Last Saturday was such a gloriously sunny, crisp autumn day that I just had to take a walk to the nearby Lincoln Marsh here in Wheaton. I entered the Prairie Path off Jewel Road and vowed to experience this stroll through Nature as a gift, hoping to be surprised by unexpected encounters of beauty and transcendence. Thoughts of Annie Dillard‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek were most definitely in my head, a book I am currently re-reading and also sharing with my science students. (This book, a narrative meditation on nature and God centered around her regular visits to a creek near her home in Virginia, won Dillard a Pulitzer for non-fiction in 1975.)
Well, shortly after my prayerful vow to receive a gift, I encountered an injured skunk (not exactly what I had in mind!). The skunk was down in a little ditch that runs along the side of the path, struggling slightly with its head up. It was not making any anguished cries, but clearly wanted to crawl away and simply couldn’t. I was rather frozen in place about 10 feet away; thoughts of getting “skunked” were foremost in my mind, but concern for the poor creature nearly outweighed my fear. I wanted to help it, but soon realized there was nothing I could really do for it.
As I turned sadly from the skunk, leaving it to die a hopefully quick death, my thoughts had suddenly turned to the TV series I’m currently binge-watching, The Walking Dead (which likely prompted me to even briefly think of crushing the skunk’s head with a rock to put it out if its misery!). This dystopian zombie saga is one of many in a genre that includes the seminal 1968 cult classic movie Night of the Living Dead. Much of The Walking Dead’s second season takes place in and near the woods, where the still-living characters must always be alert and mindful of zombies lurking behind the next tree. So, while I started my journey with a mindfulness intent on aesthetic pleasure, within a few minutes I was practicing a mindfulness intent on survival from dangerous zombies and skunks.
Fortunately, the Dillard version of mindfulness again quickly won out over The Walking Dead, as each turn of the path brought unexpected gifts of beauty: two squirrels playing, two gophers racing by, a flock of tiny birds jabbering away in a small tree, six male Burmese refugees (I’m guessing) on a happy stroll. Nevertheless, the chance juxtaposition in my head of Annie Dillard and The Walking Dead continued to intrigue me for some reason—so much so that I felt the need to Google the two together when I returned home. What I found still astounds me to no end! Annie Dillard’s father, Frank Doak, not only ran a business that helped produce Night of the Living Dead, but he also acted in it, playing the role of a scientist explaining the zombie phenomenon. It was the only time he ever acted in a movie. (Dillard briefly recounts this in her autobiographical book An American Childhood.)
How strange a coincidence! The somewhat random juxtaposition in my head of two such disparate concepts, Annie Dillard and zombies, finds a most improbable instantiation in reality: Annie Dillard’s father made and acted in a classic zombie movie. (Also, it turns out that Annie Doak’s first husband, English professor H.W.R. Dillard, wrote the first published scholarly piece on Night of the Living Dead, though this is perhaps not too surprising as it was undoubtedly precipitated by his father-in-law’s role in the film.)
What are we to make of such coincidences? I am endlessly fascinated by them. They are sublime occurrences, as they render our minds numb trying to understand them and make sense of them. I believe they can occasionally be signs, transcendent indicators of a divine attention to our lives, but the reality and meaning of these signs is clearly in the mind of the beholder and impossible to prove or disprove. What is undeniable, however, is that coincidences have been taken as signs throughout human history, and have served as definitive prompts to adopt a certain course of action. One’s view of the coincidence qua sign rests ultimately on whether one is a Materialist or not, given to deny all possibilities of supernatural being and activity. For myself, I have to say that the many spooky coincidences I have experienced and heard about have counted as evidence in favor of a transcendent reality. (I will write about these in future posts.)
Lastly, is there any meaning I can take from this coincidence of Annie Dillard and zombies? Well, for me, it prompted the start of this blog, something I had contemplated for a long time. In fact, one piece I had been thinking of writing regards another strange coincidence involving Annie Dillard and Philip Roth, so this second coincidence involving her was especially impactful. I’m not overly gullible, though: I am a scientist who has a default skeptical attitude towards most purported signs and voices from God. Sometimes, though, the coincidence is such an incredibly low probability event that even I sit up and take notice.