At a recent reunion of my high school class in Berkeley, California, I was surprised to learn that for years, a former classmate had been enjoying Thanksgiving dinner in a small northern California town in the company of a local artist who, as we suddenly realized, happens to be my niece. Neither my former classmate nor my niece was aware that both of them knew me. In case you are in the same quandary as I am, trying to determine whether this was coincidence or miracle, I’ll just say for the record that the likelihood of my niece and my former classmate ending up in the same small town tries my understanding of the universe. My niece is from a small town in Vermont. That she should become an artist, that she should even be a professor of art at a community college in California, was not the future anyone would have imagined for her. Nor is life in a small town the future I would have imagined for my former classmate, who for decades was a celebrated sous-chef at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley temple of California cuisine. But there you have it.
This was, for me, an example of a miracle. And such miracles were revealed one after another as this visit to the West Coast continued. I had hitchhiked through southern Europe with the author of the textbook my niece was using; another family relative is — okay, that’s enough. The point is this: either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. If the latter, then we should yawn and head for the open bar at cocktail parties, where we learn that our current significant other held that same position in the life of our current boss. But if the former, then our chatter should ascend accordingly. Instead of blabber, conversation becomes the search for that miraculous connection to another person. Who is this person we are drinking with? Where does this person really come from? What does this person really think about? How does this person decide where to live, how to eat, whom to live with?
It’s okay to say “hello” and comment on the weather in our daily chats. But the fact that we share the same weather conditions is just one of those coincidences. Beyond that, miracles are to be found in our conversation. The longer we stand there at the loathsome cocktail party, glass in hand, chatting away about weather and sports, the closer we come to the miraculous connections we are seeking. Miracles are everywhere. The catch is that we have to seek them out. We aren’t just talking about sports and weather when we talk about sports and weather. We’re looking for the common bond that is already there, waiting to transform us into something greater than the sum of our coincidences. You might want to call that larger entity a community. But take it from Webster’s dictionary. It’s literally a miracle.