in Northern Irish history.
Again—I did not feel responsible, and I did not feel like a prophet. But I felt funny about it. What can I say? I don’t know what any of it means. There have been a lot of these little “coincidences” over the years, but these were the most dramatic.
A few years ago I wanted to write about my poem and the subsequent Omagh incident, but I couldn’t remember exactly when it happened, so I went on-line to do a little research. As I was reading the entry on Wikipedia, I realized that this explosion happened just a few days after I had met (for the second time) a man who would become my lover and companion. We’re not together anymore but our relationship was very important to me. We met the first time when I was with my special education students on a field trip. His interaction with my students—who all had severe disabilities—was so kind that it touched my heart. So I went home that evening and wrote a poem about him. I didn’t expect to ever see him again, but a few months later he came to my door. He wanted to meet the person who had carved the Buddhist chant in the sidewalk outside my house. I recognized him and—once he got over the fact that it was this eclectic Catholic woman who wrote the chant, and not a Buddhist elder-- we fell in love. I always felt that my poem had somehow summoned him.
Easter reminds us that magic is possible. If a man today claimed to have come back to life three days after being declared dead, we probably wouldn’t believe it. We’d assume it was some kind of a scam. It would be easy to explain away Jesus’ resurrection too. Maybe he wasn’t actually dead. After all, they didn’t have all that electronic equipment to monitor brain waves and heart beats two thousand years ago. The soldiers thought he was dead, so they didn’t break his legs. Maybe he actually survived and his followers were able to revive him.
Or maybe he died, but his followers told such a convincing story and they got enough people to believe it and the next thing they knew they had the Catholic Church. Maybe they should have thought a little harder before they went through with that!
Or maybe it happened just the way the Gospels say it happened. Anything is possible. In fact I believe everything is possible. I believe that God manifests him and herself in whatever way each person will understand, as Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Evangelicals, as Pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, and so much more. God may come to you as the sunrise or a blue scrub jay or your pet dog or cat. She is in every human face you will see today. And sometimes, quite often, God likes to remind me that she comes to me in my writing. I’m blessed that way.
Post Script: since this piece was about coincidences, I have to note that I was surprised when I googled the Omagh bombing (again just to get a few facts straight) to find that just last week two men were found responsible for the bombing, in a civil suit brought by families of the victims. No one was ever tried in criminal court for the explosion, but these two men were members of the now-defunct group, the “Real Irish Republican Army,” and the court found overwhelming evidence to connect them with the events of that day. For more info, here’s a link: