“Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.”
– Carl Sandburg, American poet, writer, and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner
“We’re in the boardroom,” I said. “End of the hall — first door on the right.”
“Oh, I know,” replied Nadia. “I’m very familiar with this office building.”
For a brief time, our writer’s group was without a permanent home, and so we met in a variety of venues around town. For this session, we were meeting in the boardroom of a downtown office building. I was greeting members at the door and directing them to the room.
“I used to work here,” said Nadia. “It was years ago, but I remember it well.”
Nadia was new to the group and to say she was quirky, or even off-the-wall would be an understatement. Her stories and poetry were delivered with great exuberance and lengthy explanations. This prompted the occasional raised eyebrow and eye roll.
“If I’m not mistaken,” she said, marching off, “there’s still a music room here.”
“Wait!” I cried, after her retreating figure. “You can’t go down there!”
Ignoring my protests, Nadia strolled down the hallway flicking on light switches as she walked. Before I could say a word, she had disappeared around the corner. Right about then, a couple more members arrived. I decided to personally guide them to the boardroom and see if I could locate Nadia. I found her in a small room seated before the keyboard of an upright piano.
“Nadia, we really can’t be here!” I said. “I promised the owner we would only use the boardroom. Now, let’s go!” I turned to leave, but Nadia remained sitting there.
“I’ve always been partial to Beethoven,” she said, placing her fingers on the keys.
I felt I should go back to the door but I how could I leave Nadia here alone? I knew from the few meeting she had attended that unpredictability was her modus operandi. I could never anticipate what she was going to say or do. No one could. She readily put my obsessive compulsion for structure and predictability to the test. Before I could say another word, she started playing and not something silly as I had expected her to do but Beethoven’s Für Elise.
As the last note faded, there was a moment of silence followed by enthusiastic applause. I had been so moved by the music and the passion with which Nadia played that I hadn’t noticed the other members of the group standing in the doorway. The clapping startled me, but I soon regained my composure and added my applause and approval to this rare moment.
This was a rare moment, and I recognized it as such. Unfortunately, most of us are so invested in old patterns and daily routines that life just carries us along, and it is only through reflection that we glimpse the moments of magic. It seems to me that the better our self-esteem, the more willing we become to embrace each moment or to create a few of our own.
Sometimes life and people can surprise us. Sometimes life just sneaks up on us from behind, grabs us by the shoulders and gives us a shake. “Wake up!” it yells in our ear as it shakes us nearly out of our shoes. “Something marvellous is happening! Pay attention!” In the end, it is up to us whether we engage, disengage or ignore the moment altogether.
Too often we resist the urgings and stand stubbornly in our comfort zone. Later, we hang our heads and look back with regret, wishing we had stepped up and into the light.
Sure, not every memorable moment is a moving classical composition. Some moments are quiet, wistful and can slip away unnoticed if we’re not paying attention. Even moments that shake our resolve and challenge us physically, mentally and emotionally can pass by with their lessons still unrevealed because we were unwilling to search for them.
For me, some such moments were missed because I wasn’t paying attention. Mostly, they were missed because I was far too afraid to seize them. My great fear of being judged or making a mistake prompted me to turn away, run away, withdraw or simply not participate.
Certainly, there are times when we must practise restraint, and good judgment will tell us whether we need to step up or step back. Of course, the challenge is knowing whether it’s good judgment holding us back or fear. More often than not, however, we need to unshackle ourselves and embrace experiences fully with mind, body and soul. Maybe it is through a willingness to put ourselves out there, come what may, that we learn and grow more daring, more self-aware, more courageously spontaneous — willing to step wholeheartedly into each mo-ment.
I discovered later that Nadia was a classically trained pianist and a well-known, respected music teacher. For a time, she’d had rented a small office in the building and taught piano les-sons by the hour. Students enjoyed her teaching style because it was so spontaneous and un-predictable — qualities I hadn’t truly appreciated until that moment.
Sometimes we can be so overly concerned with rules and structure that we stifle spontaneity. Life becomes safe, predictable and much less fun. No harm was done by Nadia playing the piano, and much happiness and conversation was generated. I began to ponder the idea that sometimes it’s OK to be tackled by the unexpected — that we don’t always need structure, predictability and safety.
“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise,” wrote British-American anthropologist, Ashley Montagu. “It is not that we seize them but that they seize us.”
Stay awake. Keep your ears and eyes open. There are moments of amazement waiting for you. I think some of our brightest moments of joy are kindled by an unexpected spark. The most powerful lessons in life are usually unexpected. When they happen, be open.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.