How has serendipity played a role in your life?

Serendipity has been the map I have used to navigate most of my life. I think that in order to live by this philosophy, it requires a high level of trust that things tend to work out. I have come to learn that most people are not able to do this so I now consider it a superpower. It’s possible that I’m just lazy or perhaps I am reacting to my controlling father, but I hate planning things. In fact I am really allergic to planning things. There are many people in my life who feel the need to control everything. I think they believe that if they don’t hold the reins tightly, all hell will break loose. I, on the other hand, really like to let things unfold organically. When my daughter was born, we noticed right away that she had an ease of wellbeing, as if she naturally trusted that the world was a benevolent place. Conversely, my son was suspicious and outraged, as if the world was intentionally trying to annoy him. It seems to me that we are born with these temperaments.

Life has thrown me many curveballs and as I age, I realize that the extreme positions of our youth tend to soften over the years. My boyfriend is a planner and I have witnessed how that can result in better opportunities sometimes. I have grown more anxious since becoming a mother and am less able to roll with a missed flight or a closed highway. I also see that the world has become more crowded and many things like campgrounds and museums require reservations now. I’d like to think that I have found a middle ground, but I admit I miss my youthful days of full blown spontaneity and fearless leaps of faith.

My favorite experience with serendipity happened when I was 26. Every summer I used to traverse the country from Colorado to Vermont to work as a counselor at a beloved sleep-away camp. Normally I took my own car but one year it happened that my friend Kim would be driving from Colorado to Pennsylvania in mid June and I thought it would be fun to travel with her. Coincidentally, my brother Jed and his fiance would be driving from Maryland to upstate New York around the same time. If we could successfully rendezvous, I could hitch a ride with them heading north and wind up at camp on time. My father seemed to think we were being too cavalier and we’d never meet up. That made it all the more amusing for us. I had only one brief conversation with my brother prior to leaving.

“We’ll be hitting the road around Thursday or Friday, taking route 81 north,” he told me.

“Yeah, it’ll probably take us 2 or 3 days to make it to Pennsylvania, I’ll page you when I get closer”.

This was in the days before cell phones and I was never a big fan of planning ahead so with no particular structure in place, I commenced the first leg of my journey. The remarkable part is that I had 4 pet rabbits along for the ride as well. I’m really not sure what I thought I would do if we didn’t connect with my brother. I doubt rabbits are welcome on Greyhound buses. Kim and I drove for 2 or 3 days, stopping when tired or hungry, mostly playing it by ear. We stayed in cheap motels and ate pancakes at truck stops. The rabbits took turns sitting on my lap and we watched miles of cornfields fly by the windows. When our progress east on route 80 intercepted route 81 it finally occurred to me to check in with my brother.

“Let’s get off the next exit and page Jed,” I suggested.

As we got off the exit ramp it was dark outside and pretty remote. We leaned toward the windshield trying to spot any sign of civilization. Before long we noticed a dimly lit doughnut shop on the right side of the street and a lonesome gas station on the left. We parked at the doughnut shop and went inside to use their payphone. We paged my brother and waited in pink and orange plastic chairs under fluorescent bulbs. I rubbed my eyes as they adjusted to the light. It didn’t take long for my brother to receive my page, get off the next exit and ring the payphone. I jumped up to answer it and pressed the cool receiver against my ear.

“Where are you?” I inquired.

“Route 81,” he informed me.

“Us too. What exit?” I asked.

“Um… exit 205A.”

“Oh my God we’re at exit 205A! Where are you?” I exclaimed somewhat stunned.

“We’re at a gas station across from a doughnut shop.”

“We’re at a doughnut shop across from a gas station!”

There was a pause as it dawned on us both.

I turned to face the enormous plate glass windows and I peered across the road into the darkness. There was an outdoor payphone under a street lamp and there was my brother craning his neck to look in my direction.

I laughed triumphantly, and ran out to the parking lot. My brother drove over to where our car was parked. We all four hugged and transferred my luggage from one vehicle to the other. I picked up the rabbit cage and slid it into my brother’s car and we were on our way.

The next morning my skeptical father wondered aloud how on earth our crazy plan had worked. “Pretty good,” was all we said and we chuckled to ourselves.

How did you choose what college to attend?

