Coincidence, or "do not rest your hopes on these vain things that all men desire, but follow the sure road that leads to the highest good"
February 3, 2021
by Morgan Murray
"He went on at great length about the conspiracy theory he had been formulating in the last week while lying in the dark. All about how the universe was trying to kill him. 'The universe is trying to kill me. 'The universe is trying to keel everyone, Milton.'"
January 6, 2021 was the pinnacle of my otherwise barely there literary career. At 9:14 am ET, the longlist for CBC Canada Reads 2021 was announced and my book, my first book, my only book, my silly little book about an idiot named after the GTA suburb where the square head screw was invented, Dirty Birds, was somehow on it.
A couple of hours later a few thousand idiots stormed the US Capitol building and took selfies, souvenirs, and all my thunder.
It may have merely been a coincidence. Surely, a book contest in Canada has nothing to do with the political meltdown happening in the United States. Perhaps. Or, perhaps I’m cursed. Perhaps the universe is conspiring against me.
Let me perhaps a few other perhapses at you.
* * *
Dirty Birds was originally supposed to come out Halloween 2019. I dreamed of strutting into a launch party dressed as Leonard Cohen and belting out a few verses of “Death of a Ladies Man.” But, as happens in the “pub biz,” shit happened, and my “pub date” got pushed to May 2020.
No problem. The extra time gave us extra time to make the book extra good. Extra time to hone 536 pages of dick jokes to a fine, razor’s edge. Sure, I changed the ending half a dozen times, killed and resurrected half the cast, and am still unclear on the legalities of invoking Leonard Cohen’s name and whether or not his estate will sue or he will haunt me for making him a villain, but we hope a little disclaimer in the front matter will be enough cover.
It’s all just coincidence.
By February there are these little news stories popping up here and there about this virus in China. But I don’t pay it any mind. I had dick jokes to hone.
Then one night after the wife and baby went to bed, I was watching the Oilers play. They’re my team now. Coincidently, I grew up with Kris Russell, an Oilers defenceman. I feel like playing hockey on my backyard rink has somehow helped him play over 800 games in the NHL. It's as close as I will get to playing in the NHL. And the Oilers are doing well. McDavid and Draistl are one-two in the scoring race. They could win their division, their conference, it all. So I'm watching the game and in the second intermission the update guy says the NBA is suspending its season indefinitely. The next day the NHL does the same. Within a week the entire world is shut down and we're all told to "stay the blazes home."1
Then through a series of other coincidences—the book’s designer working from home on a steam-powered PC, all the paper in North America being tied up in the toilet paper wars, the lovely cover my lovely wife designed having one too many colours and printing funny—my pub date becomes June 29, then July 8, then 15, then 22, then 29, then August 7, then, finally, boxes of this brick of a book are loaded on trucks and sent madly off in all directions on August 14th. Finally.
At the height of a global pandemic.
* * *
Dirty Birds should have been out years earlier.
In 2014 a little story I wrote about a guy getting hit by a bus was anthologized with some pals’ stories. For the launch we had t-shirts made. All together we looked like a last place softball team.
Over the cheese plate and quickly turning spinach dip the editor of the publisher of the anthology introduced himself and asked what else I was working on. I said I had plans on building a dresser, but the only space I had to build it was the back deck, and it had been raining a lot, and work was busy anyway, so I wasn’t sure when I’d get the dresser finished.
He meant writing wise. What writing was I working on? He was talking business, at this business event.
I told him I was working on a novel. A novel about an aspiring poet with bum luck.
It wasn’t a lie. It was an idea.
The editor, coincidently, was himself an aspiring poet with bum luck.
He liked my little story, but he loved this notional, nonexistent, entirely fictional poet novel.
I met him in his office a few days later to discuss how this novel would launch my writing career.
A few weeks later my then not-ex decided to become my ex. I’ll spare you the heartbreak, this isn’t about that, but for almost two years I didn’t write a word.
But hearts can be darned like socks, it turns out. I’ll spare you the love story that comes between the nothing and Dirty Birds, because this isn’t about that. But there was a hastily thrown together too long manuscript that was mostly unhoned dick jokes.
* * *
Dirty Birds is semi-autobiographical.
I’m often asked, how ‘semi?' And I always play it cool. Joke “more than I should admit, har har.” Make like that time I moved from my middle-of-nowhere to Montreal in pursuit of literary fame and fortune was fraught with far less coincidence. That I made most of it up.
