Serendipity [noun]: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Chance, fluke, luck.
There is an incredible book by author Elizabeth Gilbert called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. In it, Liz takes a deep dive into the world of creativity and what it means to live to your fullest creative potential. It contains beautifully thoughtful advice and anecdotes and stories about living creatively and the mysteries inherent in the process.
One of the stories Liz shares in this book is one of my all-time favourites. Ever. It gives me chills when she starts to tell it in her audiobook and sometimes, when I’m in need of a really good story, I will open it on a whim and listen. She describes the story as the single most magical thing that’s ever happened to her and without giving it all away, the story goes something like this: Liz gets an idea for a new book, a book about the Amazon Jungle. She has the feeling of inspiration, the unmistakable physiological and emotional sensations that signal the arrival of a new idea. She commits to the idea, devoting significant time and energy to it, including making the idea official through a publishing contract. However, soon Liz’s personal life takes a twist she didn’t see coming and she sets the idea down and doesn’t touch it for nearly two years. When she returned to the idea she found that the idea was gone. Not in the material sense (she still had all of her research and files), but the idea seemed no longer willing to collaborate with her. It was around this same time that Liz met a new friend, the celebrated novelist, Ann Patchett. While Liz’s Amazon Jungle novel had up and left, Liz learned that Ann recently had come up with an idea for a new novel herself, one that involved… the Amazon Jungle. You see, Ann had no idea, no way of knowing, about Liz’s Amazon Jungle novel so this news surprised and intrigued Liz, to say the least. When the two finally shared each Amazon Jungle novel with the other, it was pure magic. Big Magic. I’ll just say that. (If this sounds cryptic, it is, so go listen or read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!)
I experienced some big magic of my own last year while in New York City filming my forthcoming Domestika course about boosting creative confidence. And it just so happens that the big magic moments happened with Liz’s book packed in my suitcase, ready to be shared on film as part of the course...
I arrived on a Sunday and left on a Thursday and throughout my time in the city, the universe kept leaving me easter eggs in the form of books all week.
The Sunday that I arrived was a beautiful and sunny warm day in June. My week of work would start on Monday but before then I vowed to take in as much of the city as possible. I did a few touristy things like stand outside the Friends apartment and head over to the steps of Carrie Bradshaw’s brownstone (both are just around the corner from one another). I traveled to my favourite dress store and I had a drink on the patio of the Stonewall Inn, trying to soak up as much of the beautiful weather and city and magic as possible. I was feeling hungry and instead of doing what I might normally do in a new city (search for a restaurant online, comparing reviews, prices and getting lost in the details), I decided to follow my gut – get lost in my intuition – to find a restaurant that felt right at that moment. I landed at an un-fussy pasta restaurant with a beautiful little patio. I was the only one on the patio for a long while and then an older gentleman (perhaps in his early 70’s) sat at a table a few over from me, he looked like he was waiting for friends. Our eyes caught one another and he smiled and I smiled. He asked me how I was and we struck up a conversation as he walked over to join me for a few minutes. I told him the reason I was in New York, as well as my professional background in books and printing and he told me that he’d written a book with his late wife. It turns out that the man sitting across the table from me had not only written a book with his late wife, but it was also a bestseller. And his late wife was none other than B.Smith, a restaurateur, magazine publisher, celebrity chef, and nationally known lifestyle maven. We talked about publishing and books and the travels he would be soon embarking on to South America. So on my first day in New York, that’s how I landed a one-on-one chat with a delightful best selling author. This sure felt like Big Magic.
In Big Magic, Liz describes how she believes ideas work: “I should explain at this point that I’ve spent my entire life in devotion to creativity and along the way I’ve developed a set of beliefs about how it works and how to work with it that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like in the ‘Hogwarts’ sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the other-worldly. Because the truth is I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment, not entirely human in its origins.”
I arrived on set on Monday morning, wearing my yellow dress covered in magenta books (naturally!), which was the dress chosen by Domestika’s team out of the options I’d provided. It was a really lovely experience working with Domestika in the weeks leading up to the shoot because they provided lots of consultation and opportunities to make the set feel like it represented my personality. I consulted with a set designer to coordinate props that I’d bring with what they had already.
I walked onto the set and it was SO COOL. It felt like my goofy little office back home had been given a chic makeover and had been transported here. There was a bookshelf of books in rainbow order (perfect!) and in my waiting between scenes, I peeked at the book titles on the shelf that the Domestika team had arranged before my arrival. And there it was. A book that looked incredibly familiar. I pulled it from the shelf and asked the team “Where did you get this?”. They told me it was just a book they had in the studio to use on sets and the like. It turned out that this book was one that I helped print and bring to life in around 2008 when I worked in the book printing industry. The book was 14 years old at that point and had nothing to do with the topic or really even creativity that Domestika is known for. Why it was there I’ll never know. Except that I do know: Big Magic.
In Big Magic, Liz goes on to reveal: “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied energetic life form that are completely separate from us but capable of interacting with us, albeit strangely.”
During the time of filming I was also teaching a virtual course in Toronto and so I arrived to class in my hotel room on Tuesday night. After the class was over, a student asked if she could receive some additional feedback on her assignment so she stayed after class to meet one-on-one. After we chatted for about 20 minutes, she mentioned offhand that she had lived in New York City for eight years and that she would love to send me some recommendations based on the area I was staying in. She sent the email later that evening and on her list of ‘low-key favourites’ she mentioned a bookstore in the area that she just so happened to be married in. What are the chances that I would be speaking with someone with whom I have only recently met who happened to live in the city I was currently visiting and was married nearby in a bookstore. She is my people. And who gets married in a bookstore? I didn’t even do that! What are the chances?! Well, pretty good because Big Magic.
