I’ve often reflected on the small things, the coincidences that may not seem important at the time, but can unutterably alter the future course of a life. Obviously this reflection tends to happen when I’m not quite as busy as I have been in recent weeks, as I’ve barely been able to keep up with this blog. I have themes and ideas backed up, if only I could work out when or how to commit time and energy to the writing.
When I was 13, my parents returned from a routine meeting with my teachers, with the suggestion from my music teacher that I might like to take up an instrument, for example, the French Horn. That conversation changed everything. I did take up the Horn, it did become a major part of my university social life, I do still play today, and I met Rachel in the university orchestra.
When I was 18 I failed to get into Oxford University. At a loss to know what to do next (I hadn’t failed very often up to that point) I ended up on an exchange scheme, on which I went to High School in Princeton in the US for a semester. There I truly blossomed, coming out of my intellectual, angst-ridden, insecure teenage self into a new environment where noone knew me except for who I was right there and then, with no baggage. This huge boost in confidence shaped me for my life at university and beyond.
Before I left for the US at the start of January, I was awaiting offers from other universities. My 2nd choice after Oxford was Durham, who wrote to say that they wanted to interview me (despite already having achieved 3 Grade ‘A’s). My 3rd choice was Exeter, who offered me a place without any interview. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to schlep 450 miles round-trip to Durham, just days before leaving for America for 8 months. Almost on a petulant whim, I declined their ‘offer’ of an interview and accepted Exeter: job done.
In the first months of my final year at Exeter, I was feeling bad. I’d enjoyed and then suffered a very brief, fairly intense relationship (my first for 2 years), I was putting a good deal of pressure on myself in my studies, while Britain was entering a recession in which the job prospects for graduates were pretty bleak. And then my father’s mother died. She had been very ill following a stroke for a long time, but it still hit me a lot harder than I cared to admit. My housemates were all due to travel up to Oxford for a party with friends who had graduated the previous year, but because of the timing of the funeral, I didn’t go with them. I was in Exeter alone, and fed up. So I hosted a dinner party (my first) for friends from the orchestra. We ate and drank and went onto The Lemon Grove, semi-legendary and mostly tacky student night club on campus.
And it was there, on Saturday 23rd November 1991, 20 years ago last month, that I first met Rachel; on a night out that by all normal expectations would not have happened, but for the seemingly random event of my grandmother’s death. We talked and I walked her back to her rooms – she was a 1st Year. We drank coffee and laughed a long time about Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It wasn’t all completely plain sailing after that, but my life since that weekend has been different, in a very, very good way.
The title of this post was taken from the writings of Frederick Buechner, an American theologian.
The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.
Every Christmas Rachel and I like to watch the Frank Capra / Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Not because of the carol-singing at the end, not because Clarence gets his wings, but because of its wonderful life-affirming message. Good people who treat other people kindly matter. They do make a difference. The film goes through a lot of darkness before emerging into the light: don’t forget George Bailey tries to kill himself in the opening moments. There’s frustration and disappointment aplenty before the bell finally rings.
Some things, events, decisions in our lives barely register at the time but can have amazing consequences. Other things feel like the whole world has exploded or been ripped from under you (like almost everything when you’re 17), but in the end don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, it all matters, but often in ways we cannot predict.
I try not to spend too much time reflecting on the what-might-have-beens, as I can’t change them now, and I’m glad of that. But I often remind myself to be grateful for the coincidences and chances that brought me here.