Expect the Unexpected

I made one New Year’s resolution: Expect the unexpected. This will be my 2008 effort to take control of everything I cannot control. It’s a cheap trick, but I need it to work.
I ended 2007 with another cruel cosmic reminder that unseen forces hover, waiting to derail my plans, like the gale winds that blow only as I leave my hairstylist. This time, it was teenagers. I told my 18-year-old daughter that, yes, she could bring home a few couples after the high school Christmas dance for snacks and the social debriefing that, these days, seems to focus on shoes. I left preparations for ten kids, like a secret Santa, and slipped into my cotton reindeer PJs and into bed with my book. As I opened the cover, the first crash exploded in the street.
Dashing like Dancer to the edge of the window, I watched cars descending on the block, with teenagers tumbling out, like roaches swarming a tossed-out ham. The boys gunned their engines and slammed brakes, back and forth in 15 feet of space, in a motion they oddly call “parking.” Someone screamed, “There’s a woman watching from the window.” Yes, that would be me in my reindeer pajamas, I thought to myself as I noted one car oddly conjoined with mine.
“Good grief,” I sighed, grabbing a sweatshirt, “why did these kids decide to gather on my block of Broadway?” and I snatched up paper and pencil to take names. “Hi, Mrs. Campbell,” a blonde, long-legged girl chirped as I approached the front end of her date’s car, which was now embedded into the rear end of my car.
Startled, I barked, “How do you know me?” as the reason for the infestation slowly started to creep up my neck. At that moment, my daughter Carol pulled up with her date: “Hey Momacita, what’s up?”
What is up, I thought bitterly to myself, is that I am not cozy in my bed reading my book, but standing here in baggy sleeping pants with elegantly clad, hormonally charged teenagers who learned to park driving bumper cars at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. But, determined to practice charity, I merely said, “Some of your friends arrived early.”
Oh, if the night had ended there. But scores more teenagers came roaring onto Broadway, slamming doors, shouting eager greetings to each other, changing clothes from their trunks like beached surfers, tired and satisfied. Then they lined up at my back gate for the “party at Carol’s house.”
Honestly, my daughter did not expect a horde of high school party hunters, either. The invitation had grown, passed, and spread during the dance like kudzu in Georgia: No one can remember where it came from, and no one can figure out how to get rid of it.
I gazed at Carol’s perplexed, scrunched brow and recalled a day, many years ago, when I stood in a friend’s garden, sipping tea in the sun, discussing how best to grow tomatoes in Cincinnati, Ohio. A brutal, steel-crushing slam drew us running to the front yard. There, my brand-new, first-ever Nissan sat squished between two other parked cars, like a silver accordion readied for storage. Moving my eyes along the chain of linked cars, I landed on a smoking engine and watched an overweight, middle-aged woman struggle through the passenger door of her car, blood streaming down her face onto a very large cross dangling wildly from her neck. Though hurt and stunned, she fretted and blabbered until we deciphered her need to unlock her trunk.
Unsteadily, she leaned in, suddenly reappearing with several long, feathered spears and a large shield adorned with frightening, dark chimeras. Still dripping blood, she shook the spears and shield our way and pronounced, “I am a nun from New Guinea and these are my sacred objects.”
There really is no way to properly prepare for moments like this. I seem to favor stunned silence as my work, plans, or intentions shatter so easily into irretrievable pieces, mocking my confidence and control. I know this stunned silence well. Like clockwork, unexpected events arrive in my life on a seemingly as-needed basis to dismantle my natural reinstallation of self in charge.
Once, it was Israel Keys. He ran a red light and sent my car spinning unexpectedly through an intersection, like a confused flight instrument. Only after the police found this man, who had barely paused on impact, did I learn that 85-year-old Mr. Keys was blind, on his way home from cataract treatments at the Veterans Hospital. He never knew the color of the light, or what had jolted his car as he groped toward home by way of the dark shadows of familiar landmarks upon which he relied to drive.
“He was driving?” my daughter once yelped when I told her the story, “and he was blind? How are you supposed to prepare for that, Mom?”
Right, I pondered, as I watched young Carol struggle and survey the growing, unruly swarm that now pushed and pled to enter our home. I bolted to secure the garage door and the deadbolt on the front door. It was unclear whether we could control the crowded expectations at our gate. (One thing, however, was clear. My husband, Bill, sleeping soundly with his window opened to the melee below, barely stirred when I tried to enlist his help. This, at least, I completely expected and wasted no further time.)
But even a throng remains vulnerable to unexpected conditions, I knew, as several police cars with lights and sirens blaring roared down upon the hormonal surge. “Poor kids,” I mused. Little had they known, as word passed about the “after-party at Carol’s house,” that congregating like raging two-year-olds in front of my house meant they were also amassing in front of my neighbor’s house — belonging to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Thanks,” I told the police (who charitably ignored my reindeer jammies) after they dispersed the teens, “I have one of the safest houses in the country.” The dazed little darlings probably still wondered the next morning how Mrs. Campbell managed to get so many screaming squad cars with so many gun-toting police so fast. (My husband, on the other hand, worried a tad that he had slept through a police action but thought it all a great use of our tax dollars.)
Perhaps these teens will understand better than I that it’s the unexpected events that give our lives real boundaries and unforeseeable contours far deeper, far more meaningful than those we control. We do not need to prepare or plan what to say when our expectations are not met, our best plans laid astray; stunned silence may be the best I ever do. But if I can trust that God gives me what I need, could I let His will, not mine, chart my course? Could I meet the unexpected throng of teenagers, the bloody nun from New Guinea, and the blindly driving Mr. Keys with His words in my heart: “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid”?
For this year, I have resolved to expect the unexpected. Maybe if I think I have control of letting go of control, I can give God a better chance. It’s a cheap trick, but I need it to work.

  • Marjorie Campbell

    Marjorie Campbell is an attorney and speaker on social issues from a Catholic perspective. She lives in San Francisco with her family and writes a regular column, “On the Way to the Kingdom,” for Catholic Womanhood at CNA.

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