We kneel in a dark room, waiting. It’s a kind of military feeling, having the “advantage of surprise.” A woman with brown hair has arranged the whole thing. She stands by the drapes, slightly bent, her finger to her lips, smiling.
We crouch behind chairs, under pillows. Hollow balloons sway above us. It’s a strange kind of love that brings us here. We can’t see each other, yet we are bound by the code of surprise, curled into ourselves in the darkness. Each of us dreams of breaking the code, but it’s too late. There are footsteps on the stairs.
Like everyone’s, Pam’s life is a series of rituals. One brings her up the staircase, another brings her key into the lock. Soon, her rituals will be broken.
For a moment, we know the future. We know how gifts feel, in their dark boxes.
The door opens.
New York, New York
At dawn I run from our house on the west side of a ridge around a north point and into a pasture on the east side. In Winter when the leaves are off the trees I am surprised as I round the point, jolted for a moment by the intensity of color and pattern in the sunrise over the mountains. Then I relax, smile, and feel at home, nested inside a bowl of earth and sky.
When I have rounded the point anticipating the sunrise I have been disappointed. The comparison of what I expect and what I find dulls the experience and prevents the embrace of what is there. I suspect these disappointments have conditioned me, for I rarely plan my sunrises but day after day am newly surprised and awakened.
A few years ago I set out to define the attributes of God and Satan. I came to see Satan, the destructive force of the universe, as a spirit of certainty, responsible for inevitabilities — from disillusionment and decay to the proverbial death and taxes. Satan is reliable, a necessary but dull fellow. But the nature of God, the creator, is unpredictable. The things of greatest worth — a love, a passion, an inspiration, or a new awareness — cannot be depended on. God’s gifts come with amazing grace, as unexpected surprises.
The stories we write, the tales we tell, are almost always about things that have surprised us, things that have changed our lives, if only for a brief interval.
I think about this as I do the nightly kitchen mopping (small, not quite house-trained animals safe in the basement for the night). I am surprised that I have this new houseful of animals, surprised to be ending already-full days with a new chore, an extra task.
I turn the hose into the mop bucket a final time, and pour out the waste water by the edge of the porch, then stand and look up at the autumn sky. The stars will look clearer, smaller, more brilliant after the cold front moves through this weekend — but now they shine with the warmth of the harvest season: full and glowing fruits of the sky.
Yet, if I were not mopping the kitchen every night this season, I might well be missing out on such particular beauty, this late and quiet time.
And by day, I would not be laughing at the rowdiness of a furry black puppy.
I had gone to the Humane Society to make arrangements for a kitten and made, instead, a soul-level connection with a half-grown striped cat. I couldn’t even see his amber aura until we got out in the sun, but he had silently told me that he was my cat, and I had sense enough to believe him.
The puppy arrived just about then, in the arms of a hopeful owner who had found homes for six others. Love at first sight; that’s what it was, so why question it? (But of course I did spend fifteen minutes questioning it. Still, it was all process; the decision was made the moment the puppy arrived!)
I make a story now of how they chose me, and recall other legends of surprises: a chance and fateful meeting retold at an anniversary dinner (“I turned around and saw her. . . .”); a discovery shared (“I walked across the land, and found a chimney on the knoll. That’s where my house will be.”).
Always recountable are the small dramas of mishaps (overcome) and misunderstandings (now set right). There are tales of preconceived notions scattered topsy-turvy: encounters that enlivened job-hunting, changing dwellings, making a journey. We all have those stories, stashed like a deck of cards — ready for a quick game, an easy exchange.
And there are surprises that stay in the caves of private knowing.
But for me — and, I suspect, for others — the most satisfying, the most amazing, the most memorable are those times when I surprise myself: moving with some choice, some gesture, some turn that seemed quite unpredictable, and proves to be just what I needed to do. Even if it leads to mopping the kitchen floor.
Little Rock, Arkansas
There have been many times in my life when things have not been a surprise. There have been many places where I have felt as if I had been there before. I have seen future events in my dreams. Six months before my mother’s sudden death I had a dream about it. Two weeks before I received a friend’s letter I dreamed about his break-up with his girlfriend.
