When I was a lonely teenager, I had the conviction that the key to life was to turn the right direction down the right street at just the right time so that the Important and Spontaneous Thing could happen. I went on a lot of aimless walks where I dithered at the street corners under the immense pressure of being open to fate. Usually, nothing interesting happened. Now I think that worrying about serendipity is counter-productive. I focus more on walking confidently in a (semi) clear direction. But sometimes the random turn at the random moment does turn up a true, pure serendipitous thing.
Take my last night in Dublin this September. I had gone out to look for some dinner. I was crossing the street, when I looked left and saw the sunlight shining on a bridge over the river. That’s where I’m going, I thought, so I did. On the bridge was a man in one of those Irish caps. He had binoculars, and he was looking at another man who was stumping around in the mud where the river usually was when the full moon hadn’t pulled the tide so low. What’s he looking for? I asked the man with the binos, and he gave me a look.The man in the river had a trowel in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. I think he was a treasure hunter.
The man with the binos’ name was Joe and he was from Dublin, and we started talking about things, which was a huge relief after four days in a hostel where no one wanted to put down their devices long enough to have a conversation. (Tangential rant: people, when you’re traveling, please get off the internet and talk to people so I can have some faith in humanity.) Joe decided to show me a block on Henrietta Street where all the old tenement houses were still standing, so we started to walk across the city.
When we got to that one particular block, we heard music coming out of a building. Joe inquired and found out they were the Na Píobairí Uilleann — the Uilleann Pipe Society — recording a radio show. They invited us in to listen.
So there I was, fifteen minutes into a conversation with a stranger, in a basement with a bunch of Irish musicians playing incredible music. If you don’t know this, in studio shows are much more constructed than they sound. They don’t record the things in order. They recorded all the music, then took the clapping separate. We’ll take the applause for Sheila now. And we’d all (including Sheila) clap our hearts out. You can listen yourself if you like, thanks to radio archives. Maybe you’ll hear me cheering.
Later, Joe and I were eating chips on a picnic table, when an old man in a dirty coat rode up on a bicycle. Joe offered him some chips, which few people would do in the U.S. The man sat down with us and told us stories of his time in Brooklyn and of marching against the Iraq war, even though he felt it was futile. I never did get dinner, unless Guinness and chips count, but I did get to listen to people I so easily might never have met. I don’t know if this was an Important Thing like I was imagining as a girl. It was something more subtle than money or love or fame or purpose. But I felt the current — the story — that moves through life. I felt that sense of possibility. And that’s still a reason I walk down the street.