I have loved art for as long as I can remember. The house I grew up in was pretty much an art studio, an extension of my mother’s love for crafts. She had an official studio in the basement, but our family’s art projects spilled over into the kitchen, living room, project room and beyond. My mom made batik T-shirts on the kitchen counter. Our huge closets were bursting at the seams with art supplies. I spent hours on my bedroom floor drawing and making balsa wood furniture for my dollhouses. My father had a woodshop in our garage. In high school, I would forego advanced math, typing and chemistry so that I could fill my schedule with art electives. Graphic design was my favorite. My mom took me on several road trips to tour colleges with good art programs. I don’t remember much about those schools but I do recall falling in love with RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). During the summer before my senior year I attended a pre-college program for a few weeks there.

I lived in the dorm and frequented a hip coffee shop in an old Victorian house. I made an etching of a dog in the water and a self portrait monoprint. I pulled my first all-nighter to complete a pastel still-life of red peppers while sitting in the dorm hallway with my new friends. I ate in the cafeteria with boys who wore eyeliner. I shared a bottle of red wine with my precocious roommate. I couldn’t wait for the freedom of college and all I wanted in the world was to return to RISD. I tossed all my other college brochures and I applied early-decision.

When I look back on my high school portfolio I see that I was a pretty immature artist. My drawing skills were adequate but my subject matter was cliche and it lacked anything conceptual. I had no 3-D work and a limited variety of media. I can say all of this now because I grew up to be a high school art teacher. When competing with the best students in the country for a prestigious art school I’m sure I looked intensely average. My SAT scores were good but my grades were mediocre. When I received the thin envelope from RISD, I slunk off to the bathroom to find out in private that they had rejected me.

The fog of disappointment that enveloped me obscured my ability to see any alternative path. I indulged this hopeless feeling for a while and built myself a suit of armor made of defiance. Forget it, I reasoned, if RISD didn’t want me I wasn’t going to go to any college. The deadline was approaching for regular college admissions. I can’t remember if my parents were worried or if they tried to get me to make a plan B. One day, I ran into my friend Sue Etler in the front atrium of our high school.

“What are you up to?” I asked her.

“Just going to my guidance counselor to turn in my application for Syracuse,” she replied.

She wanted to major in art so I followed her to the counselor’s office and before I knew it I was applying to Syracuse too.

It’s astonishing to consider how little thought went into such an impactful life choice. College sets you on a trajectory which dictates the rest of your life. If I had my wits about me, I would have selected a small liberal arts school with an emphasis on creative thinking. I tend to thrive in open-minded intimate settings that are off the beaten path. But I probably didn’t even know this about myself then. Somehow I ended up in a big sports-obsessed party school with the stormiest weather in the country. Most of the girls had surprisingly big hair and a devotion to make-up that eluded me.

During freshman year I trudged up and down a steep and icy hill while the wind tried to snatch my giant art portfolio from my hands. I found a temporary sense of belonging with a group of fun-loving and mostly wholesome art students, but kindred spirits were hard to find. Our studio classes were in a beautiful old building that looked like a castle with creaky hardwood floors and ornately carved wooden banisters. Unfortunately I spent quite a lot of energy being a rebel without a cause pushing back against my professors for no good reason. I wish I hadn’t had such a chip on my shoulder regarding authority figures.

Sophomore year I tried joining a sorority and while it provided me with a pseudo family and lots of memorable times, it still didn’t feel like my cup of tea. I’m not a conformist or a school-spirit kind of person. Decorating parade floats, curling my hair in a bathroom full of girls and attending frat parties were not my idea of fun. My ‘sisters’ were nice but they just weren’t my type of people save for a few mischievous dissenters. Fortunately that year I befriended Rayna who lived in my dorm and remains one of my closest friends to this day.

I was never dissatisfied with Syracuse. My classes were interesting enough and my social life was fun. Only in hindsight is it clear that it wasn’t the ideal fit for me. I didn’t realize I was missing anything until I found my place and my people. This happened during my Junior year when I discovered the Outing Club which was full of down to earth, outdoorsy, unpretentious types. We spent our time rock climbing, caving and backpacking. I had finally found my lifelong friends. That same year I also began taking photography classes in the SI Newhouse School of Communications where I began to love the craft and discover my passion. The following summer I did a semester abroad in Florence, Italy which solidified my commitment to photography and inspired my love of art history. Over time I was able to carve out a place for myself at Syracuse and that’s when the giant university began to feel smaller.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been had I chosen a different school. But I treasure my memories from Syracuse and the friends I made there who are still such an important part of my life today. I guess it’s a testament to the fact that with persistence and self-awareness a person can find where they fit no matter where they are enrolled.

Who did you go to prom with?

