I live just west of the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive manmade body of water that serves as a major water supply for Boston. It was created in the 1930s by flooding four small towns in central Massachusetts, whose former residents still gather to remember their homes that are no more. Today the Quabbin is a pristine jewel, a home for endangered bald eagles and a haven for wildlife of all kinds.
My regular commute to work takes me round the Quabbin’s northern edge. On the way my carpool partner and I often encounter great blue herons, wild turkeys, deer, foxes, and occasionally even moose. It’s a beautiful ride that makes the longish drive a positive pleasure, at least when I’m not on automatic pilot, just trying to get there or back as quickly as possible. After some early experimentation, I decided that this route was the most enjoyable of my three shortest options, and now I take it all the time; that is, unless something unexpected happens.
On the Thursday before last, the 18th of September, I had left work early to attend a lecture at UMass Amherst to be delivered by R. Radhakrishnan, an old mentor of mine who is now at UC Irvine. The topic of the talk was “What’s Wrong with Humanism?” and I was looking forward to it very much. At the halfway point on my drive, realizing that I wouldn’t have a chance to eat anything until quite late at night, I stopped to pick up a quick sandwich; which turned out to be a mistake, since when I went to restart the car, my key wouldn’t turn in the ignition. When the kind owner of a nearby repair shop sprayed some graphite in the lock to no avail, and told me that the entire lock would have to be replaced, I gave up on what was wrong with humanism, called AAA, and waited resignedly for the tow truck to arrive.
Because I was out of my immediate area, AAA had to send a tow truck from Ware, a town that had been cut off and left behind by the creation of the Quabbin. (I think of it as rather like the child who got left behind when the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the rest of the children into the mountain, never to return. It seems—admittedly, to an outsider—that it has never since been able to thrive.) The driver was a lean, handsome man of about my age who took the whole thing in his stride and allowed me to ride back home in the cab with him once he had secured my car on the flatbed.
We took a different route from my regular one, a long, slow drive down Route 32 from Petersham through Hardwick, New Braintree, Ware, and Belchertown, hugging the eastern length of Quabbin and then coming round the southern edge. It was lots of fun taking in Route 32, little more than a country lane, from high up in the cab of the tow truck and as he pointed out notable landmarks along the way, I marveled at the fact that I had never travelled this particular stretch of the road in more than 30 years of living in the region. It turned out that he too was an immigrant and had come to the US at the same time I had, nearly 45 years ago; also that he was a Scot and was looking forward with great anticipation to the results of the referendum that night. As fellow-immigrants we talked about our parents and children, dual citizenship, belonging and unbelonging; and as country-dwellers we compared notes about the night-time low temperatures in the past week, guessing at the date of the first killing frost, while the beautiful scenery of rural New England rolled on by, conjuring up inevitable feelings of late-summer nostalgia.
That weekend, my car back on the road now, I had the occasion to take a Sunday drive up the western length of Quabbin again, to visit old friends in Royalston, one of the nine towns in the North Quabbin region. On the way back, my mind full of my To Do list for the coming week, I was suddenly brought up short by a road block. They told me that there had been a bad accident up ahead and that the road would be closed for approximately five hours, so motorists were advised to take a different route. I had only two choices: to return home by a more westerly route or to go all the way around the east side of the Quabbin. Since I had neither a map book nor a global positioning system in my car (just the other day, I recalled with some embarrassment, I had been staunchly defending my choice not to purchase one) and the days were getting shorter, I didn’t want to risk going west through a warren of tiny unmarked roads in the gathering dusk. So I took the easterly option, which involved turning around and going up and around the northern boundary of the Quabbin, and back down and around its western and southern borders—guess what, by exactly the same route I had taken the previous Thursday.
What were the odds, I asked myself, that, not having taken that route ever before, I would be traversing it twice in a three-day period? Suddenly I had a powerful feeling that this was something I was meant to do, even though I had no idea why. I turned around very deliberately, and with a strange sense of the convergences of fate, drove up, around and back down those stunningly beautiful country roads, straining to pay attention to every little detail along the way in case it turned out to be significant. Nearly an hour later I was back home, having seen nothing of note—at least nothing that I was aware of —and still wondering what it had all been about. Surely this was too odd to have been nothing more than a random coincidence?
Over the next couple of days, as late summer pivoted into fall, I shared my story with a couple of my friends and asked them the same question. They too marveled at it, and the eminently sensible explanations they offered were eye-opening for me, but were both more and less obvious than the esoteric answer I had been hoping for. Susan said, “Maybe you needed to have taken the route the first time, on the tow truck, so that you knew the way home the second time round.” Carlos said, “Maybe you should pay closer attention all the time, because you never know when you are going to need to notice something.”
It is often said that there is no such thing as a coincidence. But it is a fact that I drove that never-before-taken route twice in a three-day period. I paid attention the first time, as the friendly tow-truck driver pointed things out to me all along the way, and I certainly paid attention the second time, as I strained to find meaning in what had happened. Both times, I was forced to turn off my usual automatic pilot and take in the beauty of my region with fresh eyes. Both times the experience was worthwhile for its own sake. And both times it took me home. Riffing on Freud, one could suggest that “sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.” But is any coincidence ever just a coincidence? Was there something I was meant to learn and have I learned it? The answers are probably staring me in the face.