Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.


17 thoughts on “Catalysts

  1. I have a catalyst, but I have the essence of it as a poem, and it’s too long to put here. It’s the big turning point of my life, the decision the result of a huge internal shift, to leave everything and everyone I knew in Europe, and come to live in Australia. I can’t express adequately the sensation of everything just going… sideways, at an angle to the established course of my life, after my first short visit here. It took nearly 2 years to make it happen, and I never once had second thoughts, either then or in the years since. I have simply come Home.

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  2. Dear Laura,
    Reeling with unexpectedly falling in love a few weeks ago, and also not exactly reciprocated but you know, they will take whatever offered…I couldnt sleep night after night, 2am, 3am, 4am – not good for work the next day. Suddenly the emotion reassigned itself into poetry (havent written since my 20s, now in my 50s) four nights in a row. The next day a friend asked me to listen to his poetry being read at an open mic session on the weekend. I said yes but we are amusingly competitive so I said I write poetry and I bet mine is better – anyway i, one of the most introverted people you could imagine and with a very sore throat from a compromised immune system, ended up reading to a room of at least sixty. It was amazingly cathartic. But even more so meeting two real poets afterwards, they so much in tune with their deeper intuitive perception but recognized something in myself, it made me feel momentarily like the Ugly Duckling finding the Swans – one extremely talented young man actually gave me a book of his poems. I am still dealing with unrequited love but its all making me more conscious – and isnt that what life and love are all about?

    Pandora’s God-Daughter.

    I do envy you,
    That effortless, pragmatic ability to be able to compartmentalise.
    You allotted me the toy box, implicating to stay nice and quiet within until told otherwise.
    And I admit, many of these things, so novel and shiny, have mesmerising beauty.

    I noticed too the safe bunker to have chosen for yourself and her. Impenetrable.
    And noticed then. Are those windows really large enough to let the light in?
    And the walls. They seem so ground-hogged, Oedipal.
    Shouldn’t be, not after witnessing years of implied sunsets.

    Pandora I am not.
    Left to my own devices and long enough, I start to throw out the toys with increasing violence.
    Hitting against each other, they split off into a million shards of time and light.

    How dare you not see the treasure we were so randomly assigned.


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  3. Laura! I have too many to list but synchronicity has ruled my life since I learned what synchronicity is (others may call it miracles and other things.) I do think if we are on the path (and willing to change our life by following a dream) – then we have these magical events happen. 🙂

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  4. It was listening to Ben Hewitt’s interview by Audie Cornish on NPR, in response to Ben’s article in Outside magazine. I had just picked up my 3 year old son from his grandmother’s when the interview came on the radio. I literally was hanging my mouth open in awe during the whole interview, and had to stop the car to take notes afterwards. He was describing an entirely new world of education that made perfect sense to me, one that I would have thrived in as a child. Instead, I cried the day I learned that school went all the way to 12th grade, instead of stopping at 5th.
    Fast forward from the interview on the radio, I am currently working full time while building my family’s house single-handedly, while my wife stays home “unschooling” our (now) 6-year old son and 2 year old daughter.

    A catalyst indeed.

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    • What a testament to the power of shared stories as well as the power of public radio. You sound like a very busy man but I hope you take a moment to copy what you wrote here and send it on to Audie Cornish and Ben Hewitt. I promise you, it will mean the world to both of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Laura. I have been in contact with Ben several times through his blog and other ways. He helped me with a few design features of my house, during the design phase.
        I had not thought to contact Audie, but you may be right. I might do that. Thanks.

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  5. Hi Laura,
    What a wonderful post this was. It’s good to be invited to reflect on those turning points that have made us who we are. The more I thought the more of them popped up and some of them I had never thought of before us turning points. For example I had what we used to call a maiden aunt…a great-aunt named Viola who had been unlucky in love, divorced in the 1930’s, and had no children. Fortunately for me, she took a great interest in me, especially when she realized I was the only other person beside herself who loved to read in our family. She lived in California, and I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I’m curious now about what random conversation that she must have had with seven-year-old me when she visited us for 2 weeks on her way home from a European vacation that made my young mind catch her eye so to speak and decide to cultivate it. But she stayed faithful to some vision of me that I certainly didn’t have of myself at the time, and when I was eleven she sent me a beautiful hardbound copy of the first book of The Lord of the Rings for my birthday, and went on to send me the other two as they were published. Those books changed my lonely childhood and my life, and deeply formed my values, my vocabulary, my whole falling in love with language. Within a year or two she had also sent me my first book of poetry– Lewis Untenmyer’s collection, illustrated by Joan Walsh Angland. It was full of poems that were too difficult for me–a great gift. From that book I was drawn to memorize poems and my patient mother let me read them out loud to her while she put up her hair in curlers every night and got ready for work the next day. Who would I be now if she had not sent me those books? I have no idea.

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    • What an impact your Great Aunt Viola had! It’s so fascinating to look back and find these causative factors isn’t it? I’m sure there were myriad other factors that led you to be the writing/teaching/poetry-loving person you are to day but still, wow.


  6. I love this idea and am a huge fan of the chaos theory… I can point out and recall events that have changed or impacted my life yet am not sure I’ve found my calling or a sense of peace from it all …

    Interesting to think about…


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