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By David Pérez
Three years ago, I began doing crossword puzzles on a regular basis, primarily to keep my mind sharp as age set in. I was approaching sixty, and felt the more brain food the better. I didn’t tackle major leaguers like those in the Sunday New York Times; more medium-level puzzles from USA Today or Simon & Schuster, or in magazines published by Dell or Kappa, the kind you find in supermarkets and airports.
Almost immediately, I noticed how I would read or hear a word somewhere, only to find that very word as a clue or answer on a subsequent crossword puzzle, usually one I worked on minutes and sometimes seconds afterward. To wit: my wife Veronica answers the phone, “Hi Mary.” The next clue: “Actress Mary et al.” I see a documentary on Muhammad Ali. Two puzzles later: “A boxer from Louisville, KY.” I read a story about bees. A puzzle later: “Busy as a _______.”
At first, I chalked up the phenomena as simply a series of strange but cool coincidences, a lucky streak where the dice were rolling in my favor. Then the happenings expanded to include descriptive phrases—for instance, reading about “creepy crawlers” and having it appear word for word in my next puzzle. This time I wondered if perhaps the universe was “telling” me that doing crossword puzzles was indeed good for me, a cosmic thumbs-up.
Then things got really weird. In the fall of 2015, I landed roles in two community theater productions in my hometown of Taos, New Mexico that would run back-to-back. The first was the musical, “Annie,” where I would play Rooster, the bad guy with a memorable singing and dancing number called “Easy Street.” The second play was “The Odd Couple.” My role would be one of the wisecracking poker buddies of Oscar and Felix.
After reviewing the rehearsal schedules, I called each director and told them that with a little juggling I’d be able to do both productions. Later that evening, I snuggled into bed and opened up my latest “All Theme Crossword Puzzle” book. Six across on the first puzzle read: “A musical featuring a red-headed orphan.” The very next puzzle: “What Oscar Madison is.”
I know. Whoa.
Not long after, I was working at the office of SOMOS, a literary organization in Taos, when a supporter came in and donated boxes of books and DVDS for our used bookstore. Among the movies was “My Cousin Vinny,” which Veronica and I had seen many years ago and loved. I bought the DVD and my wife and I watched it that evening. Then we retired to bed. I took out my pen (yes, I always do crosswords with a pen), and started in a new puzzle. And there it was. The clue: A courtroom comedy with Joe Pesci. Thirteen letters. My Cousin Vinny.
Can you say super whoa?
At that point, I realized I was experiencing a serious case of synchronicity, a word coined by Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung to describe the “acausal connecting principle" that links mind and matter. This underlying connectedness manifests itself through meaningful coincidences that cannot be explained by cause and effect. As far as I could tell, this certainly applied to my puzzling puzzles. What could possibly be a cause and effect about a crossword written in the past by some stranger that happens to correspond—word for word—with something I’ll be doing in my present, which for the puzzle writer is in the future?
Synchronicities, by their very nature, involve patterns that transcend the usual limits of space and time. They provide a glimpse of something beyond our normal rationality and our general understanding of linear time in particular. With respect to “My Cousin Vinny,” someone donated the movie on the day I happened to be staffing the SOMOS office. I watch it the evening after I had bought a new crossword puzzle book written, again, by someone in the past. A connection has occurred linking all these peoples from varying moments in space and time. Talk about mind-bending.
Synchronicity, I learned, awakens and expands what we believe, what we don't believe, and what we might believe, in a way that brings a sense of enchantment and new possibilities into our lives.
But what did the crossword puzzle enigma mean?
I mentioned the phenomena to my friend, Richard, who teaches Qigong and Tai Chi. First, he congratulated me for simply noticing the phenomenon. “A lot of people will be totally oblivious to what’s blatantly in front of them, or they’ll shrug it off as meaningless,” he said. “You’re appreciating it, David, questioning it. It shows you’re paying attention. That’s the main thing.”
