Last week I described my year-end process of reflection. I loved the stories readers left in the comment section. As you’ll see below, they influenced my process.

One reader, Gwen Stamm, spurred a question in my mind. Is there a word that could combine both the idea of play and discipline, two superficially opposite ideas? I pondered . . . .

Then my husband Stuart sent me an article The New York Times called How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.

As I read the article, I began to feel some familiar symptoms. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, describes the moment of arrival of a new idea this way: “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy.”

This is it, I thought. Here comes the gift I’ve been waiting for all December and knew would arrive just in time.

Moon over Orlando. A wishing moon.

Moon over Orlando. A wishing moon.


I’ve long been a fan of this word and of the experience I thought it named. But the article deepened my understanding of the term, its history, and its application to my life now. Like most people today, I’ve used this term to mean a lucky coincidence. But when the word first arose, in 1754, it meant having a special skill for observation. In that way SERENDIPITY is not about luck but about cultivating an ability to NOTICE.

When we are consciously looking for CONNECTIONS, my word for 2014, we find them more often. Even mistakes and blind alleys can lead us into the light when we expect SERENDIPITY. An information science researcher at the University of Missouri, Dr. Sandra Erdelez, says that when it comes to intentional observation, three groups exist: the non-encounterers, the occasional encounterers, and the super-encounterers.

The super-encounterers want to know how to cultivate the art of finding what they’re not seeking!

They are like the three wise men seeking the baby Jesus in the story Christians celebrate on this day, January 6 as Epiphany. (The fact that I started to write this post before I knew it would be published on Epiphany just gave me one of those little electric thrills.)

Epiphany in Christian faith is the story of the first revelation of the Christ child to the gentiles. It also has a literary and psychological history as a feeling. This feeling, sometimes described as a breakthrough, or Eureka! moment, is rare. It often follows a long search. James Joyce, especially in Dubliners, probably did more than anyone to secularize the word epiphany. The term, however, continues to carry a spiritual meaning because it requires a leap from known to unknown rather than a logical extension of facts.

Since I chose this word on January 3, I’ve already had several epiphanies. Friends who have heard what I plan to do in 2016 (the subject of my next blog post) have used the word SERENDIPITY to describe how their quest and mine relate to each other. One of them has proposed a collaboration based on the name of my next writing project.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 7.58.14 AM

Oh wait, I didn’t tell you about my next writing project yet. The time must not yet be ripe. Until then, I expect to find more things I’m not seeking. 🙂

I know many of you have written or will write about your word. Please include a link to your post if you have. Did you experience any SERENDIPITY in your quest for a theme word? Do tell!

Shirley Showalter


  1. Laurie Buchanan on January 6, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Shirley — A practitioner of intentional observation, I love the deeper meaning of SERENDIPITY that you shared here: “Cultivating an ability to notice.” And I’m eagerly looking forward to your next post when you’ll share your plans for 2016 (way to dangle a carrot!).

    My focus word for 2016 is Alliance. Here’s a link to the “why” behind this year’s choice:

    • Shirley Showalter on January 6, 2016 at 1:18 pm

      Thanks, Laurie, for starting the conversation today. You have taught me a lot about noticing and serendipity. I think you would really enjoy reading the NYTimes article embedded above, but you probably know most of what it says.

      I hope other readers will click on your link, not just to discover the why behind ALLIANCE but also to find a whole array of theme words from your many readers.

      And 2016 is the year you publish your book! Hip, hip, hooray.

  2. Merril Smith on January 6, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I absolutely love this word. Thank you for sharing its more nuanced meaning.(I suppose it’s like how “sensibility” was used in the 18th century, as opposed to how most people use the word now.)

    Although I don’t choose a word for the year, I think I’ve become more open to connections (I LOVE connections!), so I hope to also be more open to serendipity with some epiphany, as well. 🙂

    And good luck with your next writing project!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 6, 2016 at 2:19 pm

      Yes, Merril, I think you are right about the similarity to the older meanings of “sensibility.” You would love reading about how Horace Walpole coined the term “serendipity.” It’s in the NYTimes article above.

      You may not use a single word to guide you, but you definitely are following a creative path with your poetic posts. I think readers will love reading this one:

      Happiest of new year surprises on the wing!

      • Merril Smith on January 7, 2016 at 1:27 pm

        I realized I had read of Walpole’s invention of the word, but I didn’t remember it.

        I love the idea of Serendipity Studies!

        Thanks for sharing my post here. 🙂

  3. Marian Beaman on January 6, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    You obviously enjoyed playing with words here and ended up with a rich post, a result of disciplined research and a touch of magic.

    Serendipity is one of the first 5-syllable words I introduced to our grandkids. Sometimes Curtis gives me an example from his own observation.

