I Miss Serendipity
Effortless interactions are hard when everyone is wearing a mask
At my local wine shop the other day, I clumsily followed the list of procedures to buy a bottle of wine: Present the bottle to the cashier; sanitize hands before swiping card; use a sanitized pen to sign; put the pen in the “used” jar; bag your own bottle. “Too many rules!” I exclaimed, laughing at myself. The cashier gave me a stern look and grimly reprimanded, “These rules are very important.”
Just two months ago, I was buying wine from that same cashier and he let me use a paint pen to write a birthday message for my friend on the bottle I was buying. We brainstormed funny ideas about what to write. It was just a normal Friday-night errand, but bantering in the wine shop gave me a warm-fuzzy feeling of belonging in a big city, and brightened my mood. I would call this interaction serendipity: accidentally stumbling upon something good.
Serendipity rarely occurs inside the home, and even more rarely in very focused conversations. Serendipity implies enjoyable possibility, and there are only so many enjoyable possibilities that we have on a given day during a global pandemic. There is virtually no chance that I’ll have a pleasant and enriching conversation with a stranger at a wine shop.
And it’s easy to miss the possibilities when they arise, swathed as we are in masks, and shrinking back to give each other a wide berth. Last week, I was wearing my comically colorful raincoat, and I received a compliment from a stranger on the street.
“Great coat!” I heard in a muffled voice as a woman passed by me, walking off the curb to keep her distance. At first I couldn’t place who was talking. Masks really warp my sense of phonic direction.
I smiled, but then I remembered that she couldn’t see my smile, so I yelled “Thanks!” awkwardly loudly and awkwardly late, into the empty void ahead of me. It’s been so long since I’ve been given a compliment, I actually forgot how to take one.