So, I am sitting on the back deck of the ferryboat Thomas Laighton on Sept. 18 en route from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Star Island, one of the nine Isles of Shoals between Maine and New Hampshire, for a weekend of contradancing. The ferry also carries a group of 40 or 50 people who will spend the weekend singing while the 60 or so of us are dancing.
My eye catches that of a lovely young woman talking to a man I later learn is her brother seated at a high-top table on the other side of the deck. We smile at each other. Where have I seen her before?
As we disembark at the island, she asks me the same question. Well, yes, she is a contradancer, but this weekend she is attending the conference for singers. She tells me she lives in Blue Hill, but, no, she does not work at the bookstore where I deliver Echoes magazine every three months. We ponder and resolve to figure it out during our days on the island.
The next afternoon, I spot her at a social hour talking to the registrar for our dance weekend who also organizes and calls contradances in Belfast.
“How do I know this woman?” I ask, interrupting their conversation.
A light bulb goes off: Belfast.
Her face is one I was studying days earlier in selecting photos to illustrate two poems on dancing in the next issue of Echoes. The photos were taken at a Belfast contradance in 2008. I had rejected a photo of her because I did not know her and the way she was looking at her partner, whom I know, was far too romantic to publish without knowing who she was.
I describe the photo to her as we chat on Star Island.
“That’s my husband, the love of my life,” she exclaims. “You mean you’re not going to use the picture?”
I learn her name is Meg Kelly Chittenden, and, of course, I send her the photo as soon as I get home.
“What a blast from the past!” she responds. “We were just married or maybe not even yet.” She and her husband, Ian, are now the parents of two children ages 3 and 5 and teach at the Bay School Blue Hill, a Waldorf school serving early childhood through grade 8.
Roll back the calendar a week. I am at a small dinner in Scarborough with Maine Public Broadcasting trustees honoring Maine native David Brancaccio. He hosts The Marketplace Morning Report heard on MPBN’s Morning Edition, and he’s here to participate with MPBN CEO Mark Vogelzang in the weeklong 350-mile tour called Bike Maine 2015. It starts the next day with MPBN partnering with the nonprofit Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
I am introduced to David’s father, Patrick Brancaccio, who has come down from Waterville for the evening. As we converse, he mentions he was an English professor at Colby College.
“I recently wrote an article about a book written by a Colby English major,” I say, recalling the Aug. 28, 2015, BDN column on “Lulu Goes to College” by Houlton native Barbara Bolton. We establish that they were on campus at the same time. “She would have been Barbara McGillicuddy,” I say.
He recognizes the name, and later recalls, when we speak by phone, that some of Colby’s more interesting students were “just like her — bright kids from The County or an island who came to college full of dreams.”
Of course, I contact Barbara Bolton after I return to Caribou.
“Yes, I remember Patrick Brancaccio,” she says in an email, but is surprised to think he would remember her.
“I didn’t have him for class, but two possibilities suggest themselves.”
“First, I was in a play senior year, ‘Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.’ Afterward, I heard roundabout that some prominent people from Waterville who attended a performance complained to President Strider about that poor girl from The County being allowed to play such a sexy role.
“Second, I had the uneasy feeling after taking the senior comprehensive exam that I could not possibly have done well enough to get a passing grade, but that perhaps all the American and English lit professors got together and decided to give me a break.”
She admits she was “sort of kidding” about the second one, doubting that professors got together to applaud her performance on the comps. Nonetheless, her memory of the anxiety is clear: “It was a nerve-wracking event that cast a long shadow over senior year, as it could sink all four years and keep us from graduating.”
If it is true there is no such thing as coincidence, then what causes these unexpected connections between people, and how should we interpret them?
In Maine, of course, the ties are closer — one degree of separation instead of the six that are supposed to connect everyone on earth. The frequency of these “small-world” encounters makes me glad I live in a place where people not only know each other but are happy to recognize and celebrate the serendipity that brings them together.
I find coincidences often lead to unanticipated pleasures and new directions that broaden and deepen my experience. I see them as reminders that we humans do not control the universe and being open to the unexpected has great rewards.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.