A cover story

IMG_2392Our mini-family moved to Arnhem recently, a lovely city near the German border some of whose highlights include the river Rhine, a beautiful zoo and a very well-dressed populace (owing to the presence of one of the country’s biggest art academies). It also happens to be the hometown of a lady named Margriet Smits, who made the collage that’s on the cover of my dissertation – meaning I found a small print version of the collage in a diary published by a local community arts centre (which, in turn, I surreptitiously fished out of someone’s recycling bin a couple of years ago because it looked colourful and unused and might be turned into origami paper, or envelopes, or greeting cards, or other crafty objects I never actually get around to making) and asked them for permission to reprint, because sadly I never managed to track down Margriet herself.

I had Googled her, of course. Googling Margriet every once in a while even became a small hobby of mine, considering the absolute gems that would turn up – even if only half of the results were about her rather than about someone else with the same name, Margriet was clearly one badass (and considerably eccentric) lady, one who hugs trees and dances in leaves (“No, I don’t talk to the trees, we prefer to communicate in silence”), chases off burglars (with a metal rod intended for age-proofing her shower!), does not hesitate to perform mouth-to-beak resuscitation in an attempt to save a dying goose, and recently collected 80,000 bottle caps for charity.

The more I learned about Margriet, the more I wanted her to know about the book on formal semantics that had her art on it. (Well, part of me wanted to. The other part recalled the burglars and the metal rod and wondered whether she would have given her permission, had I managed to track her down.) In the end, I decided I’d just honour her with a blog post – it would make a good story, what with the art found in the trash and the goose CPR.

I wrote a draft for the blog post (roughly, the part you just read).

But as it turned out, the story wasn’t over yet. Last weekend, our local park hosted a small summer festival, which I wouldn’t even have known about had I not leafed, in a moment of boredom, through the neighbourhood newspaper that I’d just found on our doormat. It sounded fun, so I made a mental note of it, which – another unusual coincidence – I actually remembered two weeks later on the festival Sunday itself. Since I had to take Roanne out for a walk anyway, we went to the park to have a look at the festivities. There was a multicultural crowd of mostly thirty- and forty-somethings and small children with painted faces, there were info stands about urban farming initiatives, coffee and pancakes being served from converted Volkswagen vans, a Bollywood dance workshop, and a famous gypsy orchestra. Dancing with great theatrical abandon to the latter’s music was an old lady wearing shapeless fuchsia-red pyjamas to which she had pinned a huge and rather ugly paper butterfly and several paper flowers. She looked vaguely familiar.

I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, breathlessly, “Excuse me, I have a very strange question. Are you Margriet Smits?” I imagine being asked this question by excitedly stuttering strangers must be a regular occurrence for the butterfly lady, since she didn’t bat an eyelash. She was, indeed, a Margriet Smits, and moreover (after some more excited stuttering which included me sort of physically mimicking the cover collage above since I was having somewhat more trouble than usual finding words and turning them into sentences) I managed to confirm that she was the Margriet Smits, the artist of my dissertation’s cover illustration. (Let me stress again that all this took place within three weeks of moving into a new city with 150,000 inhabitants.)

Fortunately, the amazing goose-resuscitating, burglar-beating, tree-hugging, bottle-cap-collecting lady was honoured rather than upset that I’d used her collage without her permission (I even had to recount the entire story again to a homeless-looking friend of hers who lent us his pen so Margriet could write down her address for me, which was slightly awkward because he didn’t seem very interested and kept looking the other way while Margriet admonished him to keep listening and me to keep talking, but fortunately I was still feeling so giddy about the coincidental meeting that I could’ve happily repeated my story to a lamppost.)

So I sent her a copy of my dissertation yesterday, which I hope she’ll like. I’m honoured to have met her and get her post hoc permission for using her art. And I’m thankful for the irrationality of human nature that urges us to attribute meaning to coincidences and derive a giddy joy from randomness, as if there’s no such thing as chance, as if these moments are really gifts, put together with great care and purpose just for us, with a great paper butterfly on top.

About hannadevries

University lecturer (in linguistics/artificial intelligence) with occasional opinions on religion & social justice-related stuff.
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