And while I never met Leonard Cohen, nor incited any egg riots, nor brandished any weapons, I did sleep for more months than was healthy on an air mattress with a slow leak in an apartment without much heat, fully clothed and under my winter coat and bathrobe to keep warm. My pillow was a t-shirt wrapped around my dirty laundry. I’d wake up each morning on the cold hard ground, eat a day-old bagel for lunch, and write, and write, and write awful, horrible, terrible poetry. Poetry so bad I couldn’t write anything worse on Milton’s behalf so my real bad poetry became his fake bad poetry.
Again, just a coincidence.
* * *
Like Milton, I also ended up on the lam in Newfoundland Grad School.
I didn’t leave Montreal because I was chased. I left because it wasn’t the magic place Leonard Cohen promised it was. It was just another place. Not my place.
My mom had just had major surgery. I used this as an excuse to leave my job as a secretary to go home and make her soup for three months.
But home wasn’t my place either. Not anymore. I applied to grad school on the advice of a trusted advisor who’d die of H1N1 at the height of that pandemic a few years later.
To fund my going on the lam to Newfoundland, my parents and I flipped a house. With my mom off the soup, I spent most nights covered in drywall dust, sleeping in an empty master bedroom on an air mattress with a slow leak.
Our Get Rich Quick House went on the market September 1, 2008.
A week later, I sat in my first Newfoundland grad seminar. I wore a tie, but forgot a pen. Everyone else wore normal clothes and took copious notes.
After class I drove home through the fog listening to the news. The stock market had collapsed. The real estate bubble burst. Subprime mortgages, derivatives, Freddie May and Fannie Mac, Too Big to Fail, and all that. Obama and McCain stopped campaigning and made their way back to the Capitol to vote to spend trillions propping up Wall Street.
Our Get Rich Quick House sat empty and unsold for over a year. We didn’t make a cent. We didn’t get a bail out. We were just the right size to fail.
A coincidence, surely.
* * *
I’m a prairie mutt.
For my entire life, I vaguely knew where my great grandparents came from, but that was about it.
Canada gave any white guy with a pulse 160 acres of good farmland for a $10 admin fee 100+ years ago to keep the Indigenous and the Americans at bay. I’m from that hodgepodge of desperate European mooches who gobbled up the free land. Ukrainian, English, Scottish, German, Dutch, Irish, and god knows what else. A genetic and geographic coincidence with a family history of heart failure.
My wife, on the other hand, brought me to her hometown early in our relationship and drove me out to the point where her ancestors spent a couple of nights underneath their boat when they first arrived in Cape Breton. She told me about going to Scotland and standing in the village her mother’s people are from and looking across a valley at the village her father’s people are from. She’s purebred Scottish back to the time of Noah.
When we were trying to pick out baby names, we signed up for one of those ancestry websites to look at the names in our family trees. It’s one of those sites that crowdsources your genealogy to help fill out your family tree automatically.
Hers filled up back to the time of Christ with Anguses and Catherines, John Anguses and Catherine Elizabethes.
I didn’t expect much of my side. But names started popping up. Names I’d never heard of. It traced my ancestry like a vein back across Canada, from the patch of dirt I grew out of in Central Alberta through patches of dirt in southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Soo Sault Marie—both of them, on either side of the border—to United Empire Loyalists in New Brunswick, and back to the old country.
A long lost cousin posted scanned photos of my dad’s fourth great grandfather who looked just like my dad and just like my daughter.
After a third of a lifetime without a settled place nor people, I had all these names. Unpronounceable German, Dutch, Ukrainian, Swiss, Austrian, Scottish names.
* * *
Then it got to Giovanni Battista Castiglione.
* * *
There’s a legendary figure in my family named Uncle “Unc” Elmer, my great grandmother’s brother.
Uncle Elmer, 1937
The Unc that I knew was a surly bit of gristle who lived like a hermit and collected things from the dump to add to his massive collection. He built a massive building out of highly toxic pesticide canisters and car doors. He built a hundred-foot tower out of washing machines, and fenced his property with bed springs. The piano he found in the dump and rebuilt still sits in my sister’s living room.
He worked like a mule from dawn til dark on his junk. Only taking a break to walk two miles to check the mail.
He lived off a cup of oatmeal for breakfast, a spoonful of peanut butter and an old bean can full of Apple Cider Vinegar for lunch, and a cup of plain macaroni for supper.
We were all sure he would outlive us all.
This would have given him time to put a dent in his pile of probably 500 busted up and rusted out bicycles he had in his yard. But one day he noticed he couldn’t strip his usual several miles of copper wire without getting tired, then his hands stop working, then his arms, then shoulders, then neck, and the small grumpy gristle became a question mark and moved in with us because the only person left on earth he could half-way tolerate was my mother.
Though he thought her children were three of the most useless idiots he had ever seen.
He lived with us for a few months before the ALS progressed to where he couldn’t eat. He refused a feeding tube and slowly starved to death.
