SOMETIMES YOU THINK YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN.
YOU’RE USUALLY WRONG.
AND THAT’S PROBABLY NOT A BAD THING.
I used to teach in a program called Artists-in-Schools, as did my longtime friend, musician Bill Haymes.
I’d come into schools, a visiting writer helping students (sometimes very young, sometimes teenagers) write. Bill did the same, but with music and song-writing. Occasionally we worked together, but more often we taught separate classes. (Photo, by Louise Terzia: me, one of our older students, and Bill, at the Alexander Girls Training School, where we did a six-week project in the summer of 1977).
Bill’s told me more than once about a song called Surprises, written by a group of Arkansas fourth-graders he was working with. He always quotes their chorus:
Life is full of surprises,
Every time the sun rises
You haven’t had all your surprises yet
Then he repeats the last line, slowly: “You … haven’t had …. all your surprises … yet.”
Then he raises his eyebrows on the “all your surprises.” Winces.
“Not one of them,” he says, ruefully, “Not one of the kids in that class in that class could even conceive that some surprises might not be happy. ”
Doing Artists-in-Schools, Bill and I both experienced going into classrooms, briefly falling in love with the bright-eyed kids in front of us, over and over.
He didn’t have to tell me the adult ache he felt, as the young songwriters came up with that chorus, of knowing what they didn’t.
Of all life would both give and take away from them.
Because that is what life does.
Live long enough, and life will keep underlining this for you.
THE SURPRISES OF ANOTHER CIRCLE ROUND THE SUN
I’ve lived long enough to understand that surprises take every possible twist and turn. Yet surprise itself continues to surprise me.
To be blunt, I am never without awareness that eighteen years ago, one November morning that would otherwise have been ordinary, I kissed my husband goodbye. And the next time I saw him was never. The next time I saw him, what I saw was no longer him. It was his recently vacated body on a metal table in an emergency room, nurses still mopping up blood on the floor.
So I get the terms of life.
Which are, in brief, that anything can happen to anyone at any time.
Which are, it’s one surprise after another.
Which are, you and I are not in control. (Now, while some say that God is, and A) take this as fact, and B) find in it deep comfort in it, for me, the jury is still way out on this.)
I am also never without awareness that for the past five years, I have, improbably (in my 60’s!), loved and been loved, passionately and dimensionally, a second time. This continuing privilege is a huge surprise.
But, most likely (from an actuarial point of view), it’s also a guarantee of future heartbreak. I will probably outlive him.
And no matter how much I might imagine, fear or know this, I know too that grief and death always come as a surprise.
Even so, now, loving my guy, I say to myself, yes. I say, I want this. I say, whatever the eventual cost for one of us later, it is worth it. I eagerly participate, and so does he. We both try to do this with eyes open, even as we both know this does not immunize us.
I know all this. Yet I never cease being surprised.
And then, at the present moment, there is also the whole surprise of the shift our country has taken, politically and socially.
I mean, geez-louise, no sooner do I come to some kind of personal wisdom and equanimity about life’s basic impermanent nature, its unpredictable alternating current continually filled with surprises, than along comes an era of the impersonal version.
When democracy, civility, a shared planet, ethics, justice, fairness, and basic sanity seem to be dangling off a cliff’s edge.
And the drop looks mighty deep.
And how on earth do we find wisdom, equanimity and peace when it’s not just our small individual lives, but life itself, trembling there on a great big maybe?
And who is to say we should come to peace in the face of such threat?
Well, all right then, is there a way to mix spiritual and psychological acceptance with social resistance and activism?
We haven’t had all our surprises yet.
INSTEAD OF ‘POSITIVE’ AND ‘NEGATIVE’
I write this at the tag end of one year, as a new one starts. As many of us do at such cusps, I am looking both forward and back, like the two-faced God Janus (whose name gives us the word January).
But this stuff bears thinking about anytime.
