Fortuna is most widely known as the Goddess of fortune, the Goddess of luck and Carl Orff’s favorite deity, both the opening words to his Carmina Burana and the punchline of a really bad pun (“How did Carl Orff get cats to sing his composition?” “Oh, for tuna.”). She is often depicted with a Wheel of Fortune, both a deep metaphorical symbol for the apparent capriciousness of destiny and a TV game show.
I once had the honor of playing the piano on which Orff composed Carmina Burana in his home in Diesen—this is true!—and improvised a Wheel of Fortune blues:
“Oh sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down.
The Wheel of Fortune spins round and round,
Gets you cryin’ in the corner or dancin’ in your shoes,
What happens ain’t up to us to choose,
I got the Wheel of Fortune Blues, yes the Wheel of Fortune blues,
What happens just happens, ain’t up to us to choose.”
After I finished, I looked up at his widow Frau Orff and asked, “Was it okay for me to play that?” worried I had trespassed on the sacred piano. “Carl would have loved it!” she burst out and that made my day—or year.
At the age when I get to go in early to shop at Trader Joe’s, I’m working hard on not just being older, but deserving the title of an elder. We have data and information and knowledge, we have fantasies and dreams and hopes, but when all of that joins together with lived experience and a lifetime habit of reflection, something approaching wisdom begins to surface. And that’s the role of the elder in any culture, to offer as needed some slice of wisdom to the young people who find that door closed simply because they haven’t lived long enough yet.
So the image of the Wheel of Fortune is helpful—though not the whole story. The elder will have lived through enough cycles of collapse and renewal to begin to understand that “this too, shall pass.” What appears as disaster contains some hidden seeds of renewal that the elder’s eyes can clearly see.
Take politics. In my lifetime, the Presidencies have been Republican, Democrat, Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican, Republican, Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican, Democrat. Six of one, six of another. In terms of years, that’s 40 years of Republicans and 28 (plus 4 more to come) of Democrats, but f we take Eisenhauer out of the loop (as a Republican that was much closer to Democrat policy) and include Biden’s 4 years to come, that’s 32 years each. Back and forth, up and down, the Wheel of Fortune spun by American voters keeps turning.
Note that last sentence. The political wheel doesn’t spin on its own as a destiny out of our hands. We not only get to actively spin it but we can determine where it lands through our efforts to be informed, understand issues, value character, consider the future for our children. So yes, there clearly is an element of a fortune out of our hands, things that appear to happen because they’re in the right place at the right time, have found themselves at some tipping point. (Or the wrong place at the wrong time and yes, bad things can happen to good people.) Part of any wisdom is understanding and accepting that we are in dialogue with the Other World where unseen hands are spinning our fate, never to excuse us from doing our work, but also to humble ourselves to understand that efforts alone are often not enough.
Orff’s life—indeed, all our lives—can certainly be read as a ride on the Wheel of Fortune. He meets the right person at the right time in 1924 and begins his visionary work as a composer and an educator at a school where he is hired to teach music to young modern dancers. That sense of being in the right place at the right time meeting the right person stayed with him his whole life, as precisely the needed person for his vision to unfold shows up at his side time and time again. He himself couldn’t write a better script at the seeming chance meetings and apparent coincidences that allowed each step of his work to unfold.
And yet, this also was during the Nazi regime in his homeland, plenty of times when it felt like the Wheel of Fortune was stuck at the bottom and might never rise again. But it did. Both personally in his life and collectively in German life.
And here in the U.S., we’ve spent four years astounded that what we thought was bottom kept getting lower, evoking nostalgia for people like Bush and Nixon. And then lower yet. And then the pandemic, things briefly looking better and now everything closing yet again. O Fortuna!
But wisdom says, with the help of our daily choices and fervent prayers in any style, the Wheel will rise again (even as the literal Ferris Wheel just installed in the Golden Gate Concourse had to close again as we re-entered the Covid Purple Zone.). Though there seems to be so much evidence to support the notion of life as random and all of us subject to the caprices of Fate, I keep my vision set on the larger cycle of destruction and creation, death and renewed life, collapse and new growth. It’s a good way to see us through the end of so much that we thought was solid and dependable in the world we’ve known—from the simple acts of being able to shake hands with someone, sit in a restaurant together, sing and dance with people to leaders who hide their lies suddenly flaunting them and trying to bring down every foundation stone of democracy we depend on—suddenly feeling undependable, not something we can count on.
So we are indeed in the zone between the old world dying and the new world yet to be born. It is the world Yeats felt over a hundred years ago in his poem The Second Coming,with lines like: things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
But a new center was formed from the chaos and wisdom tells us that’s where we are now. Though we appear to be stuck, the Wheel of Fortune is turning and from where I sit, it is on the upswing. With our help, of course.