Earlier this month, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Woodstock, Vermont. It was pretty much peak foliage. I imagined we would see some bright leaves, which we did. The mountainsides were covered in gold and red. Our hike down into Quechee Gorge proved as stunning as I expected. But there was one thing I didn’t expect… that I wasn’t prepared to encounter on our trip.
We stayed at a Bed & Breakfast, which was pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. On our first night there, we got back to the inn after dark. As we parked and headed up the path, I glanced into the night sky. It was perfectly clear and – oh – the stars were amazing.
I grew up in the country, but have lived in cities all of my adult life. I’ve grown used to the light pollution that keeps us from truly seeing the stars. At that moment, I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the night sky. It wasn’t just one star here or there. There were millions. In the day-in-day-out of life, I had forgotten what it was to be enveloped by the vastness of the Milky Way. We went up to our room, put on our sweatshirts, and came back outside to sit under the stars.
While we went on our trip expecting to see the bright leaves, we also got a glimpse of the brightness of our universe.
When was the last time you were surprised? When was the last time you experienced wonder or awe? When was the last time the world reminded you of something you had almost forgotten?
Wonder and surprise are some of the magical parts of childhood. Learning is all about discovery. Each child is an explorer in a whole new world. As adults, though, our capacity for wonder is often overtaken by what we think are more important pursuits. Accomplishment. Productivity. Responsibility. Achievement.
By steeling ourselves against surprise, we might think we are protecting ourselves. If we don’t let ourselves be surprised, nothing can hurt us. I’ve heard the term cynical defined as being prematurely disappointed in the future. No surprises there! Yet, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy, it will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.”
Yes, some of the surprises we encounter will be difficult. And, some of the surprises we encounter will be joyful. Part of the joy of life is anticipating the unknown and the serendipitous surprises that arise because life is unpredictable. As William Borroughs put it, “If you weren’t surprised by life, you wouldn’t be alive. Life is surprise.”
Life is surprise.
The thing that gets me about my star-gazing experience is the randomness of it. In that short walk from the car to the inn, I could’ve totally missed it. If I had busied myself with putting my keys in my purse or checking my phone, I would’ve stepped through the door without even noticing what was above me. How often do I miss the surprises that surround me? How often are we distracted by the important things in front of us and miss what is all around us?
I want to open my eyes and my heart more to surprise, to wonder, to awe. I want to welcome new friends, to discover new things. I want to open new places in my heart. I want to be astonished and tell about it, to paraphrase Mary Oliver.
I want that for you, too.
Because, as Samuel Johnson put it, “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”