I am thinking about how this last year proved to me again that I most definitely have not had all of my surprises yet.
Nor, God knows, had our country.
These days I mostly try to avoid labeling things good and bad, or positive and negative.
Because, really, how do we know how stuff comes out in the end? Who are we to make such absolutist assessments, as if we were objective evaluators of not how we feel but what events actually are?
Instead, I am working on using difficult and easy. These, it seems to me, are more accurate: they describe how things feel rather than how they are. (Yes, I sometimes drop in terribly difficult or challenging or a glum it sure looks bad… but I try not to. Similarly, easy might become delightful, fun, gorgeous, and so on. Still, what I’m going for are words that attempt to emphasize subjective experience, not absolutes.)
That said, 2018 was full of surprises. For me personally, more of those surprises weighed in on the easy, delightful side (though there were a few rip-roaringly difficult occurrences thrown in).
But the surprises that 2018 had in store for our country?
It is hard to call them anything but difficult in the extreme. Rarely have the assessments “bad” and “negative” been more tempting.
To tell you about something personal that happened last January, I must digress by telling you a story about my boyfriend’s elder son.
In 2015, when this son was 18, he attended the funeral of his Aunt Ellen, who’d died of cancer, but remained sustained during her illness by her fundamentalist Christian faith. (My guy had flown out from his home in New York to California to spend time with Ellen weeks earlier. He was comforted by her comfort in her faith, though he did not and does not share it. )
His son, who lives on the West Coast, went to the actual memorial.
The man in my life was in Florida that weekend, visiting a different elderly relative, his cousin Emily. (At times, if you get old enough and your aging relatives are scattered all over the country, you have to choose — honor an aging person while they are still alive and can enjoy it, or spend time with their corpse, while remembering them aloud with others. My guy opted to see both Ellen and Emily while they were alive. And, for all the talk about memorials as “closure”, I think he was 100% right.)
The night after Ellen’s services, he called his son.
“How was the funeral?” he asked.
“It was weird, Dad,” his son told him. “Afterwards, people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Well, it’s all part of God’s plan.’ The first time I heard it, I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ But what creeped me out was, it kept happening. People kept saying it. And I started counting. Twelve different people told me Aunt Ellen’s death was part of God’s plan! Creeped me out. Like, who gave them the Kool-Aid?”
After this conversation, my guy’s son went online. I imagine he must’ve Googled “God’s Plan.” Because he found the following, which he sent to his dad the next day:
From then on, this cartoon became part of my boyfriend’s and my personal lexicon.
If we had some kind of iffy plan, or if things appeared mightily screwed up but worth a try, one of us would look at the other and say, “Well, if I kill Baxter, this might just work.”
AND NOW, TO JANUARY
Last January found me living in Vermont, on a piece of an almost surreally beautiful property that had been in my family since I was four: thirty-five isolated acres on top of a mountain, a twenty-mile view, a pristine pond for swimming in the summer, a lovely but very old house that needed a lot of work I couldn’t afford to do.
I loved that place, but wintering there was not easy. So for the last several years I’d been heading south, to teach and do other work (as a writer, I work wherever I am). I spent one winter in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I used to live. I spent another in Nashville, and another more or less shuttling between Nashville, Little Rock, and Trinity, Alabama (long story)
But this year, 2018, I was going to stay put. I’d be house-sitting in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the charming residence of two friends who were going to be on sabbatical in Greece for four months (he’s a classics professor). They were thrilled that I’d be there to look after things, including their magnificent huge angel-wing begonias. I was thrilled, too. Plus, I’d be teaching for a semester, at Brightwater.
The plan was, my boyfriend would take time off, travel up from New York by train to Vermont, and we’d drive down to Arkansas together. We’d done these long drives together several times, and enjoyed being cocooned together.
