Life happens when you least expect it. Which is to say that serendipity can be a wonderful thing. Most researchers will tell you, in fact, that many scientific and medical breakthroughs (penicillin, anyone?) were the result of happenstance.
The unexpected happened or something zigged left when it should have zagged right, and rather than bemoaning what went wrong, the smart folks ran with the moldy bread. Often to grand results.
This all came to mind today via the 2010 version of serendipity: links that turned up in my inbox. The first came from Maggie, a former student that we first met here, where, a few months out of college and teaching English to unappreciative French teenagers in Lyon, she raised the question of whether growing up meant making peace with life’s uncertainties. Which may be how she found herself an accidental tourist at a distant relative’s dairy farm outside Skiberdeen, Ireland, thanks to the cloud of volcanic ash that left her stranded at the Dublin airport.
Faced with an uncertain future at the airport bar, she decided to call her long-lost cousins who invited her and her traveling companion to spend an epic week at their farm on the edge of the sea, where they ran with the cows, toured “the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen,” and drank minute’s old milk out of an old Irish Whiskey bottle. She called it the best phone call she had ever made:
My relatives live in the same farmhouse that’s been in the family for five generations and probably longer. It’s a dairy farm, and their cows produce some of the milk for Dubliner cheese (best cheese in the world). Across the field, you can see the quaint little stone church where my great-great- grandmother was baptized. From the top of the hill, you can see the westernmost point of Ireland (and nearest point of Europe to America), Fastnet, which is a lighthouse on a rock 8 miles from the mainland into the Atlantic. Alan, one of the sons, used his friendly connections to get us on a boat out to that rock, which is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life (though the choppy boat ride back was terrifying). The day before, his older brother Kevin took us on a 6-hour driving tour around the area, pointing out memorials and giving us history/Irish language lessons along the way. Good stuff.
That other link? That one was for a delightful piece in the latest Oprah magazine by Elizabeth Gilbert (Full disclosure: I may be the only woman in American who still has not finished “Eat, Pray, Love.” Please don’t hate me.) In an essay essentially about her mother, she revisits the time her mom turned Gilbert’s absolute and abject disappointment at not being chosen for the lead of the third-grade play — it was about a lemonade stand – into a show stopping two-line triumph:
Opening day: The play droned to life. Bored parents fanned themselves in the audience, straining to hear mumbled lines. When I exploded onto the stage, as confident as (and dressed rather like) a drag queen, I could feel the crowd pop awake. Towering over the cast, I sashayed toward the lemonade stand and drawled languidly, “May ah have an oatmeal cookie and a glass of lemonade?” (The honeyed Southern accent had been my mother’s brilliant, last-minute suggestion.)
The audience hollered with laughter. Still in character, I drawled my next and final line ( “Thank yoooouuu!”) to the three dumbfounded stars and began my exit. But—not so fast. The audience was still laughing, still loving this 8-year-old Blanche DuBois. And that’s when I had a clarion revelation: They still need me! This is when I made the charitable decision to give the crowd just a little more Mrs. Fields. Instead of heading for the wings, I swished back to center stage, dropped an imaginary quarter on the lemonade stand, and ad-libbed, “Keep the change, sugar. “
Afterward, Gilbert was allowed to “ revel in exactly one hour of triumph,” then it was back home to do her chores. What was significant, she writes now, was the critical survival lessons she learned from her mom. Chief among them – at least as far as our accidental post is concerned:
If life gives you lemons, don’t settle for simply making lemonade—make a glorious scene at a lemonade stand.
Which brings us back to that idea of serendipity – or its converse: the five-year plan. Maybe you should ditch it. Because sometimes, you’re most likely to find what you’re looking for when, you know, you just stop looking for it.