    When I write, I occasionally come upon a serendipitous moment like yesterday when I got captivated with 1950s kitchen linoleum floor. Who knows whether this detail will make it into my memoir, but the exploration was fun while it lasted. I wish it happened more often.

    You have generously invited us to link to our own guide-words found here on my new post. Thank you:

    • Shirley Showalter on January 6, 2016 at 2:29 pm

      Thank you, Marian. I clicked on your link above and don’t see the comment I wrote early this morning. Perhaps my iPhone swallowed it or I didn’t hit enough send buttons. Anyway, I thought Whole-Hearted was perfect and the post was one of the best.

      You must trust the serendipitous moment and do so with a whole heart! Even if you don’t include the historical detail, you will stand on it. 🙂

      I have this feeling that 2016 is going to be a great year for your memoir.

  4. Joan Z. Rough on January 7, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Wonderful word, Shirley. And knowing some of what you’ll be doing this spring, it does sound like serendipity to me. It is actually very close in meaning to the word I chose this year: Mindfulness. Being able to notice what is happening within and around you in this very moment tosses up so many new possibilities.

    My first photography exhibit here in Charlottesville, way back in ancient history, was entitled “Epiphany,” and opened on January 6th. The photos were very close up images of flowers and very abstract. The epiphany for me at that moment was that flowers speak to us in a mysterious, silent language.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 11:50 am

      Joan, you have had so many artistic gifts and artistic seasons in your life. I am amazed by you. I did not know you in the flower photo stage of your life, but I am sure they were and are wonderful expressions of your complex, multi-faceted, creative self.

      Yes, mindfulness and serendipity go together. I will look forward to seeing how they play out in our lives and work.

      You will be entering the joy of harvest as you prepare to launch your book. Mindfulness will help you not rush before the event and savor during and after!

  5. Sherrey Meyer on January 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

    I love the word “serendipity,” but never knew its relationship to observation. Now I like it even more, because I see a tiny bit of connection with my word “intentional” which hopefully will cause me to observe the world and others more closely and, therefore, find serendipity. You’ve opened windows and doors on a new experience for yourself and many others with this post! Thank you, Shirley, for being you.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Yes, Sherrey. Intent allows us to see. It brings to the surface ideas and objects that might otherwise have languished unnoticed in the background.

      Glad you enjoyed the background on the word SERENDIPITY. May your INTENTIONs take you to new places you haven’t even dreamed of yet.

  6. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on January 7, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    What wonderful connections and inter-connections between your finding the word and the meaning of the word and the season of Epiphany.

    I feel so much joy here, and wholeness, along with inspiration to “WRITE” (my word).

    “G-d’s word and G’-d’s Spirit belong together, like G-d’s breathing and G-d’s speaking,” said Jurgen Moltman.

  7. Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Yes, Dolores. As your WRITE, I wish you many G-d moments when you experience the hair on the back of your neck standing straight up.

    Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop: “Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.”

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on January 7, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      mmmm…I’m lingering with Will Cather; thank you Shirley.

      • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on January 7, 2016 at 12:37 pm


  8. Carol Bodensteiner on January 7, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I have observed many times that when I begin to think about a new project, the information I need begins to show up in all sorts of ways. Serendipity. Others have pointed out that all that info was out there all along, but now I’m open to noticing and receiving. The deeper meaning of Serendipity. As you point out in your response to Sherrey.

    I don’t choose a word of the year, but I’m happy to know yours and to watch how it plays out in your life over the next year. All the best, Shirley.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      Thanks, Carol. I think writers in general know this experience of becoming able to observe that which was there all along. Same thing happened to me as a pregnant woman. All of a sudden, there were other pregnant women, and babies, everywhere. 🙂

      I look forward to watching your life play out in 2016, with or without a theme word!

  9. Chris Donner on January 7, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    I love serendipity. There is a lot of joy in that word.
    My word for this year is CHOOSE. I want to make more mindful choices in my life, instead of allowing life to choose for me by default. My blog post is at

    • Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 1:52 pm

      Hi Chris, welcome to the conversation! CHOOSE is a good word to choose. :-)And I am enjoying browsing your blog. Hats off to you for posting every day! Hope others find you also.

  10. Audrey on January 7, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    Shirley Thank you for the info on the origins if Serendipity. I so appreciate knowing this delightful spin on the word. This view of it seems to connect with synchronicity.I will enjoy exploring that further. My word for 2016 is actually 2 words, “Manifesting Dreams.” No time like the present!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Audrey, yes, the present time is the best time. And yes, synchronicity is a very close cousin to serendipity. Thanks for helping me think about both of them. Carl Jung loved the idea of synchronicity, and I have resonated with the 1990’s book by that name. May you have many synchronous, serendipitous adventures this year as you manifest dreams.