In 1984 I had an English teacher named Mr. McWilliams. He was a strange counter-culture sort of fellow. If you saw him on the street in his disheveled suit and unkempt hair you might think he was homeless. He seemed like an old man to me then but he was probably only in his 40’s. He hardly ever smiled but we adored him. He asked philosophical questions that blew our young minds and we had lively class discussions about literature and life. One time he insisted that parents who perpetuated the Santa Claus myth were committing a great betrayal that would scar their children for life.

Each day when we first entered the classroom, we found our familiar spiral notebooks waiting on our desks and we spent 10 minutes writing journal entries about anything we chose. I suppose we should have been pondering what Queequeg’s character symbolized in Moby Dick or why Boo Radley was such a recluse. Instead I consistently used my time to prattle on about my newly acquired driver’s license or why on earth Dee Dee had a crush on C. Thomas Howell. Each day Mr. McWilliams would return my journal with humorous insults scribbled in the margins. “You are as shallow as a Boreal Toad.” We lived for these preposterous slights.

One day on the crisp lined pages, as I was lamenting my lack of prom date I gazed around the quiet classroom and noticed Steve Martin scribbling dutifully in his journal. He had on a flannel shirt, jeans and timberland boots. He was the ruggedly handsome but invisible type. He rarely spoke up in class and he spent his afternoons working at a gas station. Because he shared his name with a well-known comedian, a substitute teacher had once treated him with incredulity thinking he was giving her a fake name. Quite spontaneously, I wrote in my journal, “I should go to the prom with Steve Martin. He’s pretty cute.”

The next day when I flipped open my notebook, there was a new message in the margin. “It has been arranged.” I was a little horrified and I glanced around in desperation. Mr. McWilliams was at his desk with his gaze fixed on a pile of papers. My own heart pounded in my ears. Steve Martin was a few rows ahead of me intent on his journal entry. Oh my God, what did Mr. McWilliams do? I squirmed through the remaining 40 minutes of class. As the students funneled out the door I rushed to the teacher’s desk.

“What do you mean, ‘It has been arranged’?” I implored.

“It has been arranged,” was all he said.

When I got home from school that evening the phone rang and Steve Martin asked me to the prom.

I wore a white fluffy dress and a pink sunburn. When Steve came to the house to pick me up in his Ford Bronco, my overzealous father went into overdrive with his camera shutter. He rushed out to the driveway and documented every aspect of Steve’s ascent up the front steps. When I tried to throw him a subtle scolding he insisted, “Someday you will thank me for these photos.” Now, 37 years later I can safely say, I’m still not grateful for that abundance of images.

Steve didn’t like to dance and the conversation was a little awkward but we made-out in his Bronco for a little while at the end of the night and for a few weeks afterwards.

A year later I had fallen madly in love with Jeff Wetmore, the lead vocalist and winner of the Battle of the Bands. I had spent months passing him notes and skipping class to hear him play piano in a small practice room. His interest in me waxed and waned over the course of the school year and he broke up with me just in time for Valentines Day. I pined for him over spring break and wrote him bad poetry while all around town the tulips began to blossom.

My friend Denise got me a job at Baskin Robbins scooping ice cream. When business was slow we would practice our cake decorating skills on pieces of wax paper and wave flirtatiously out the picture window to the cute boy who worked at an electronics shop across the way. One day he made the journey across the pedestrian crosswalk to introduce himself. Bill Drago became my prom date and my boyfriend for a few short weeks. His best quality was his good looks. When he picked me up for prom I told him he looked mighty fine and he replied, “I know.” This time I wore a pink fluffy dress and made-out with him on the dance floor.

By summer I lost interest in him and we amicably parted ways. My heart still belonged to Jeff, the singer, who would finally return my affections and become my first love. I’ll always regret that he was not my Senior Prom date. But we had a memorable relationship for a couple of years which is a whole different story.

What was the neighborhood you grew up in like?

I feel lucky to have grown up in a wonderful neighborhood and also to have stayed there for my whole childhood. I’m told there was a house on Chipmunk Lane but I don’t remember that one. Nor do I recall the “Forange”, which was in the forest, in the orange, where I used to peer down from my crib in a loft to see what the grown-ups were doing. When I was one, my parents and I moved to Briar Brae Road in Connecticut where I would become part of an extended family of neighbors. What a gift it was to grow up with a sense of belonging in a safe and wooded haven. I could walk to the houses of many friends and find playmates and entertainment every day.

