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Synchronicity or Not

Seeing Meaning in Coincidence

Kat James had never gone to college, so she felt very lucky that the long boom years carried her up into the ranks of successful professionals. She worked for a public relations agency in London. The hours were long and demanding, and she’d often wonder, “What am I after? What do I want?” Her rote answer: someday, one of her clients would offer her a big salary and a Vice Presidency. She wanted to move up – or assumed she did. Didn’t everyone? 

            The hope of getting a job like this sustained her through the many leadership changes at her agency. It was for this that she endured the two-hour commute each morning and evening, from her home in Brighton to her office in London.

            A year and a half ago, at a time when many people in high-tech felt lucky to have any job at all, Kat was offered a job running the P.R. department at one of the hottest telecoms in the UK. To convince her, they offered to double her salary. Double it!

            At first she said yes, instinctively.

            But the offer to double her salary had an unintended effect. It made it crystal clear that if she were to take this job, she would be doing it for the money. Not because it would be fun and interesting. For the money, plain and simple.

            Over the next three weeks, she stalled. She told the telecom she was reconsidering.

            She thought, if I accept this, where will it end?

            This was not what she wanted the rest of her life.

            Her heart held her back.

            The thing was, Kat never really cared about money. She didn’t spend much and had little desire to acquire possessions. The idea that she needed more money to be free wasn’t her idea, it was an ethos of the industry she worked in. She’d listened to it rather than to herself.

            She told the telecom no thanks and instead bought tickets to go out to California. San Francisco was like Brighton, right on the ocean, without the two-hour commute to London. She wished she worked closer to the sea and nature. She didn’t know what she would do when she arrived, but she’d let that work itself out.

            She made her plan, but as her travel date approached, she got a very sick feeling in her gut. So strong was this feeling of anxiety that she had to cancel her plans.

            What was going on? What would she do?

            She had one thought. She barely let herself consider it. Ever since she was six years old, Kat had said that if money were no object, and if status didn’t matter, and if there were nothing in the way … she would be a landscape gardener.

            Why not go do the thing she’d always wanted to do?

            This was a laughable notion. She was not a horticultural hobbyist. She didn’t even have a garden at her home! And she did not come from a family that encouraged such leaps of fancy. Her family worked in offices, not in gardens. Her mother had been employed by the same firm for 32 years. Her grandfather had worked for a single firm for 50 years.

            A few days later, she went to a music festival, and between bands she had a Tarot card reading performed, somewhat as a joke. Kat didn’t believe in that stuff. Up turned goddess cards and earth cards. The Tarot reader looked at these cards and pronounced, “You would be really good at tending people’s gardens.”

            Wow! Was it that obvious, that a complete stranger could see this in her?

            The next day, she recounted the amazing coincidence to a neighbor.

            “Are you thinking about doing it?,” the neighbor asked.

            “I’m thinking,” Kat said.

            The neighbor said she had just thrown into the trash a catalog for courses at Brighton City College. “I’ll go get it,” she offered.

            Kat took the catalog into her house. The College offered an extensive horticulture program that awarded two-year vocational certification. The first class began the next week, and the enrollment session for the class was that very afternoon.

            Guided by another in the string of coincidences, Kat went down to enroll immediately. She felt light and happy and excited about what she was doing.

            Classes were from nine a.m. to five p.m., three days a week. A third of each day was spent in the classroom, two thirds outdoors. She loved it. There were two other former professional women in the program, so Kat didn’t feel like an outsider. She rented two of the three bedrooms in her house to cover her mortgage. But what of her expenses? There was a big 100-year-old nursery in Brighton that would be ideal to work for because it was only a ten minute walk from home. She called to ask for employment. She was told they had no jobs available until Christmas season, but they suggested she stop by in person sometime. She walked over right away, and they hired her on the spot to start immediately.

            More synchronicity. If she hadn’t been offered that job … if she hadn’t gone to the music festival … if she had waited one more day to chat with her neighbor …if she hadn’t walked over to the nursery … it felt like the universe had conspired to make this new path in life easy for her, offering a vote of confidence from some mysterious force to counteract her inherent doubts.

