In the year 2000, physicist Freeman Dyson was being awarded the Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Freeman Dyson is a physicist and mathematician and Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. His writings on the meaning of science and its relation to other disciplines, especially religion and ethics, challenge humankind to reconcile technology and social justice.
Michael Toms (my late husband, and co-founder of New Dimensions Radio) and I were invited to attend this Templeton Prize award ceremony in Washington, DC.
At that time, our two grandchildren lived close by and we decided to use the occasion to give them a tour of some of the spectacular monuments in the area. There was one in particular that Michael had at the top of his list: the U.S. Library of Congress, which first burned in 1814 and then was rebuilt and restocked with books from Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. During Michael’s high school years this had been a favorite haunt for him in which to do research. He often spoke with nostalgia of the hours he spent in the main room asking for books to be brought to him, most especially those on James Boswell, who was the biographer of Samuel Johnson, most famous for writing the first definitive English dictionary. Many have claimed this biography as the greatest biography written in English; thus, Michael’s fascination with Boswell.
Since parking was a bit scarce, Michael dropped us off and I alone accompanied the children into the library. The first thing we did was to find the balcony that overlooked the round central rotunda which held many desks, counters, and rolling book carts. It was an anthill of people busy at work. I was filled with pride to be able to tell them that this was the library their grandfather frequented when he was in high school.
We then moved to the elevator to go down to the library store and the exit. They begged me to let them take the stairs instead of the elevator. I finally gave in and agreed to meet them in the store.
I waited, and waited, and waited for them to arrive. My anxiety level was rising with each passing minute as I imagined all sorts of terrible things that could’ve happened to them. Finally, much to my relief, they showed up flushed and extremely excited. They said they found an exhibit from the movie the Wizard of Oz and they described in detail the famous, magical ruby slippers. And then they confessed that they got lost as a tried to find their way back down the passageways to the lower level.
It was the next day that Michael and I were at a reception for the physicist, Freeman Dyson. I was so excited to meet him because his book Disturbing the Universe, was among one of my most favorite books of all time. I was so flustered when I was introduced to him that I called him Mr. Freeman. I remember him smiling and understanding my girlish nervousness.
Later, at the actual award ceremony, held in the National Cathedral, we were seated in the second row of reserved seats next to a handsome gentleman. I introduced myself and began telling him the story of our grandchildren getting lost in the Library of Congress, making the comment, “I can’t think of a better place in the world for young people to get lost than in the Library of Congress.” He seemed surprised by my remark and then told me that he quite agreed. In a few minutes he was being introduced to make a few remarks about Freeman Dyson. It turned out that he was the head Librarian of the Library of Congress. I was shocked. Out of all the people who filled the nave of that extraordinary Cathedral, I was sitting next to the one person who would truly appreciate the story of where two young people got lost.
It is said that synchronicities can infuse us with feelings of awe and gratitude for our miraculous and mysterious life on this precious planet, and remind us that we are part of nature, interdependent with all life everywhere. This was one of those grateful moments for me.
– Justine Willis Toms