The Element of Surprise

The Element of Surprise

My husband watches the sky. Even when he’s driving, which sometimes is a little bit concerning. He watches large birds as they soar overhead.

“I know they’re probably turkey vultures,” he says. “But maybe one time they’ll be hawks. Or eagles.”

He looks up with a sense of anticipation. That maybe this time, the expected will become the unexpected.

It is how I’m learning to live.

I stand three back in the line at the library circulation desk. A group of refugees are signing up for library cards, so I wait patiently because some of them I recognize from my volunteer work. It is a good thing.

Two people in front of me is a man. He is black. He wears baggy jeans and a skullcap and I’m ashamed to tell you what my first impressions of him are. I am, after all, at the city library, right downtown. In his hands are a stack of materials. One is a MasterClass or Great Courses class. Another is a book about how to draw. He is, after all, in the library.

My first impressions melt away as I take notice and wonder. Is he pursing a dream? A hobby? A career? What makes him different from me? I am there to pick up a research book for the novel I’m writing. I, too, am there in the middle of the day because I have what you call a “flexible schedule” and a job-that-looks-like-a-hobby.

I am surprised. And it will not be the last time I find things not as I expect them in the city I am learning to love.

I do not always like surprises.

One time, many years ago, I had to work on my birthday, the same day a group of friends usually gathered at my house for an evening of laughter and Trivial Pursuit and who-knows-what-else. They decided to go bowling. I gave one of them the key to my house so they could gather there afterwards if I didn’t make it to the bowling alley. After a trying day of journalism, I pulled into my driveway. The house was dark, and I assumed my friends were still bowling. I dragged myself up my steps, opened the door and made a shocking discovery.

The lights turned on as if by magic and my living room was full of my friends yelling “Surprise!” I have a picture of the look on my face, which is somewhere between terrified and annoyed, not the sort of delightful expression one might expect. I remember exclaiming, “Oh my God!” which I later regretted because I thought maybe I had taken the Lord’s name in vain. (I think He has forgiven me on that by now.)

I was glad my friends had cared enough about me to throw me a party. I am seldom caught off guard. They executed the plan perfectly.

Another time, my husband drove me around a somewhat unfamiliar city for my Christmas present from his brother and our sister-in-law. He dropped me off in the parking lot of a shopping center and pointed at an office I was supposed to walk into. He promised to wait. I walked in and asked for my sister-in-law and they did not know who I was talking about. Maybe it was the other office around the corner.

I trudged back out to the van, practically in tears because I did not like being the punchline of what seemed at the time like a joke. We found the correct office, but I was so anxious by the time I arrived that I’m sure I didn’t express any gratitude that I was about to have my first-ever massage.

Surprises and me, we have a complicated relationship.

Ben White via Unsplash

Nine years ago, our daughter was born five weeks early. She was not unexpected but the timing was a surprise.

This, I’m learning, is sometimes how God works, too.

Like at Christmas, when God surprised all of humanity with the birth of a baby who would be the Messiah.

Like at Easter, when Jesus died but didn’t stay dead.

Sometimes I forget that God does not have a playbook. His ways are unexpected at times and the way he intervenes is sometimes surprising.

And sometimes I miss it because I think, oh, I’ve seen this before.

Like turkey vultures soaring overhead.

Except what if they’re eagles?

Lisa Bartelt About Lisa Bartelt

Lisa has been writing stories for more than a decade, first for newspapers and now as a freelancer, blogger and budding novelist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two kids. Read more at her blog, Beauty on the Backroads.


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