I love Liz‘s attitude and sure held beliefs about inspiration that she details in her book. One of my favourite sentiments is this: “I choose to trust that inspiration is always nearby, the whole time I’m working, trying it’s damndest to impart assistance. It’s just that inspiration come from another world, you see, and it speaks in language entirely unlike my own so sometimes we have trouble understanding each other. But inspiration is still sitting right there beside me and it is trying. Inspiration is trying to send me messages in every form it can: through dreams, through portends, through clues, through coincidences, through déjà vous, through kismet, through surprising waves of attraction and reaction, through the chills that run up my arms, through the hair that stands up on the back of my neck, through the pleasure of something new and surprising, through stubborn ideas that keep me awake all night long. Whatever works. Inspiration is always trying to work with me so I sit there and I work too. That’s the deal. I trust it, it trusts me.”
Also on Tuesday, as part of filming one of the final units and lessons was all about dreaming big and planning small, I talked about the ways in which creating micro, bite-size action items is the way to make a big dream happen over time while simultaneously keeping our day jobs. As part of this exercise I filled out a worksheet all about dreaming big. We were filming and I began filling it out. But I stopped and looked up at the producer and asked her “Should I fill this in with my actual big dreams?” I’d created the worksheet but neglected to think about what I might actually fill in when given the chance. And now was that chance, it seemed. So as vulnerable as ever, I dug into the recesses of my brain to locate and pull forward some of my big dreams. These big dreams include giving a TED talk, creating a university level course all about creative confidence and publishing a book. The next step in the exercise was to choose one of these big dreams – the one that feels like the next right thing – and say it out loud, giving the idea voice to transform it from an abstract idea existing only in your head to your next concrete idea to share with the world. In that moment, the one that felt most right was publishing a book. I gave voice to the idea which I’m hoping will be the catalyst needed to make it happen. Big Magic.
In her book, Liz continues: “...sometimes, rarely, but magnificently there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. Your defences might slacken and your anxieties might ease and then magic can slip through. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration: the chills of the arms, the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession. The idea will organize coincidence and portents to tumble across your path to keep your interest keen. You’ll start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea. Everything you see and touch and you will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention. And then, in a quiet moment it will ask: Do you want to work with me?”
Yes. Yes, I do.
As my incredible week of filming in the bustling big city was coming to an end, I had an afternoon free to explore the city before flying home. I walked something like 40 blocks pulling a 30 pound rolly bag behind me, walking up towards Times Square and then a few blocks further to the southernmost part of Central Park. My producer suggested that I visit one of New York City’s most famous independent bookstores before I leave, called Strand Books. However, time was running low and my dogs were barking, blisters beginning to form on my hands from dragging a ridiculous suitcase around behind me. So as I got in the cab headed towards LaGuardia airport I knew that I would save my visit to Strand Books for my next visit to New York.
When I got to the airport I cleared security and I made a beeline for the gift shop; I promised my three and five-year-old something upon my return and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed. I dilly-dallied because I had lots of time before my flight, which was delayed. I then looked across the large, open shop and noticed a bookstore. It wasn’t just any bookstore: it was Strand Books bookstore. And the entire shop was set upon a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling bookcases at least 20 feet high, containing an array of books organized in a rainbow. From red to orange to yellow. And then green, blue and purple. Rainbow bookshelves are my jam and the team at Domestika had been awesome in planning sets with a rainbow bookshelf incorporated into each one. A strange and powerful serendipity unfolded at the airport bookstore. I thought to myself, “This is a sign! Thanks New York!”
And then immediately below me – at the end of the rainbow – was a new book I’d never seen before but I immediately recognized as part of a series of kids books that are my girls’ favourites. It was an Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems (of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus fame). This new book sitting in front of me compliments a series of kids books that I specifically mention in the Domestika course. And the title of the book? The book is literally called ‘It’s a Sign!’
I picked it up, shocked at the immense intersection of coincidences unfolding in front of me. The characters work together to create a club dedicated to paper folding, letter writing and word forming (basically me, in a nutshell). And then on the second last page of this very familiar book, the Pigeon is there, drawing a picture… using his foot, just like I’d done in the course earlier that week! What?!?
A little pot of reassuring gold sitting below a rainbow of books.
BIG FREAKING MAGIC.
I wrote a note to my producer about this incredible thing that had just happened and while typing an email arrived… a video of my student’s wedding set in a New York City bookstore. I became the weirdo weeping in the middle of Laguardia airport. It was all too much in the best way possible.
I still don’t quite know what to make of all of these books that came into my life in serendipitous ways that week, but as the launch of my Domestika course draws nearer, I’m excited to think about the possibilities and what-ifs and could-be’s.
Thank you Domestika and thanks New York and thanks Liz Gilbert and thanks Mo Willems and thanks to my NYC student and thanks to you for sticking around and listening as this story unfolded. Here’s to more Big Magic moments for everyone.
Music: Rusty Bicycle by John Bartmann licensed under a CC0 1.0 Universal License.
Freesound: Chimes on Wind Robinhood76Book Big Magic
Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle
Episode Artwork: Canva