Across the street were the Millers who conveniently had a girl my age and a boy my brother’s age. They were our best friends. I spent so many of my childhood hours there, I still have dreams about that house as if it were my own. We played on the jungle gym and in the yard. Games like wiffle ball and kick ball. Pam used to make us pick up sticks and rake the leaves. This felt terribly unfair to me. My mother never made us do chores when friends were over. But Pam let us eat Twinkies and Doritos which hardly ever made an appearance at our house. Downstairs in their basement they had swings hanging from the ceiling and lots of cluttered corners in which to hide. Our favorite game was Sardines. It was like hide-and-seek except that one person would hide. We would all scatter, searching under beds and in linen closets. If you found the hider, you would hide with them. It was an uneasy feeling when it suddenly dawned on you that everyone had disappeared and you were left alone to search. When you finally found the crowd doing their best to be quiet, everyone would yell and fall into hysterics. I often slept over at Kim’s and we were so noisy and determined to avoid sleep that her mother always had to separate us by putting me in the skylight room. From there we would go into our respective closets and knock on the adjoining wall. We loved to sing along with Donny and Marie and to the soundtrack from Grease. When we became teenagers, we played Atari video games. Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Frogger. It was so cutting edge after its predecessor, Pong. At dusk, I would say goodbye to Kim and beg her to do “Peep” as I ran down the hill to my house. Kim would stand on her deck and yell, “Peep” in a high pitched voice. I would echo back to her, “Peep” all the way home. That comforting call would volley back and forth right up to my front door and keep me safe from any monsters lurking in the woods.

Karin Loglisci was another favorite playmate who lived down the road. We bonded over our mutual love of drawing and baking Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies. We sat on her bedroom floor surrounded by extensive sets of magic markers. We loved to make calendars and each month would feature a detailed drawing of kids congregating in ice cream shops, exploring pumpkin patches or skating on frozen ponds. Karin had a stuffed sheep named Felice. I could always count on her to be more down to earth and genuine than some of the other girls who rushed to wear make-up and bikinis.

Terri DeMott lived near Karin. She had a pool and a German Shepherd named Lady who was a little fierce. Terri’s Mom, Judy, was a little fierce too and intimidated me by never smiling. Several kids spent their summer days at that pool with the Mom’s. We would swim until our teeth chattered and our lips turned blue. Terri’s Dad told us that there was a special chemical in the pool that could detect if we peed. It would turn bright pink and announce our transgression to the world. We didn’t dare test that theory. Terri’s brother, Chris, was the neighborhood bully. One time he stuffed Terri in a sleeping bag and dragged her down the stairs. We lived in terror of his ruthlessness and his bulk.

One day when I was maybe seven, the Fabers moved in. They had 4 kids. What a windfall. My brother Jed and I were determined to meet them. We walked over to their house and stood on the street staring at them. They stared back in silence.

Finally Jed piped up, “Will you be our friends?”.

“Yep” they said.

They had lived in Holland and Kenya and they taught us all kinds of new games. British Bulldogs and Red Rover. They were a lively and fun addition to our group of friends. One time I was stung by a bee in their yard. My finger swelled up so quickly I didn’t have time to take off my ring. The Dad’s had to cut it off of me.

There were several other families with kids our age. We would all gather at the bus stop and stand in our cliques. Each morning Kim and I would meet in front of our houses and walk to the bus stop together. I remember giggling together one morning when we both tried wearing bras for the first time. It was good to have a friend at a time like that. One day, we hatched a plan to make everyone late to middle school. We all hid on top of the hill overlooking the bus stop. When the bus pulled up, one of us began running, yelling, “Wait for me.” The bus waited and as soon as that kid began to board, the next kid came running down the hill. It was a fine example of teamwork as we each passed the baton to the next accomplice.

Our neighborhood was tucked into the woods where you could imagine elves and fairies living. Maybe even Hobbits. The road twisted and rose and fell along the topography of our little piece of the world. We rode bikes and chased the ice cream truck and learned to drive on that familiar road. My house had several huge boulders in the yard which appeared in all of our outdoor games. One was a house. One was a boat. Others were ancient cave dwellings used by Indians. Once when I was grown, my friends and I set up a climbing rope and did a first ascent. Behind my house, the woods went on forever. Through the living room picture windows, we memorized every tree as if they were our friends. I liked to explore alone back there, autumn leaves crunching underfoot. Often I would sit beside a small creek and send leaves down the current like little fairy boats. The sounds and the solitude gave me such a sense of place and of belonging.

Perhaps I took it for granted at the time, but I feel very grateful to have been surrounded by friends and beautiful forest during every season of my childhood.