What Makes a Life Lucky?

Some people have an unnecessary aversion to luck. I met a woman who works in a gorgeous library, writes adolescent literature in her spare time, and was planning on attending an upcoming conference of the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). I said she was lucky and she was immediately up in arms.

I am not lucky. I have worked very hard for a very long time and made smart decisions to get where I wanted to be. Luck had nothing to do with it.

My head was in a weird place at the time being newly-independent of the family homestead and still drowning in advice centered on the idea that my chronic underachievement (now known to be OCD) was due to the kind of laziness you could beat back with the stick of willpower. I called her lucky because I saw how happy she was in her life (happy is a legit synonym for lucky, by the way). Luck is defined as “the things that happen to a person” and her reaction to me felt like a gut-punch.

“I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” Charles R. Swindoll

We all have moments of vulnerability when we happen to run into someone or something that seems to take advantage of how crumby we’re feeling. We’re not in a place to react well, so a woman asserting her agency in her life’s unfolding can make a job-hunter who just moved to town feel like a complete schmuck. Luck of the draw, you might say.

There are certain things we just don’t get to choose about our lives, things that just happen to position us well in the world. I am lucky to have been born to a white, middle-class Christian family (Roman Catholic, specifically). I am lucky to have had a mother who pushed me and my sisters to put our educations first — after we put quite the kibosh on hers — and fought to find her own path (finally getting her combined Bachelor’s-Master’s just before I got my own undergraduate degree).

We are all of us as hard-working as we can be. I felt bad, hurt, after what the woman in the library said because completely discounting the place of luck in our lives is another way of saying that anyone who isn’t successful is just plain lazy. What hurt more though came later as I turned what she said over and over in my mind and thought about other kids — past, present, and future “chronic underachievers” — who would read the subtext of “lazy” in her writing as her personal philosophy stains the pages of her stories.

“Sharon Stone once said, ‘You can only f*ck your way to the middle.’ I would put it this way, ‘You can only luck your way to the middle.'” Elizabeth Gilbert

Besides being born into a certain starting-amount of luck, things going on in the world around us can change the baseline of our luck throughout the whole of our lives. When we are aware of luck, it’s our awareness of that which brings up the question of whether we are optimists or pessimists. You know, all that glass half-empty/half-full stuff meant to show each other how we see things.

My father and I once took the scientific approach and discussed the glass being always full because even when it is empty of water it is full of air. He said you could never completely empty the glass because if you hooked up a vacuum strong enough to suck everything out of the glass, the glass would at some point shatter because it can’t collapse in on itself like the plastic bags used for vacuum-sealing. My happy-go-lucky little brain (I must have been about eight at the time) latched on to this idea that you cannot empty a thing without destroying it.

My father is a devout Catholic and a nuclear engineer. Every now and again the two seem to merge and he says things that are inadvertent poetry and I feel lucky to be his daughter and to bear witness to these little gems. There is a kind of work to luck, you have to be open to it and look out for it and go looking for it.

“Little Hut, Little Hut! Turn your back to the trees, and your face to me.” Many a Slavic folktale

When I was small — four or five, basic reading skills, but still primarily concerned with pretty pictures — I came across a pen drawing or woodcut picture of a little house propped up on single, giant chicken leg. It was like Mister Rogers’ Land of Make-Believe and Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre combined (my dream of dreams). I wanted to go to there and live in there and bake all the things for all of time.

In kindergarten, the school librarian read us the book Babushka Baba Yaga about a misunderstood fairy tale figure who just wants to be a grandmother and hug squishy babies (like grandmothers do). Besides ever after being obsessed with finding an excuse to cover my head with colorful scarves (or the one red bandana I owned), I identified with her yearning to fit in among those she continually overheard saying things about her which frightened children and weren’t at all true.

As my love for fairy tales and folk stories and fables deepened, and as I gorged myself on more and more of them, I became well-acquainted with the hag Baba Yaga. Sometimes she rewarded the good and punished the bad; sometimes she just wanted to eat whoever happened to enter the hut; some stories have three Baba Yagas, each with their own mood. Always, you cross her path only by seeking her out and asking her chicken-legged hut to let you enter.

“So much begins and ends with longing,” Gioia Timpanelli

Like so many of the protagonists in the stories, I saw the hut first and then Baba Yaga. I wasn’t seeking her out exactly. I sought magic and adventure and — as luck would have it — she pointed me in that direction just like she always does.

People get up in arms over the idea of being lucky because they think it discredits their work, and they inadvertently discredit everything that surrounds them; history, science, picture books. We are all of us as hard-working as we can be. The rest is magic.

A combination of luck and work lead myself and a woman to be in a gorgeous library on the same day at the same time and in a position to speak to each other. She was confident and made her philosophy known while I was too vulnerable to express mine. When I say I am lucky, I am expressing gratitude for the everyday magic we are each afforded in the opportunity to make the most of today by virtue of our deciding to live happily ever out there.

Talk to me about what makes you lucky or how the luck of others gets you moving or thinking or questing, and leave a comment.