Except, January 2018 was the month and year of Snowmageddon. We left an evening ahead of schedule hoping to avoid it, and got a little bit south, to Northampton, Massachusetts, where we spent the night with my marvelous friend, the ultra-prolific multi-genre writer Jane Yolen.
When we got up at Jane’s at 5:00 am the next day, flakes were already beginning to swirl. Jane urged us to stay, but we peeled out early. It was the right decision, and we did beat the worst of the storm, but barely.
By the time we got to Danbury, Connecticut, the stripes demarcating the lanes of 91 were completely covered. Snow blew hypnotically, blindingly, into the windshield. At one point, my guy was traveling in the left hand lane, carefully skirting a Camry that was fishtailing wildly, when suddenly some joker in an SUV decided to pass us on the left… except there wasn’t a lane to the left of us. Forever I see this: the fishtailing car on the right, the SUV on the left, my guy with hands firmly, calmly, on the wheel, impossibly but masterfully guiding us through, perhaps a foot of clearance on either side.
It was not a good or pleasant trip. Besides the horrendous weather, I had blown my right shoulder out shoveling snow back in Vermont. I hurt with the kind of pain so present you can’t not think about it. Plus, my lip was buzzing with an incipient cold sore. This put a damper on kissing. Plus, he was having spells of dizziness when he got up in the morning.
Naturally we crabbed at each other.
Our second night, we had reservations at a small inn in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. We like old, well-kept up historic places, but we also like privacy; he is not chatty, and as a former innkeeper, I know little inns and b-and-b’s can be marvelous but idiosyncratic. I’m usually in charge of routing and accommodations on these trips, so I try to find us places in restored hotels (like the Brown Hotel, in Louisville, the Capital, in Little Rock). Choosing this small inn was iffy, but looked like our best shot, given the weather and how long we were willing to drive in a day.
It was three degrees below zero and after dark when we pulled in to Lewisburg, in front of the inn. Where we were to park was not clear. I was assigned to check us in, and come out and let him know about parking ASAP.
I said, “I’ll do my best. But you know, it’s a small place. Sometimes you can’t make things happen fast.”
He growled, “Do your best. It’s cold out here.”
Inside, the inn was warm, immaculate, decorated to a fare-thee-well for Christmas. Mrs. Innkeeper — it turned out her husband was a retired Lutheran minister — turned on the computer to check me in.
I said, “Excuse me, my partner is waiting outside, and he wanted me to let him know where we should park. Maybe if someone could —”
“John!” called Mrs. Innkeeper, up the stairs. To me she said, “I don’t know why this thing is taking so long to boot up… John! Our guests are here!” To me: “John’s my husband.”
Seconds, minutes, ticked by. Coming through the inn’s wreath-hung double-doors of golden oak, I could feel waves of annoyance, discomfort, and what-the-eff-is-taking-her-so-long vibrating in from my cold, irritated boyfriend.
“Um, could we do this later, after he gets —?”
I went into the main hall and looked hopefully up the stairs. Pretty soon a nice-looking older man in a sweater came lumbering down, a large golden retriever behind him. I explained the situation.
“Oh sure, I’ll go give him a hand,” said John, and he opened the door.
At that moment the golden retriever sprang out from behind him, and bounded down the stairs and out into the night.
“BAXTER!” yelled John the innkeeper. “BAXTER! Get back here!”
I found out later that Baxter, the golden retriever, bounded over to my guy, who was waiting on the glare-ice by the Subaru in the minus-three weather, a suitcases in each hand. Baxter spied him, leaped on him enthusiastically, and knocked him over.
So that was the kind of trip it was.
BUTTON BUTTON, WHO’S GOT THE BUTTON?
But as my guy and I were fending off cold sores and bounding dogs, there was… the news. That day, Trump taunting and insulting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, bragging about his “much bigger” nuclear button.
Who knew if we would even arrive in Arkansas? If there would even be a world on which any state, nation or road, snowy or otherwise, existed?
