When my husband and I spent the Christmas holidays in New York City it was a homecoming for me. In 1969 I had gone straight from graduating Wagner College to a third floor walk-up in a renovated brownstone and then over to West End Ave. a few years later. The upper westside of New York City was my turf from 1969 through 1975.
On our Christmas trip we stayed at a very upscale hotel on Central Park South, close to places that held wonderful memories for me – Central Park, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, Time Warner.
In many ways it was just as we expected. We were where we wanted to be. Store windows were a-glitter with holiday themes, Rockefeller Center was beautiful. We had the good fortune to see “The Nutcracker,” yet again.
So how about those unexpected things? The weather went from cold to freezing with snow for our Central Park walk. The next day at the 9/11 Memorial and walking the Highline we had sunshine and a high of 68°. The bill for our first breakfast at the hotel was… big. I ordered oatmeal orange juice coffee and a banana. Hank had bacon and eggs and toast and coffee. The breakfast bill was an amazing $97! Now that was unexpected.
What makes something unexpected? Well, it’s usually a surprise, or “I sure didn’t plan on this”. (How often have you said that in the last eleven months?) Unexpected: accidental, astonishing, out of the blue, startling, sudden. My physical and emotional reactions are very different from reactions to a planned event. My physical reactions are instantaneous, followed by thoughts connected to what I’m thinking, what’s been in the front of my mind, what meta-cognition I have about the unexpected thing.
The most astonishing of our holiday unexpected events happened during a beautiful walk in Central Park. Recent snowfall covered the ground, icicles hung in uniform rows from park benches. As we rounded a bend up by the Fountain who should we see sitting on a park bench but Big Bird. No lie. A life-sized Big Bird from Sesame Street. My jaw dropped. There was a duffle bag at his feet which I’m sure held his ice skates. I had no words. Even now as I think about it I’m smiling; it was such a wonderful unexpected event. Central Park and Big Bird.
Unexpected can be an event, a remark, a feeling, a noise, a taste-unanticipated, unforeseen, unlooked-for, unpredictable. Seeing a friend at a book event who geographically lives 3000 miles away. The gulping tears that came with my first view of the Grand Canyon.
When I was teaching young kids, they had no guile to cover up reactions to unexpected things. As I walked into the local Shoprite one of my second graders and his mom were coming out. Bobby stopped and stared. No talking, no moving. Was he mentally recording this? Was his kid-size brain thinking, “Where do I know this person from who is in the wrong place? She should be in the classroom at Washing ton School.” He was gawking, his parent smiling broadly. The kid was transfixed. It was that Big Bird in Central Park moment.
The more experiences I have in life, the less I’m “thrown” by unplanned happenings. “Oh that’s just like when…” or “Hmm, I’ve met you before. Different face, same person.” It’s more of a response than reaction.
But what about those unexpected things that bring about a more negative reaction? Mixing baking powder instead of baking soda for mouth rinse and taking a swig? For those who don’t ascribe to expiration dates, that first taste of milk gone sour. What about an “unexpected” that brings a heavy emotional burden? Notification that someone has died or getting bad news about an illness.
Or the pandemic. Month 1, month 2, month 3, months 4-11. Never expected a worldwide virus. Never expected we’d be using words like quarantine, shelter at home, abundance of caution, tracing, tracking, virus to epidemic to pandemic. Never expected conversations would begin with “Are you OK?” or “Did you get the vaccine yet?”
The unexpectedness of COVID opened up the need for me to look at staying home in a different way. I could only whine so much with escalating anxiety. I weighed the consequences. Home vs. out. What are some different ways to enjoy being at home? What can I do at home to help people?
Experiencing the unexpected was the calm and quiet of being at home. I discovered my comfortability with slowing down, creating new paths of intimacy with my partner, reconnecting with people in different ways- by Zoom, sending photos, emails, and hand-written cards and letters. I’m expanding my “self”: Buddhism, exploring Science of Mind, mindfulness, daily yoga.
I’ve had transfixed reactions like little Bobby had at the supermarket. When I explore the inner reactions, I find something interesting. Physical reactions in my body- stomach flips, lurches, butterflies, heart racing, face flushed, mind goes blank, or racing, or fuzzy-are very similar, almost identical, whether it’s from the stimulus check or the phone call about my mother’s death. My body doesn’t know the difference. So I rely on my self talk. Slow down, you are ok. Breathe. You are ready for anything.You are not alone.
I can’t control everything that happens in my world, the world, but if a belief consistently results in negative stuff or fear or anxiety, I can change the belief about it. I’ve done it. Going from seeing myself as a smoker, then non-smoker didn’t happen overnight. Same with believing I was not equipped to travel by myself (don’t even ask where that came from), but I did change that belief. The pandemic has put a hold on travel but not on the belief I have about doing things by myself.
When I get overly analytical abut this unexpectedness concept, I look at the post-it on my desk: “Doesn’t expecting the unexpected make the unexpected expected?” ~ Bob Dylan
Expect the unexpected- with ease.
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic.