How do our own expectations shape what we perceive as reality? How do we give meaning to the things we're presented with? As usual, I don't know, but I'm ready to speculate wildly.
Perception and reality
In the latest Weird Words writing group (the first one I've attended), we did some bibliomancy-inspired writing. When I came up with a few sentences through bibliomancy (method described below), it felt like they were clear reflections of my mental state; they told straightforward stories about my day.
But how much of that was chance and synchronicity, and how much of it was my own interpretation? That got me thinking about the experience of perceiving paranormal things in general. We see things through the lens of our own thoughts. Perception and reality are two liquids easily combined, oat milk and vanilla[^1], one flavoring the other to the point that you can't distinguish either of them.
The specific process I used to come up with a writing prompt—inspired by Liminal Earth's bibliomancy experiments—was:
- Roll two six-sided dice.
- Flip to the page indicated by the dice, using the first die as the first digit and the second die as the second digit. (So: roll a six and a three, go to page sixty-three.)
- Close your eyes and put your finger somewhere random on the page.
- Write down the word or words closest to your finger.
- Do this until you have something that feels like a sentence.
- If you have multiple books (like I did), switch to a new book for each sentence.
I've used a similar method for bibliomancy in paranormal investigating/divination (rather than writing). But that was before I had any dice, so I used a tarot deck to come up with the numbers. A regular deck of playing cards would work too, as would an online dice simulator. Basically, the only thing you need to try something similar is a book and something to generate numbers.
The original sentences
Here's what my bibliomancy yielded, unedited aside from punctuation that I added to help make it more readable. (Though of course the punctuation shapes the sentences.)
If possible, it's best to read them and then pause and see what they mean to you. That way, you can compare your own interpretation of the sentences with my own. That'll help you gather your own conclusions about whether I was projecting my own meaning onto these sentences based on what was on my mind, or whether there was something there that anyone might pick up and interpret in a similar way.
- Mushroom substrates, smaller rodents, then grayish brown—almost indistinguishable.
- Crow-sized, these forests through insects. What is vegetation?
- Clearly observed, she was practiced around Plymouth.
- Center myself. Her miracles—we are surprised.
- Researchers were Crookes, fascinating the UFO.
- More words, easy enough moments
- Would be, our believed. Good people.
These sentences came from these books, in this order:
- Peterson Field Guides: Peterson Field Guides: Mushrooms edited by Roger Tory Peterson
- Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Forests edited by Roger Tory Peterson
- The Interrupted Journey by John G. Fuller
- The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary by Clark Strand and Perdita Finn
- Researching the Paranormal by Courtney M. Block
- The Official Guide to Randonautica by Joshua Lengfelder and Auburn Salcedo
- Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallée
I didn't have any particular intention in mind when I selected the books. Passport to Magonia was already on my desk; the rest I pulled off the shelf somewhat randomly. One fun little coincidence is that my friend Courtney Block, the author of one of Researching the Paranormal, happened to be on the Zoom call as well (which I hadn't known in advance.)
The day I did the bibliomancy (and drafted this), I'd considered going to the woods. It would have been more than an hour on the subway, or forty-five minutes by bike. An exhausting trip, perhaps, but it was preferable to doing what I did the day before, which was turn in a big project and then sit at my computer and stew.
Why was I stewing? I had a bit of time between projects. I've been a freelancer for less than a year, and I'm usually juggling various overlapping projects. I rarely have gaps between work, except when I finish things early. So I haven't quite figured out how to handle slower times. I love having free time and want to be able to enjoy it. Instead, I worry I'll have a slow decline into irrelevance and that I'll never work again.
The day before this writing group, after turning in the project, I'd tortured myself with self-doubt. The day of writing group, I thought going for a walk in the woods would help me. I'm certain it would have, though I didn't end up going. I ended up absorbing myself in my own projects and eventually felt better. But hiking had been on my mind all day.
The bibliomancy brought to mind what I think of when I imagine a peaceful day of hiking: Slanting light through the budding trees, the soft rustle of birds in the rotting leaves, insects humming by. Mushrooms nosing their way up through the winter-stale underbrush. If I was lucky, maybe I'd run across a fairy ring, a little sign of magic, a nod hello.
In the bibliomancy, there's a whole story that parallels my imagined alternate day: the tale of someone going to the woods, experiencing something wondrous, being able to escape from reality, from the observation of others. There's a sense of experiencing the simple, everyday miracle that is being somewhere beautiful (as well as a centering and grounding related to the Virgin Mary and her protection). At least that's what I saw in the sentences that emerged. A peaceful scene, the day I'd initially imagined for myself.
I expanded the part that related to the woods based on my own interpretation, trying to tease out what the words meant:
Mushroom substrates, smaller rodents, then grayish brown—almost indistinguishable. These are the layers of the forest floor where mycelium creep.
To one who is crow-sized, the woods loom impossibly large. Through insects' eyes, the trees are a cityscape, a world. What is vegetation? This is a universe. These aren't plants to be used, harvested, shaped. They are a landscape, as immovable as mountains.
Clearly observed at every turn, she was practiced around Plymouth. She could be the person she was supposed to be when people were watching. But this forest was unfamiliar, terra incognita. She could be anyone here. More importantly, she could be no one. If the moss had never been christened, why should she be?
Center myself. Her miracles—we are surprised when they happen. But we shouldn't be. There's a reason why she's known for being powerful, and why so many people venerate her and offer their petitions.
Interestingly, that same day, I'd been thinking a lot about UFO-related deception and fraudsters. I read a review of Messengers of Deception, a book by Jacques Vallée about dishonesty and manipulation in the UFO subculture. I listened to the latest episode of The Invisible Night School, which featured Curt Collins, who talked a bit about UFO-related deception and hoaxes. And I'd edited the audio and text versions of my latest episode, in which I talk about some possible debunkings and theories of deception related to the mysterious airships of 1897.
So when I got the last three sentence, is it any wonder that I interpreted them to be about UFO deceptions, and expanded them thusly?
The researchers were crooks, in that case. The story was fascinating; the UFO was false.
More words, easy enough moments. The conversation flowed smoothly.
We believed they would be good people. Perhaps that was our mistake.
Synchronicity and perception
So at the end of the writing group, I found myself sifting through the layers of meaning that the bibliomancy unearthed.
- How much did my own perception create the apparent synchronicities between the bibliomancy and things I'd been thinking about the day?
- Even if another person might interpret the sentences similarly to how I did (did you?), was I putting my thumb on the scale by selecting the books that I did? I thought I was grabbing them somewhat randomly from my shelf (my main criteria was: what can I grab without needing to move a plant out of the way). But was I actually unconsciously choosing texts that mirrored what I was thinking of at the time (and thus ensuring that the resulting sentences would tie into my existing trains of thought)?
I wasn't trying to do an objective experiment here. It was just a fun writing prompt. But at the same time, it made me think about how we go through a similar process when interpreting other synchronicities and moments of strangeness.
Much like how I circumscribed the possible sentences through my book selections, a paranormal investigator sets certain parameters for an investigation by choosing certain tools. Someone is likely to get a fairly different result using a spirit box versus a pendulum versus a tarot deck. The possible answers are at least partially determined through the mode of inquiry.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. But it can be easy to forget how much of ourselves we lace into even the more "objective" facets of paranormal investigation.
[^1] I know this is a bizarrely specific simile. I apparently had muesli on the mind during the writing group, since oat milk and vanilla are components of my typical breakfast muesli. While revising this, I was going to change it to something more normal, but then I thought it was funnier to leave as-is. So here we are.