By September Trump was saying he and Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love” because of the latter’s “beautiful letters” to the former.
By December, NBC reported: “Many experts point out that although the eye-catching weapons displays may have ceased, other more subtle parts of North Korea’s weapons program continue apace….’Kim has not changed his policy … he’s now moved from research-and-development and onto mass production,’ said Cristina Varriale, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.”
There is much more I could pile on in listing the craziness that has our world, our country, our very system of democracy (bold brave endangered idea) trembling on the brink of irredeemable destruction.. But you probably know most of it.
So that was the kind of year it was.
At this stage of my life, even when the surprises are tough and terrifying, I find — this is another surprise — I can endure on a personal level. (Though whether Earth can, in the face of our willful ignorance, is another question).
By now I know the nature of life to be non-negotiable alteration. Mostly, when in pain, I look at things and say “this too shall pass. ” (But again, I hope to God this is true in the political, as well as personal, realm).
And I know that resisting life’s basic uncertain nature will only triple the pain. Continually wishing things different and saying “if only” is, as the Jungian David Micho has said, like riding a horse facing backward.
Which is not to say that we must not resist evil. We must. Only, I think, we must do it with eyes open, in defiant joy wherever possible. So that we are moving towards, for, and in what we believe. Not merely reacting against evil, but creating good.
I think often of the partisans of Italy and France, the underground Resistance during World War II. How they did their work with no knowledge of how it would come out, merely because it was right. I think of how many of them died without knowing Hitler would lose.
But then what, even in the face of these wicked times, of personal surprises that turn out to be joyful? When they fill one with wonder, overwhelming delight (for instance, never, when young, could I have imagined hot sex possible at what would have seemed to me the embarrassing, distasteful age of 66)?
Oddly, because I’m clear on life’s perpetual alteration, I enjoy such delights even more, knowing they’re on loan for a very brief time – only this moment, perhaps.
When younger, the knowledge that all joys were transitory, couldn’t last even if I wanted them to, made me anxious, clutch-y — the state Shakespeare described, arrow-like, in Sonnet 64: weeping to have that which I feared to lose.
But now? Just as I can bear the difficult parts because they won’t last, I now can revel in the easy ones.
Because they won’t last either.
Sometimes there are moments when I find I’m in an almost rolling-around-in-bliss state, the emotional equivalent of a cat in a sunny spot.
What are some of these sunny spots?
It might be the way my lover looks at me, with such deep attention that I just stop and rest in that gaze. Or he lays his large hand over my much smaller one (the picture at the top of this post). And again, I just stop.
Or hearing that two friends of the same sex, who have lived together faithfully and enduringly for over 40 years, were finally able to marry: legally, publicly, without shame or hiding. And have done so.
Or the wondrous reflection of holiday lights, not on a snowy night, but on a rainy one.
Or at last having the mojo to have people — friends! — over to the new house for a “Resistmas dinner”, co-hosting with my dude, on December 25, after having solidly ignored Christmas for about twenty years.
And serving really good food. And having a ball.
But whatever it is, in this period of my brief ride on our blue-and-green circling dot of a planet, I know that the sorrows and unanswered questions feel more bearable to me, and joys larger and more exultant, despite the inherent fact of endless alteration and my present fear for our country and planet.
“Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman, our deeply American poet, “Very well, I contradict myself.”
Or as those fourth-graders told Bill, “You haven’t had all your surprises yet.”
This essay is part of Crescent’s “Nothing is Wasted on the Writer” series. Crescent’s 2019 late-winter / early spring live classes, courses, and events include:
Left-Brain Planning for Right-Brain People: Stop Procrastinating, Become Insanely Productive, & Do What’s Important Your Way (3 sessions, limited to 12 people),
Tuesdays with Crescent Writing Group (12 sessions, limited to 12 people), and
Works-in-Progress Group (12 sessions, limited to 6 people, 2 spots left).
Click for more details, exact dates and to register.