Once when I was a struggling student I had an opportunity to go to Ottawa with a group I was working with part-time. It was a business trip, junior though I was, and I was second choice. The prime candidate ended up being unable to go. But, it was my first time to Ottawa and I would likely have a bit of free time, so I was pickled tink.
I decided almost immediately at least one thing I was going to do – visit the National Gallery of Art. I had heard about an exhibition of First Nations art that sounded great. One piece in particular captured my attention. It was an installation by Rebecca Belmore called A Gathering of People for Any Purpose.
She collected from women she knew their favourite chair to sit in; the place where they sit to enjoy their morning coffee or afternoon tea. She also asked them to record something about their lives; a story from their life. For the exhibition, she attached a tape player to each chair and the owner’s story played on a continuous loop. The idea was that you sat in this woman’s chair and listened to her tell a story about her life, in her own voice. It really was quite incredible. Absolutely at the top of my list of things to do during my stay in Canada’s capital.
So I did my research. I checked gallery hours, exhibition still on, cost, etc. Ready Freddy. Let’s hit the road.
I arrived in Ottawa, met with my team, got my marching orders and headed off to complete my tasks. A few hours later, done and done. Off I go to the gallery. Well…
I get to the gallery and find that this was the day they switched to shorter winter hours and the gallery closed in 45 minutes. Not a lot of time, but I could at least see the one exhibition. However, something about me must have said “poor, starving student” because she added that if I waited 15 minutes, I could get in free. Oh, what to do? What to do? Shave fifteen minutes off an already short timeline or cough up full fee?
“Where’s the gift shop?” I asked, assuming I could pass fifteen minutes in there, no problem.
Fourteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds later, I was poised at the entrance gate, ready to make a direct dash to the exhibition, Beeline with a capital B.
I bypass all the national treasures. Resist my natural “Squirrel!” instincts and find my way directly to the exhibition.
I stand in the doorway and take it all in. It’s simple and unusual, but beautiful. There were about ten chairs set in a circle, all facing the centre. Each one different – an easy chair, a vinyl and chrome kitchen chair, one draped in fur. Headsets slung over the back of each. The floor was unusual, too. There were old-fashioned linoleum tiles, and rugs or carvings on the floor. And the lighting was really subtle, yet somehow intense. I think I was a little awestruck.
As I stood there, I really puzzled over which chair I was going to sit in. I figured at best I only had time for one. The chair the chair that intrigued me the most was the easy chair. But. But, there was only one other person in the room and he was sitting in the chair next to the easy chair. Headset on, head bent, held in his hands, clearly heavy in concentration. I figured it would be rude to sit right beside him, so being the Canadian that I am, I sat in the chair opposite.
A little disgruntled, I don the headphones. The story start somewhere in the middle. She spoke of early Spring and how much it meant to her as the hunters returned from their winter camp, her beloved grandfather among them. She described the smell of the air as the snow melted and the rich earth and tender shoots beneath were revealed. It was a touching, evocative tale.
Beautiful though it was, it wasn’t the story that made me gasp. That gave me chills and covered me with goose bumps. It was the voice. The voice was one from my past. A ghost.
The voice belonged to a woman I greatly admired. I met her only briefly, but she left a deep and lasting impression on me. She lived more than a thousand kilometers away, deep in the northern wilderness. Circumstances, sadly, kept us from keeping in touch.
Yet, here I was sitting in an art gallery exhibition I almost didn’t get in to see, in a city I had never been to and arrived only by some fluky stroke of misfortune, covered in goose bumps listening to the voice of a woman I met once, so long ago, and never again.
Call it luck, coincidence, fluke, whatever you like. For me this was pure serendipity.
Do you have a story of chance or coincidence? A story that gives you goose bumps? Would you share it with us in the comments below? We’d love to hear about it.