Uncle Elmer, early 1990s
This was the same time, coincidently, that I was home sick a lot. I’ll spare you the sickly child story, this isn’t about that. When we were both home, shut up in the house all day, we did our best to avoid each other. He didn’t much care for me, and I was terrified to death of him, even though he hadn’t moved from that one spot on the couch for months.
He didn’t do much for those months. Just sit and scowl. He didn’t believe in TV.
My dad rigged up a table so he could read a book. He read Huckleberry Finn and hated it. I mean hated it. The man actually fought actual Nazis and I’m sure he had a better opinion of them than Mark Twain after that. He took his hatred of Mark Twain with him to his grave. He took a lot of hatred of a lot of things with him to his grave.
* * *
Unc was in the Army Corps of Engineers in WWII. He moved ahead of the front lines building bridges and fixing roads in the liberation of Holland. The country his dad had left some 45 years before.
Uncle Elmer off to liberate Holland
Over there, after the fighting, he met his first cousin, married her, and brought her home.
She died giving birth to their first child a few years later.
Unc, distraught and broken hearted, I would like to think, couldn’t bear the thought of raising his daughter alone, so the doctor who delivered her adopted her. No one in the family has seen nor heard from her since.
Unc went home and built a new house, right next to his perfectly good first house, and moved into it. The old house remained full of his wife’s things, untouched for 40 years until he died.
His life, and his daughter, are one of my family’s great tragedies and great mysteries.
* * *
Unc’s dad and cousin emigrated from the Northern bit of the Netherlands to the southern bit of Saskatchewan, to the place I renamed Bellybutton, Saskatchewan in Dirty Birds, around the turn of the 20th Century as part of the free land grab.
The prairies were a sausage party of freeloading landlubbers at the time, and unable to find wives in the middle-of-nowhere Saskatchewan, they did what any self-respecting settler would do: they ordered a pair in the mail.
Rosetta and Margaret were daughters of poor Irish immigrants from the bellybutton of Ontario. I am not up on the particulars of early 20th century mail-order bride logistics, but a scan of a wedding certificate on this ancestry website says Rosetta married Simon on the 29th of January, 1912 in Marmora, Ontario. A beautiful day for a wedding, surely. Other documents show before long they were living in Riverhurst, Saskatchewan on free land with a pile of kids, including Unc and my Great Grandmother, Annie.
Rosetta, the mail-order bride of noble blood (date unknown)
By all third-and-fourth hand accounts, Simon was a bit of a sonofabitch, so as soon as the kids were raised, Rosetta, who never much liked the bellybutton of Saskatchewan anyway, took off back to Ontario. She spent the rest of her life in a Toronto boarding house run by her eldest daughter.
The kids didn’t stick around either. Unc left home at 13 to work hard labour the rest of his life rather than spend one more day on the farm with his dad.
* * *
The Mail-Order Bride Story was a well-known story in the family. How true is it? I’d say semi. But it became this dark family legend. This poor mail-order bride getting stuck with this Dutch dirt farmer and having a bunch of grumpy kids before noping her way back to Upper Canada.
Rosetta, the human being, barely registered. She’d gotten off this train. She’d dipped her toe in the southern Saskatchewan dust and thought better of it. But for the rest of Unc and Annie’s lives, Toronto was pretty much the moon.
Until names started popping up on my family tree on this ancestry website, that’s all she was, a footnote in this long series of tragic coincidences that landed us all here. A passerby, an acquaintance. The heartbreaks of her life were too remote. She was too long gone. She came in the mail, stayed for a while, then went back.
Her son’s second house full of her dead daughter-in-law’s clothes and dishes and chairs she’d brought with her from Holland after the war, we knew the smell of all that. Her granddaughter who’d vanished, who was around the same age as my parents, who grew up in a doctor’s family, was probably still alive, somewhere. Somewhere nearby, but unknowable. These tragedies and coincidences were known, knowable, and mournable.
As the family gathered around Unc’s deathbed, there was as much mourning for his missing daughter, for his dead wife, for the life he lost in 1955 as the one he was losing in 1996.
He died surrounded by family he couldn’t much stand, missing the daughter he never knew and the wife who died too young, and hating that motherfucking Mark Twain.
* * *
On this particular ancestry website all your dirt farming relatives who died starving and anonymous are represented by a pink or a blue silhouette. Me and my wife’s family trees are pretty much just vast webs of anonymous pink and blue nobodies.
Except. Except for the dirt poor mail-order bride.
Rosetta the mail-order footnote’s tree is pinks and blues a couple generations back, then there are portraits, painted portraits, of real people.
