I knew I liked him early on by the way he told a joke. He had timing and delivery and the punch line was not telegraphed. Whenever I get off my mountain, I’m alert to serendipitous opportunities to meet such people and to get a peek into their lives. So on a recent trip to Atlanta for a couple of woodworking classes, I had the pleasure of spending a few nights with a dear friend in Asheville, one of the world’s finest and most civilized of cities. My friend is also a fine lady and like her adopted city, most civilized. As we sat around the dinner table with several of her friends, I learned straight on that I was in for a treat whenever the man who told the joke was speaking. Whatever he said in his measured and quiet way was well worth waiting for. As we all leaned forward for the answer to the question of what is the difference between genius and stupidity, he slowly said, “Genius has limitations.”
Making my way home a few days later after brushing up against a number of other equally fine men and women, I had the good fortune to hear Bob Edwards’ SiriusXM Radio interview with Anthony Marra who has written A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Listening to the program, all of a sudden I knew there seemed to be some deeper significance to the dinner party and the man who told the joke. The words “coincidence” and “chance” entered my mind. This man might well not have been invited or might have decided not to attend, since his wife was away and his thoughts were elsewhere, too. It was by chance and happenstance that he had opted to come.
Listening intently as I left Asheville, I started using what Marra was saying in the interview to see the link between my random encounter with this man and how such moments can have significant effect not just on our lives but on our children and their children. This whole idea of chance encounters coming out of the blue and paying us rewards both great and small is just so rich in possibilities. To ignore or gloss over these opportunities, which are often disguised or simply not recognized at first, steals from the bright and colorful tapestry that life has to offer.
Getting back to Marra, his book is about the war in Chechnya, a horrific tale of seemingly endless brutality and stupidity. In his story, the characters become real and sympathetic, even the former warlord who betrays friends, family, and village to the Russians for his own profit. So much of what happens to these characters is also often played out by chance and fortune, either good or bad. For no apparent reason, children are lost or saved, heroes and villains shed their moral skins at opportune moments to survive, true believers are forced to learn the need to compromise, and death comes just as regularly for the ready and the prepared as it does for those who are surprised and not yet weary or resigned.
In the end, there is no rational ordering of events in this broken landscape. Yet somehow, people do manage to survive in this everyday “cut your nose off” brutality. People sew their names and burial instructions into their clothes as they leave home in the all too sobering expectation that they might well be killed at any moment. And being good Moslems, they need to be buried properly and in their home village by those who care. An actual business in returning corpses to villages springs up. And in this thriving new trade, strangers come face to face in their particular interrelated and chance encounter with survival.
A few days before hearing the radio program, I sat in Atlanta having drinks and dinner with fellow scribblers I had known on-line but not in person. As we laughed and exchanged lies and committed other misdemeanors, I was aware that my mind was wandering in a conscious way. Similar to Natasha in Marra’s story, I felt as though I had gone through some kind of wormhole and “reappeared” in an unexpected and unforeseen setting, foreign in some ways with its noise and glamor but yet still familiar. I could imagine knowing these guys all my life, living in their big city, enjoying the newness it offers, swapping stories with all the clever people in this parallel universe. It was as though I was not just on a short detour out of my everyday life. I was in a delicate web of connection among characters who were now opening up with me to share details of their lives, lives I knew little about just moments before.
These connections are what makes my trips off the mountain so worthwhile. What is best are the return visits months later to confirm or deny my earlier impressions. In Marra’s stories, reappearances sadly are unlikely. Often when the burial instructions are found sewn in the pant legs of the victims, the lost souls are “already in the clouds” of the city crematorium. Unlike the hapless dead in Chechnya, however, I have other chances, other “reappearances,” to learn more about the characters I have met and enjoyed. We all have the opportunity then to continue our stories, spinning out more details to enjoy and ponder.
Sadly, that’s not the case in so many other encounters in life, especially if you’re born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. The sister of one of the war dead, Marra tells us, would give her all “if only to hold the final wish of the brother she regretted giving so little for in life.” As the lyrics of a song from another time go, “There but for fortune may go you or I…”
So as all of our constellations continue to swirl at their own pace and energy, the dynamics take us to various realms we thought we might never visit. When we were little, our future spouses were playing on school grounds in places far, far away. Friends who would some day become close were strangers then and following paths we would never tread. On the dark side, forces are also always at work that might well bring our constellations into real collisions. Sleepy drivers nodding off on interstates can interrupt all our possibilities as they bear down on our entry lanes. Children of other gods are always out there, too, “in an uneven orbit around a dark star” meaning us harm.
Even though many of us think we want to live well-planned, organized and stable lives, I suspect we often shortchange the importance that chance and the roll of the dice play in our lives. If we do all the right things, save our money, invest systematically, get our annual checkups, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and stay intellectually curious, we think we’re on the road to prosperity, well being and wisdom. But as we know, dog poo happens and the good too often die young, the virtuous are not rewarded, and the villains take over. All we have to do is consult Ecclesiastes to know that:
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
So what I’ve learned over many starts and stops is to never close an eye to the chance encounter, the stranger who has his story to tell. Who knows, there’s always the chance that we might learn something new about what makes us all tick. When we engage, I want to remember you. I want to hear your jokes, how you managed to grow up without a father, what music has meant to you, why you still fuss with your adult son, even though he’s so much like you. We’re all here for such a short time that we need to lean on and learn from one another whenever chance gives us the opportunity.
When our paths cross, I want our collision to be meaningful, a full impact. Even if I’m in a second-rate nursing facility eating third-rate cat food, I want you to give me a bear hug of a full-frontal embrace. I’ll be less than satisfied with anything but a slap of what Marra calls the constellation of vital phenomena — a storm of ideas about how best to organize our lives and discover how to avoid the irritability of the world while keeping on the paths to higher ground and growth. We must learn to replicate our positive ideas in others and cope with the hurdles as we adapt best we can on this trot down a bumpy road.
Who knows, we might even find some unexpected ties that will bind us even tighter together.
So in passing along all the unsolicited advice I can conjure up, the secret is to keep alert, show some kindness, and remain open to the new and the unexpected. Stay gold, pony boy.