Note: This piece is in the style of the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan during the 990s — one of the world’s first great personal essayists, who thought she was only keeping a diary. Her lists have titles like “Things That Make The Heart Beat Faster,” “Occasions When Time Drags By,” “Hateful Things,” “Adorable Things.” They give an amazing window into the culture of her time and place, but just as strikingly illustrate the unchanging aspects of human nature. “One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking that it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present.” “It is quite late at night and a woman has been expecting a visitor. Hearing finally a stealthy tapping, she sends her maid to open the gate and lies waiting excitedly. But the name announced by the maid is that of someone with whom she has absolutely no connection. Of all the depressing things this is by far the worst.” I sometimes give students the assignment to make a Shonagon-style list, but I never made one myself before. Excerpts from the original are here and here.
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When one returns to one’s small gray car just in time to see the huge SUV parked in front of it back into one’s front end before pulling away, one is relieved to find that no serious damage has been done. One does not expect to see, after driving home, that one’s Toyota hood ornament was jarred loose by the impact and has now fallen off. A depressing black oval remains.
A lovely blooming plant with hot pink flowers edged in spiky white fringe, possibly dianthus, appears in the backyard in spring. It is like a gift with no card, unexpected.
One lives alone with a cat and a dog; this was not expected but turns out to be just fine.
Why does one cry so easily now? One has always been somewhat thin-skinned but this is a new development. An editor one has worked with for many years calls to say he is moving to a different job; he certainly does not expect to hear choked snuffling on the other end of the line. And now one’s daughter has come home from college for the summer; she is angered by unexpected tears, and easily causes them.
The vegetable stir-fry one has prepared is okay, nothing special, and then one puts an egg fried sunny side up in very hot peanut oil on top of it. The crispy white and the silky yolk, the squiggle of sriracha, the sweet-salty vegetables and nutty brown rice — one gasps.
When one’s ex-mother-in-law loves one so steadfastly that the relationship lasts many years after the marriage to her son is over, that is unexpected. But even more unexpected is that after decades of this happy connection, she changes her mind. She cuts one off completely, stops answering one’s emails, tells others one has said terrible things to her. One does not know what these things are. One would have thought this impossible.
A notorious buffoon is elected to the highest office in the land. He lies, cheats, schemes, steals, destroys relationships with other countries, endangers the planet and all its inhabitants. Did anyone expect this?
A former college classmate, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of many excellent nonfiction books, drops dead while taking a walk near his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “Last week I saw my cardiologist. He told me I drink too much,” he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times about a month ago, the first lines of a story about how he traveled through southern states doing interviews in bars. He surely did not expect this to be quoted in his obituary one month later.
As one might expect, the internet has a list of the 50 most unexpected discoveries. A royal blue crawfish, a bubble gum pink grasshopper, a quarter intricately carved out to show George Washington smoking a reefer. A nest full of chicks in a barbecue grill, opened for the first time that season. Someone’s dad found the red-laced hiking boot Reese Witherspoon threw over the cliff in the film version of Wild. A fisherman found a lumpy, luminous 75-pound pearl and kept it for years as a good luck charm, unaware that it was worth 100 million dollars. If this is true, it must have been extremely unexpected.
There are single earrings and many other pieces of jewelry I do not expect to find, particularly the gold dolphin coin pendant I loved so much, lost during a trip to Florida, perhaps in the trunk of the rental car. Nor do I think I will recover the abalone bracelet my old friend Kathy brought me from England or the turquoise and silver one my children bought me to replace it, though I suspect those are in hiding nearby.
And what is this? The cat, who has been kept inside for the first three years of her life, is standing outside the back door waiting to come in. One will have to adjust.
Getting married and having babies. Being widowed, being divorced, being alone. Continually one has experiences one never expected to have, and things one could not live without keep falling away. Eventually, one’s certainties are few indeed. At this point, one is generally recognized as a repository of great wisdom, called on frequently for advice.
One swims joyfully in cold water for many years, then one day cannot bear it for even a second. Otherwise, menopause is not so bad.
One hears stories where people get together with their long-lost true love from high school or college and live out their days in profound contentment. One can imagine the delight of this, especially because one is too tired and anti-social to effectively meet new people. One visits with old boyfriends in one’s dreams but does not expect to see them anywhere else.
Once one’s memory starts to go, unexpected things are much more frequent.
One season after another, there are sudden beauties: the sun breaking through a summer storm, branches coated in ice so they look like crystal, the brave crocuses of February and the explosion of cherry trees on the avenue, the wicked orange bonfire of fall. That is beauty’s secret – no matter how many times one sees it, it is unexpected.