“There are people walking so softly ahead of us we don’t even perceive them.” – Mike Anderson, singer-songwriter and storyteller of Jacksonville, Ill.

OK, let’s get something established right off the bat: This post isn’t going to be about little miracles, divine Providence or God’s intervention in my daily life. To the extent I even have a concept of God, it’s like Tillich’s ground of being or St. Paul’s invocation, at the Areopagus in Athens, of an unknown god in whom we live and move and have our being. He, she, it or they (depending on your interpretation of the persons of the Holy Trinity) certainly don’t run around doing errands for me.

But there have been several little coincidences lately that make me want to reconsider the possibility. Around the tables in 12-step groups we like to say a coincidence is what happens when God chooses to maintain God’s anonymity.

Another word for it, which I like better, is serendipity.

Serendipty is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” According to Online Etymology, it was  coined in 1754 by an English writer, Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Orford, who “said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip [an old name for Sri Lanka],’ whose heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.”

So here’s how my accidental discoveries began. It started, appropriately enough, when I was running an errand.

One evening last week musician and storyteller Mike Anderson emailed me. He’s got a CD coming out, a collection of Christmas songs for children that he performs in his persona as “Hugo Kringle,” (Kris Kringle’s little brother), and he needed a review for Dulcimer Players News, a magazine I’ve contributed off and on to over the years.

Sure, I said. When’s the deadline?

Well, we’re a little past deadline, Mike answered. The sooner the better.

It’s been a few years since newspapering days, but I enjoy writing to a tight deadline — it reminds me how much less stressful life is now, even during a global pandemic. So Mike arranged to send me mp3 files of the songs, along with liner notes and some promotional material, and I promised to have him a draft the next day.

And that’s when the little coincidences, or serendipities, started to happen.

Since I wanted to look at a couple of reviews in DPN before attempting to write one of my own, I went scrambling around in my home office to find a copy. (What happened next won’t surprise my old students at Benedictine, where my faculty office was notoriously cluttered.) So as I was riffling through a stack of old magazines and legal pads, out fell a copy of a book titled Harmonica for Fun & Health by blues harp player David Barrett and Dr. Dennis Bucko, a physician who studied blues harp with Barrett and helped him write “specially designed lessons and information for those with COPD and related pulmonary diseases.”

This discovery, to slightly misquote Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford, certainly involved something I wasn’t in quest of. I was just trying to find a copy of DPN so could get a better idea of what they were looking for in a record review.

But it fit the category, to quote Webster’s, of “valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” A couple of years ago, I ordered it when I found out that playing a harmonica, or mouth harp, involves some of the same muscles I learned to work with in pulmonary rehab, and the COPD Foundation has a program called Harmonicas for Health with an accompanying booklet. I keep a harp around and blow into it occasionally — it’s more fun than an incentive spirometer — but I haven’t done much with it.

So when a harmonica book literally falls out of the sky (OK, OK, I’m exaggerating, it fell out of a stack of papers on my bookshelf), I start thinking.

And when it happens six months almost to the day since a global pandemic forced us to put our jam sessions at the Hickory Glen senior high-rise on hiatus back in March, I start thinking about serendipity, coincidences and the potential value of things not sought for.

I’d already been thinking about ways I could replace the human interaction, music and singing of pre-pandemic days, and writing about it on social media. One more intersecting problem: I’ve been experiencing eyestrain lately, and my doctor has recommended I take an occasional break from arguing with trolls and anti-maskers on social media, and find something to do that doesn’t involve staring at a computer screen all day. Like playing a harmonica?

So this was beginning to look like a first-class instance of intersectional serendipity.

The upshot: I did locate a copy of Dulcimer Players News (in another stack of papers), and Mike’s mp3 files arrived. When I played them, I was captivated by a catchy little tune of Mike’s that he calls “The Stars.” I played it back a couple of times, and picked up a C harp that was lurking in the clutter on my desk. Found the notes. Went back to writing. Picked up the harp again. Played Mike’s tune again. Went back to work. Finished the review. Sent it in. Picked up the harp again. Played a couple more tunes.

Out of the same stack of books and papers, fell a book of hymn tunes and some literature from the COPD Foundation. Since then I’ve gone on YouTube and found some instructional videos for playing Irish slow airs and dance hall songs. And I’ve made a list of tunes I can practice. Maybe it’s a start.

I don’t know how long this will last — I know myself too well to make promises — but finding that copy of Harmonica for Fun & Health looks like what Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford, might have considered an agreeable solution to several intersecting problems, discovered by accident and sagacity when I was not in quest of it.

And — who knows? — it may not be entirely irrelevant that the book fell into my lap, so to speak, when I was doing a favor for a friend.

A couple of (musical) footnotes

  1. Mike’s CD, “Dance Like Frosty,” was released Sept. 7, by the way. It’s a collection of songs he wrote for his “Hugo Kringle” shows, primarily for children aged 7 and under but utterly delightful for adults as well. Ordering information and links are available on Mike’s Facebook page.
  2. I’m embedding a YouTube video below that might seem out of place in a spiritual formation blog. It’s by Nick Jackman, a harmonica player and multi-instrumentalist from New Zealand, and it shows how to play “Molly Malone” (or “Cockles and Mussels”), an Irish folk song immortalized by the statue of Molly Malone (the “tart with the cart” pictured in the attached video) at the foot of Grafton Street in “Dublin’s fair city / where the girls are so pretty.” So what’s it doing here? Well, if I jotted down a note with the web address and left it on my desk, I might never find it again.

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