But there has been one big surprise in my life! I was twelve years old. My parents were in Massachusetts getting our things ready to be moved to Virginia where I had just started school. One evening, my little brother and I were sitting in my uncle’s den when he told us that my father had had his second heart attack. I knew what that meant and the next day we were told the truth — that my father had died. I had received no premonitions and no preparation.
Without a father, I was expected to be different, harder to control. But since that time, I have had many premonitory dreams and feelings. Does one big trauma in your life open up a sixth sense? Is it always nice to see what is coming?
After forty years of happy marriage, her husband died. As wife, it fell to her to sort through his possessions — this to the Salvation Army, that to relatives. In the process of sifting and deciding, she came upon an extensive stamp collection, clearly his and up-to-date in every respect. He’d never mentioned it. She’d never known. Of course she’d kept things from him out of love and suspected that he’d done the same, but this . . . ? A strange, somehow unsettling surprise.
Surprise is based on expectation, and expectation (it will or won’t happen) is a way of limiting the limitless, of limiting the self. So surprise shows limitation. Limitation is not a bad thing, but without examination it becomes a painful one. For example, I am not a woman, not twenty, not short, and not an astronaut. Were I to pretend to be any of these things, the results might be neutral or hilarious or painful or whatever but any event would not be the same as if I actually were a woman, twenty, short, or an astronaut.
To state limitations in the negative is one way. To state limitations in a positive way is another. Not to examine both positive and negative aspects is highly likely to cause some harm. Similarly it will miss the point to dwell endlessly. After all, a life without surprises would be pretty surprising. Best, perhaps, is to acknowledge, just to look at the limitations and see and occasionally review. Where do they begin? How do they end? And whose are they anyway? This is called taking responsibility. The effects of the past rise up to influence the present and the future. Ignoring the effects and the causes that produced them will give them undue power. Likewise dwelling on them. But in acknowledging, in looking at them as part of one’s own true family, in greeting them with affection but not fear, acceptance without acquiescence — here the limits can be transcended, the way cleared, and the laughter bubble up.
New York, New York
Plenty of utilitarian ideas about self-realization are floating around — techniques for getting better, and methods of becoming a little different — but finding wholeness in the love of god seems to happen almost by chance. When I am trying hard to be good, grateful, conscientious and prayerful, I don’t usually manage self-forgetting. I await the payoff for my virtue.
Virtue, of course, is not contingent; it is, they say, its own reward. So the practice of it must be enough for the practicer, not a means to an end. This gets boring and frustrating sometimes. I belong to a race unaccustomed to living without direct payoffs. We operate within the most serious of constraints, a logic excluding the miraculous. Yet it is in the miraculous, the unexpected, the unbidden where fulfillment lies.
Although I am constantly on guard against it, it is the overturning of my expectations, the cancellation of my chosen role that thrusts me into the arms of god. And god is there to dance with me, if I am willing to loosen up and not worry too much about treading on the celestial toes or tripping over my own feet. I can dance when I’m not self-conscious. When I’m humbled, and the game is called on account of deception I can surrender myself to god’s love.
Knowledge and awareness of god’s presence in my life are rather new, and being available to them was not a given. Perhaps as a child I was in that at-one-ment, but events overtook me and I needed to spend years living in sin, battling fears and delights. Sin just means alienation, the hubris of thinking that my salvation, my happiness, and my usefulness are my sole responsibility. Sin is a lonely place, because my little ego is insufficient to dispatch that responsibility. I can strive mightily to put myself in the path of grace, but I can’t get it all by myself.
So I go to church, and I pray, and I grab hold of every spiritual tool that comes to hand and fits. My hands are growing callused, but this life, with god’s help, is taking unexpected shape and coming to a moment of fulfillment. Now-evident grain in the wood suggests a new path for the carver’s adze. This freshness and originality of destiny is a pure gift. Hardly what I’d planned, and far more satisfying than I ever would have imagined are these moments when the inarticulate desire in my heart of hearts seems to accord with god’s will for me.