That resonated with me. When I become an actor several years ago, one of the first things I learned was the importance of paying attention, of engaging your senses so as to be fully present in the moment. One early exercise had everyone in class pairing up with a partner and talking with them face-to-face for a minute or so about anything at all. The teacher then instructed each pair to turn back-to-back and try to recall something about each other’s appearance: their hair color, whether they wore glasses, what kind of clothing they had and so on. I think I remembered that my partner had big earrings, but that was about it. I wasn’t paying attention.
But is that all the crosswords were telling me? I wondered. That it’s nice to pay attention?
I told Richard about a theory I had come across online that stated that synchronicities work like a mirror: the outer world reflecting the inner world and vice versa. As demonstrated by quantum physics, the isolation and separation of objects from each other is more apparent than real. At deeper levels, everything—atoms, cells, animals, and people—connect and flow with each other. Physicist David Bohm, for example, posits that everything in the universe is part of a continuum, that animate and inanimate matter are inseparably interwoven, enfolded throughout the totality of the universe.
“Heady stuff, “I said.
Richard agreed and added that Taoists called what was happening me “being in a stream,” meaning that I was riding a specific current that somehow contained elements of time both past and present, a current I’ve tapped into.
“But the synchronicities might not necessarily signal some guidepost from the universe,” Richard continued. “In fact, the individual synch itself may be silly and nonsensical, but still have that signature of just being highly improbable, and indicative of something bigger at work.”
“I don’t know. Might not be big at all.”
“Is it normal, or paranormal?”
“There’s no difference. Just be in the stream, David. That’s enough.”
Then, as if our conversation had opened another cosmic spigot, other signs of “the stream” began to occur. Or that I was paying attention more. Or both. I’d be driving and thinking about visiting my family in Florida, only to have a car pull in front of me with a license plate from “The Sunshine State.” I’d make a note of needing tomatoes to buy, only to have my neighbor show up with a basket of heirlooms. It got to the point that I was exclaiming “The Stream!” every time a car or person arrived at the same street corner at the same time that I did. Was I taking things west? Perhaps. Yet I was also feeling incredibly alive, connected to all living things, reveling in the stream.
Two months ago, I called my brother George, who lives in Orlando, Florida. George is a world-famous comic book artist; among his many accomplishments is illustrating forty-one issues of Wonder Woman, a series that revamped Wonder Woman’s storyline and inspired the hit movie (George’s name appears in the credits). We stay in contact, but not as often as either of us would like.
At some point in the conversation, I mentioned to George, for the first time, how I liked to do crossword puzzles.
“Me too,” he said. “I do them mainly at night.”
“Me too!” I replied, and told George what kinds of puzzles I liked. “I’m currently working on Simon & Schuster Mega Crossword Puzzle Book #16, the one that has 300 puzzles.”
George told me to hold on. After several seconds, he returned to the phone. “That’s the exact issue I’m working on!”
“Wow, what puzzle are you up to?” I asked.
“I’m on 230!”
“This is incredible, Dave! Cue the Twilight Zone music. What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know, George. It’s the stream.”
And so here we are. As of this writing, the crossword puzzle phenomenon continues unabated. Veronica talks about angels. The next puzzle relates to Maya Angelou. I read about the paranormal. A puzzle later: Beginning for “normal” or “legal.”
I still wonder about the why of it. I mean, why crossword puzzles of all things? Does the “cross” refer to the past, present and future intersecting at the same time, a “crossing”? Does “word” refer to my being a writer and actor, two forms of storytelling, each encompassing the “word?” Or do I simply have a personalized Trickster who enjoys messing with my head this way; the only why being there is no why.
Whatever the case, I’ve decided to just enjoy being in the stream. One doesn’t have to have an explanation for everything. In fact, it’s okay to not know, to accept that are exist endless possibilities for connections and knowledge, and that it’s cool simply to be enchanted.