Given the disparate events in our world, we make stories of our lives bit by bit. This process we engage in can give us a unified field, a wholeness shaped from chaos. Some bits of our stories are easy to fit into the unified field—making a friend, getting a raise at work, hiking on a cool, sunny day. But I’ve been thinking about chance events, how they fit into a life, and how they can influence us in ways we never expected.
San Francisco-based reporter Marco della Cava recalls such a moment last August when the news broke of comedian Robin Williams’ death. While Della Cava felt terribly, he says his “sunken state was quickly buoyed” by memories of a chance encounter, an unexpected lunch he shared with Williams several years prior.
Della Cava had ordered a meal at an eatery in Mill Valley, California, and then quickly found an outdoor table in the sun. “Without looking at the stocky man in sunglasses, I asked if it was OK to share the table. ‘Be my guest,’ said Williams in his impossibly soft off-duty voice. I did my best not to do a double-take.” The two ate in silence, until a woman approached the actor to say that his movie The Fisher King had changed her life. After she left, Della Cava said to Williams, “It must be wonderful to know that work you have done can affect that people that way.” Williams replied, “It’s truly an amazing thing.” And a memorable conversation began, which ranged from the quality of Italian bicycles to the new Argentinian pope to Williams’ impromptu imitation of Brazilian samba-dancing nuns. A half-hour later, Williams offered, “Hey, thanks for the nice lunch.” Della Cava’s reminiscence ends with thanks to Williams for the work he has left to us, to the world.
The reporter’s story reminded me of a chance meeting with the writer Lucy Grealy, the summer before she died. In June 2002, Lucy was a faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where I was a student in poetry. Late one afternoon, a fellow student and I gave her a ride into North Bennington where her car was being repaired. We talked a bit, mostly niceties; then we dropped her at the repair shop. Of course, if we’d known that those two weeks at Bennington would be the last we’d see of Lucy, our conversation might have taken a turn from the mundane to something more substantial. Yet we weren’t confidantes, and I was oblivious to the addictions that would take her life.
That afternoon in Bennington, however, shows us to be fellow travelers whose lives intersected unexpectedly. This scene lay dormant in my psyche until the numbing news of Lucy’s death came via email from Bennington in December 2002. That chance encounter, and her early death, caused me to look again at Grealy’s work. After having beaten a rare cancer, Lucy had, of course, considered how to make meaning of unexpected events. She wrote in her essay “My God” that often enough, important moments become so only in retrospect, that we are slow to recognize meaning in our lives. She explained that “if you’ve denied every ‘now’ moment in your life, you are still moving forward toward that final inevitable moment,” when you must see meaning in your life.
In retrospect, I needed to know Lucy’s story and her perspectives. While I was finishing up my MFA that summer, I was also going through one of the darkest times of my life—from a drawn-out divorce after a long marriage to the deaths of my father and my brother. To be truthful, I saw very little meaning in my life that afternoon in North Bennington. Only several years later could I consider Lucy’s assertion in “My God” that we must see meaning in our lives. By then, I had taught a number of workshops on the power of narrative, and helped others to tell their stories. It was time to make sense of my own story. Thank you, Lucy.