After my daughter Nina had been in Cameroon for about a month, her college class took a trip to the northern-most part of the country, where they visited an old man who was a fortune teller. This is the way it worked: he would put certain tiles into a basket that was filled with water and sand, place some crabs inside and put the lid on. While the crabs were busy in the basket, the visitor would be invited to ask three questions, after which the Crab Man would open the lid to the basket, remove the crabs and read whatever message they had left in the form of rearranged tiles. My daughter was enchanted by him and was delighted with the answers that he gave her.
A few weeks before the semester ended and Nina came home, she and I were remarking on how unpredictable life could be, how we would never have guessed, back when she was a little girl growing up in rural Montana and using pancake scraps to train her chickens to do pirouettes, that she would end up in Cameroon, teaching dance, surviving cholera, attending dowry celebrations and frying plantains. Things haven’t always turned out as she wished, and her path has not always been easy, but she said to me over the crackling phone, “You know, Mom, I have decided to think of my life in terms of trajectory instead of plans. It just makes more sense.”
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. We would all be wise to consider her comment, and parents more so than anyone else. Plans tend to focus on the outcome or destination, such as attending a particular college or being a ballet dancer. Success or failure often depends on reaching that very specific goal. Trajectory has much more to do with the start than the finish. There may be a direction or aim in mind, but with trajectory, our attention is concentrated on constructing a solid platform from which to launch our dreams— or our children. Trajectory feels riskier than plans: once we release our children, they are out of our hands and we have that heart-pounding opportunity to watch as the wind and the tide exert their influence. But I suspect that this is what we parents should be all about. We lay the groundwork; we sweat the small stuff; we build a foundation of love and trust, of respect and responsibility; we build it as solidly as we can so that the jump, when it comes, is clean and clear and steady, and most of all, is theirs.
The Crab Man spoke to my daughter of many things that day when she visited him, and coincidentally or not, his predictions mirrored her aspirations. The crabs or the tiles indicated to him that she would complete a “work” and then embark on another that would take her around the globe, and that she would also return to Cameroon (something she already has in the works). Did the crabs have special powers? I am not all that familiar with crabs, so I can’t say. But what about the Crab Man? Was he prescient? A con artist? Or did he just see how comfortable my daughter was in his village?
He spoke his own local dialect and had another villager translating his words into French. Nina was fluent enough to be able to then translate the translator’s words for the other students. Did the Crab Man take note of this, of how carefully she tried to convey the words both ways? Did he notice how she spoke with respect and listened with concentration? Did he see the shadows and the intelligence in her eyes when she was playing with the little children and the baby goats that ran around the hut? I am betting that he did, that he was a master of reading not just crabs and tiles, but trajectory. I suspect that the Crab Man wasn’t predicting so much as he was just stating the obvious, at least what would be obvious to those who know to look at what IS in order to catch a glimpse of what will be.
What would change, do you suppose, if you were to shift your focus from plans to trajectory?
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Postscript: I wrote this blog post last summer, but I decided to submit it to several magazines. Most publications won’t consider work that has already been made public, so I had to wait until it was rejected (over and over, ouch) before I could post it here. But the delay has not been without benefit.
The story continues: I just got word from my daughter that she has been accepted for a summer internship with— you guessed it— the State Department in Cameroon. I am thinking about making a trip to see the Crab Man myself.