            When I arrived in Brighton a year and a half later, on an unseasonable hot day in April, it was the role of this synchronicity I most wanted to explore. Did her confidence that this was the right direction for her really depend on that alignment of good fortune? I’d heard many stories like it. If you believe in God, then believing in a guiding hand often follows. But if you’re not a religious person, (as Kat wasn’t), then how do you “make sense” of these beneficial strings of coincidence?

            Kat’s sense of this decision being right for her was still firmly intact. She loved her new life. And she still put a tiny bit of stock in that synchronicity that had guided her. “We should at least acknowledge these signs, even if we don’t act on them. There’s often something in them.” But in the last 18 months, the benefits of synchronicity had been replaced by the benefits of consistent hard work. Only a half hour earlier, she’d taken an exam on interior landscaping. In two months, she would earn her Advanced Level in Garden Design, and she intended to continue her training with the Royal Horticulture Society’s grade 2 course next year. She was working at the nursery three days a week, and just that week she had incorporated her own design company, called Gardenscene2 (as in, “I’d like to have my garden seen to.”) She had her first contract, which was to design a garden 20 meters by 20.

She showed me her illustrations. She was turning a flat, mossy mess into a patio retreat, separated from the house by a pergola covered with aromatic climbing plants. The lawn would be returfed and an herb garden added. Numerous plants of interesting shapes, forms and textures framed the new seating area. She was also installing solar panels to power the lighting and water heater. I was impressed by the scope. It was a significant, big budget project that required managing contractors for the construction. I didn’t even know one could earn a degree in Horticulture.

            This hard work had changed how she told her story. Her sense of this choice being “right” no longer hinged on a Tarot reading and a timely conversation with a neighbor. After all, it wasn’t just luck that steered her to a new life. Her heart told her not to take that dream job. Her gut told her not to move to San Francisco. She’d wanted to design gardens since she was six years old. She finally listened to that desire. She would have got here, synchronicity or not. She now got her sense of “rightness” from the joy in her life. She was fulfilled. She was proud of her work. Every day, this “rightness” reaffirmed itself.

            What then is the real role of coincidence and circumstance? It’s hard to say. There’s a tension there. We want to ascribe meaning to it, stitching together that vote of confidence we need. From the pattern we weave our story. The need to do this stitching comes from deep within; it’s a way for our often-ignored longings to communicate with our rational mind, a way to cry out. At the same time, we don’t want to attribute too much to the cosmos. We prefer to be actors upon our story. So like Kat, our story evolves. In its early stages, it’s magic-realist. Later, when we have more to go on, we draw on actual experience.

            Kat and I spent the evening walking through Old Lanes, the historic district of Brighton. I had another set of questions for her.

             “You kind of dropped out of the traditional status framework,” I said. “Most people need the context of a company and an industry and a title and a salary-level and regular performance reviews to provide a measure of self-worth. How does one forego that, and dare go alone?”

            “I’ve been bothered by that far less than I imagined,” she said. “My life has plenty of structure and context. Between classes and the nursery and my new company, I’m very –” She paused. “– I was going to say busy, but that’s not right, because I’m not harried. I’m very active. I’m still pragmatic. I don’t feel like a dropout.”

And how was she doing financially? Does she ever regret not taking that doubled salary?

            She said many people in her shoes would have taken the double salary in order to save up for the leap into garden design, believing that money is the path to freedom. She didn’t, and she’s found that true freedom comes from the confidence she can live within her means, whatever those means may be. Between her hourly pay and her rented bedrooms, she’s made it work. More importantly, her sense of purpose and meaning aren’t tied to her pay, because she’s getting so much psychic income from her calling. It’s been clarifying, releasing her from vanities.

            Kat knew her job would change; she didn’t realize how much she would change, being surrounded by nature rather than technology. High-tech celebrated new ideas and wanted to rewrite the rulebook; horticulture honors wisdom passed down for centuries. The internet treated the world as one big global market. Horticulture respects that all gardening is local; what grows in the greenbelt of Brighton might not grow in London, et cetera. It’s a very different mindset and approach to life. Katt believes nature can teach us, nurture our souls. It makes what she does feel important.

            Like one of her plants, Kat’s found a bit of rich soil that nourishes her well. She’s taking better care of it now.