Thursday, April 22, 2010

The serendipities of life

I love the word serendipity. I looked it up in the dictionary, and apparently it comes from a Sri Lankan fairy tale, was used by Horace Walpole for the first time in 1754, and means “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Apart from the joy I experience in listening to the almost ridiculous rhythm of the syllables, the word makes me think of a lucky dip, with its image of a ragbag of things put together by chance. A brace of serendipities has come my way over the past few days, and made me revel in the curious interconnections of life. The first relates to a painting I was looking at, the second to a book I had read.

I happened to be walking down Bond Street and saw a lovely Pissarro painting in the window of an art dealer. I plucked up courage to go inside (they are daunting places, these showcases for art worth millions), and after bathing in the glories of the Pissarro and other similar paintings, found myself unexpectedly in a room of more modern art, amongst them two lovely paintings by a painter from St Ives I had never heard of, called Paul Feiler. I noted his name down, thought no more about him, until the next day I read an account of an interview with Hilary Spurling, the biographer, who mentioned that with the first money she earned from her writing she went out and bought herself a Paul Feiler.

The second serendipitous event was perhaps more remarkable. A little while ago I read with great interest a marvellous autobiography by the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, whose background was very much that of the Austrian side of my own family. He lived the kind of Viennese intellectual’s life familiar to me, and I suspect, though have no way of confirming this now since there is nobody left to ask, that he was a friend of the family, or at least moved in the same circles as my grandmother. His greatest joy was his collection of signed manuscripts, mostly of music and letters by musicians, including those of the greatest composers, such as Bach and Mozart. He describes how he gradually built up this collection over the years, and then, as he was forced into exile as a Jew, how he eventually lost or sold it before fleeing first to England and then to South America, where he committed suicide in the 1940s.

I gave my son a copy of this book for his birthday a few weeks ago. He rang me yesterday to tell me that he had been introduced to the girlfriend of a fellow musician at a jazz concert who told him that she worked on manuscripts in the British Library. She was now looking at a collection which had been bequeathed to the library, part of (you can guess what I am going to write) Stefan Zweig’s collection.

I have written a book called The Pattern of Things, because I believe there is a pattern underlying all things, much of it unperceived by us but occasionally surfacing, as it has done with these two episodes for me, to remind us that all is not haphazard or chaotic, but instead, at some level, ordered. My work as acupuncturist encourages me in believing this, as it confirms for me this often hidden sense of order.

My final example of serendipity illustrates this. A patient of mine was unable to shake off an obsession with a previous boyfriend which was stifling her life. I told her that it was a pity that she could not meet him again to see how far her feelings were the remnants of something long vanished. She rang me that evening to say that, when she left me, she got on to the underground train to go home, only to find herself sitting opposite this man! They went off for a meal together, and she realised that she was well and truly over the affair. “I can’t think what I saw in him.” He lived in Scotland and she lived elsewhere in London, and the chance of their meeting on a North London train except for some fore-ordained reason was effectively nil.

What a strange, strange, mysterious world we live in, volcanic dust clouds and all, no doubt sent to mock our dangerous feeling that we control the universe.

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