It’s all in a manner of seeing, of course, and that manner of seeing has been given in worship and in living; it’s come through the words of teachers that have traveled on, and through the example of lovers and heroes that are with us now. Holding to this manner of seeing and accepting, with joy, what is given to me, is discipline: practice. Going forward into it is still a fear proposition at times — it’s a risk to do things differently.
But in the positive times I especially delight in god, and in the tough times I lean on god. It builds the faith that god is with me always, if I am willing to see it that way. The arrival of that willingness was rather mysterious, not when I expected. All of which convinces me of its rightness. God’s hallmark is the miraculous.
Maple City, Michigan
For me, most surprises are unpleasant. Now and then, I find myself surprised by joy, by good things happening to me. But most surprises involve rejection, departure, or death. Happiness for me usually comes from the familiar, the expected — seeing a close friend, visiting a certain, familiar spot in the hills, or hearing a favorite performer performing a favorite song.
To try to avoid unpleasant surprises, I interpret my own dreams. I can’t see the future through dreams. But, if I understand them, I’ll have better self-understanding so I can avoid doing self-destructive things that would cause me to undergo some kind of loss.
The dream allows a part of repressed self-awareness, denied consciousness, to come up to the surface and make itself heard. Surprise is actually an emotional presence in dreams. The part of me that is lucid, that is aware of dreaming (usually, it’s a very small part!), is surprised by what I or somebody else is doing in the dream. Perhaps the surprise is the very thing that makes me remember the dream — a sudden release of awareness, a sudden lifting of repression or denial. A door in one’s heart or soul suddenly springs open.
My main maxim for dream interpretation is that, more often than not, a dream is a rebuke of some sort. One is doing something wrong, or not doing something right (sin of omission). A dream is the enemy of self-deceit. Humility is essential for understanding it. One has to be willing to admit one may be wrong. One has to doubt oneself, “to wait, with empty hands,” as John Garvey said, if one is to understand a dream.
Of course, the self-doubt also applies to the actual interpretation one takes. One can never be certain about understanding a dream correctly. Some dreams are not rebukes, I suppose, though knowledge of any sort entails responsibility, and dreams bring a kind of knowledge.
Once one fully appreciates with the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) that
Every drifting down the stream — Lingering in the golden gleam — Life, what is it but a dream?
one can retain a reverent sense of wonder for life, without the alienating sense of incessant shock or surprise. Wonders, yes. Give me more of them. Surprise, no thanks. If I have to be surprised, let it be in a dream.
Mark B. Peterson
Why am I still surprised by ignorance, insensitivity, self-centeredness, narrow-mindedness, and hatred? After all, I’ve been around long enough to know they abound. Why do I persist in my sappy, unbounded faith in people? I love; I trust; I wear my heart on my sleeve. And always, I’m surprised when I’m left holding my heart in my hands.
I have to rule out stupidity; I’m not stupid. I see man’s inhumanity to man; I’m aware. And I’ve heard that people are no damned good and have seen evidence to support it. So, why my constant bewilderment? Why haven’t I wised up?
I’ve decided to blame Shirley Temple.
Let me explain. I grew up in that Long Ago Between The Depression and The War. Life was simple then — no surprises. There were good guys and bad guys, and you could tell who was who.
Shirley was a good guy. In fact, she was so good that she saw good in everyone. She’d smile her dimpled, twinkling smile, and she’d tap her spunky little dance, and with guts and optimism and sureness she’d make a tiny fist and do that confident, swinging gesture with her little arm, and proclaim, “Golly, everybody, I love each and every one of you. Let’s all love each other ’cause there’s so very much good in everyone. If we do that, then everything will work out.”
I believed every word she said. I ate it up. I swallowed it whole. I had a love-in with the world twenty years before the flower children did.
Shirley, I can’t shake you off. Whenever my good sense starts to take over, I see your little face abeam and your little curls abounce. I hear the tappity-tap-tap of your spunky little dance, and I feel the love.
I remember that it worked, Shirley. All that trust and goodness and love really worked. . . . Didn’t it?
Park Forest, Illinois