  11. Marylin Warner on January 7, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Shirley, everything you share in your posts about your travels and adventures and family–and also in BLUSH–combine to make your story belong among the stories in How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity. I hope your posts this year will share examples and details of your journey with your chosen word.
    I’ll be writing about my word tomorrow. It’s almost a cliche, but it’s the word that has appeared again and again as I’ve coached two beginning writers, and suddenly I realized that it’s as much my own necessary guiding word as theirs.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Marylin, “when the student is ready, the teacher will come.” And guess what? It might come in the form of a student. I’ve had that happen to me also. Did it make you feel rueful or amused or disconcerted? Maybe just grateful?

      Looking forward to reading about your word and how you found it. The journey is more important than the destination.

      Thank you for seeing that serendipity is a pattern in my life. I gratefully acknowledge the truth of that statement and want to live into the mystery even more as time goes by.

  12. Janet Givens on January 7, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    The Serendipity Singers, remember them? That’s what I’ve long thought of when I hear the word, serendipity. Until now. No more “Crooked Little Man in a Crooked Little House” or “Oh no, don’t let the rain fall down” for me. Thanks to you, Shirley, serendipity has real staying power, substance. And my wordfor 2016? I’m experimenting with “enough” at the moment. Hoping it will be enough.

  13. Shirley Showalter on January 7, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    Ha, Janet. My cousin Mary Ann reminded me of that folk group also. I went to YouTube and found a video of that song. Now it’s an ear worm.

    Enough. That’s a word that will ground you. A good one for after a battle with technology. Right? I wish you deep satisfaction as you realize that you are enough and that your work is enough too.

  14. Kathleen Pooler on January 8, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    I’m catching up here, Shirley and thoroughly enjoyed how you brought your word for 2016 alive through your descriptions and back story. I love serendipity because it encompasses so many images and emotions of excitement passion, exhilaration, wonder. I had no idea what my word was going to be until I wrote my blog post and it showed up. How serendipitous! Here’s the link: I’m looking forward to hearing about your next writing project. Wishing you much success and happiness in the New Year!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 10, 2016 at 2:22 pm

      Glad to see you here, Kathy. I enjoyed reading about BALANCE in your post and love the image of the balanced rocks. I wish you a health and happy 2016 with just the right amount of security and excitement to keep life interesting!

  15. April Yamasaki on January 11, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Hi Shirley – I love Serendipity, and the way you connect it with Epiphany is beautiful. I especially love the part about cultivating the art of what we’re not seeking! Then too, I see serenditipy as part of wonder which is my word for the year: I’ll browse through the other comments and links, and look forward to more serendipity from you in 2016 🙂

  16. Elaine Mansfield on January 19, 2016 at 10:00 am

    I read that article in the NY Times, Shirley. The word serendipity dances and you danced with it. I love the way you’ve connected it to epiphany and both feel connected to a favorite of mine: synchronicity. I don’t have a specific word for 2016, although I see the value of focusing on a theme. There’s a sense of order and purpose with a theme. Seems I have to stay with the messy chaos I’m given for a while and trust it will lead to a clearing.

    I like the diamond shape used so often in Buddhism. I look forward to seeing where you go and what you find. Surprises, I’m sure.

  17. June on January 22, 2016 at 12:39 am

    Dear Shirley,
    I have truly enjoyed joining you on this journey on your blog. You indeed picked a good word for 2016, Serendipity. I would like to tell you about some serendipitous events. I made a quilt for my sister-in-law, she is divorced from my brother. The day that I finished the quilt, including the quilt label was the anniversary of her Dad’s birthday. He passed away many years ago now. I sent it off in the mail via Canada Post. I told my sister-in-law to call me once it arrived. Here is another serendipitous event, it arrived on her Mom’s birthday.
    I have not yet been to my sister-law’s home, I had no idea the colors in her home. Here is yet another serendipitous event, the quilt complemented her colors in her home beautifully, as if I had been there. Now, here is yet another serendipitous event, not ever being to her home, I had no idea how small her bed was, slightly bigger than a twin, smaller than a double, and wouldn’t you know it, the quilt fit her bed perfectly. You are so right, we need to notice serendipity, God’s hand in how perfectly He lines things up.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 22, 2016 at 10:20 am

      June, thank you for sharing this story. It reminds me of another gift of a woven wall hanging commissioned by Goshen College and given to me when I left the presidency to go to the Fetzer Institute. The artist could not have known it, but the colors of her woven work of art were the same unusual shades of purple and grey and green that surrounded me in the new location.

      Serendipity comes to us when we see it. May you have many serendipities as you continue to serve others with love and with your art.

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