Rosetta, you cheeky bugger. You’re descendant from British nobility. There are Bishops of Salisburys, Lords, Ladys, manor houses that are now owned and kept up by the National Trust. There are two admirals of the goddamned Royal Navy who commanded the Royal Fleet against George freaking Washington, and Napoleon, that Napoleon, who both died at sea. There are dozens of long dead portraits with Wikipedia pages. She came to be Irish at all because the King of England gave her great great great grand-something an estate in Ireland for his heroism.
That she was potato-famined to Canada and then more-or-less sold to an abusive Dutch dust farmer was a series of tragic coincidences. Her something-or-other cousin, MY something-or-other cousin, still lives in the majestic manor house that is kept up by the National Trust, in the private residence part, not the part tourists get tea in.
Giovanni was an Italian soldier that ended up, through a series of coincidences, in Henry VIII’s court as the Italian tutor of Henry’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth (a Tudor’s tutor). He spent his life with Elizabeth from when she was 12-years-old, through her battles with her older sister Mary—which landed them both in jail for sedition at different points, got him tortured on the rack causing him to walk funny for the rest of his life, and while she was imprisoned, Giovanni secretly couriered letters for Elizabeth, he also carved his name into the wall of the Tower of London while he was locked up—and through her reign as Queen Elizabeth I, of ENGLAND! as Groom of Her Privy Chamber.
Graffiti carved by Giovanni while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1556. The text reads: "Do not rest your hopes on these vain things that all men desire, but follow the sure road that leads to the highest good." (Source: Wikipedia (cc))
Giovanni’s tomb in St Mary, Spene, near Newbury, Berkshire, over by where the chairs are stacked for Thursday night bingo. (Source: Peter Orr)
Great^14 Grandpappy Giovanni’s BFF Elizabeth I. (Public Domain)
Having not watched much Downton Abbey, the hierarchy of British nobility baffles me, but there is an invisible string tied to me and tied to the guy who, for all I know, sent Queen Elizabeth I’s skivvies to the cleaners, or did her taxes, or sang Italian love songs to her while they slurped on the same long piece of spaghetti. Who knows? All I know is that spaghetti ends up here, in Cape Breton, at my kitchen table, at this moment, by a series of mind boggling coincidences.
* * *
If I were prone to believe in conspiracy or karma or something more elaborate than mere coincidence; than poor decisions informed by semi-remembered memories and shit luck, I might believe there is more to the story of Giovanni Battista Castiglione, Queen Elizabeth I’s Groom of the Privy Chamber, her Italian tutor, her close friend and confidant, and my great^14 grandfather, than just a coincidence of genealogy.
I might believe that in that time of magic and witches, and powder wigs and thick dollops of lead-based makeup. In that time, and being that close to scandal and intrigue and power and dungeons, that perhaps, perhaps he is the one in my family tree going all that way back that somehow crossed the wrong witch, or practised the wrong magic, or got too close to the wrong Queen, or permanently defaced a perfectly good dungeon, or something to annoy the universe enough to punish his descendents through all time. To kill their wives, to give away their children, to make their moderately well-received independently published satirical crime-farce novels hit the peak of their success on the same day of a once in a 150-year insurrection.
If I were prone to believe things like that, I would probably rage at the universe too.
But I’m not. And I don’t. I know it's just a coincidence.
I’ve had enough jobs trying to organize meetings and events and group lunches and to herd horses off busy highways and chase cattle into particular pens to know that conspiracy theories are nonsense.
No one is that organized, no one communicates that well, no one keeps secrets that well. Not even the universe. Nothing much that happens actually happens according to any plan or on purpose. It’s all a lot of coincidence.
Coincidence like signing up to one of them ancestry websites to find a baby name, and instead finding the obituary of your long dead great grand aunt and the name of the baby she died giving birth to. A name that no one in your family had ever known until just then.
It’s Rosetta. She’s on Facebook. She lives a couple hours away.
* * *
1. In the words of Nova Scotia premier, Stephen McNeil
* * *
Morgan Murray was born and raised on a farm near the same west-central Alberta village as figure-skating legend Kurt Browning (Caroline). He now lives, works, plays, writes, and builds all sorts of crooked furniture in Cape Breton. In between, he has been a professional schemer, a farmer, a rancher, a roustabout, a secretary, a reporter, a designer, a Tweeter, and a student in St. John’s, Calgary, Prague, Montreal, Chicoutimi, and Paris. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Canadian Studies from the University of Calgary, a Certificate in Central and Eastern European Studies from the University of Economics, Prague, a Master of Philosophy in Humanities from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a participation ribbon for beef-calf showmanship (incomplete) from the Little Britches 4-H Club.
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