This essay is in the style of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan during the tenth century. Now regarded as one of the world’s first great personal essayists, Shōnagon thought she was only keeping a diary. Her essays often take the form of lists with titles like “Hateful Things,” “Adorable Things,” and “Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster.”

— Marion Winik


I return to my small gray Toyota just in time to see a huge SUV back into my front end before pulling away. At first I am horrified, then relieved to find that no damage has been done. After driving home, I get a second surprise: the silver Toyota logo was jarred loose by the impact and has fallen off the hood somewhere en route. 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.


At sixty-one I live alone with a cat and a dog: unexpected but actually just fine.


I cry so easily now. I’ve always been somewhat thin-skinned, but this is a new development. An editor I’ve worked with for many years calls to say he is moving to a different job; he certainly does not expect to hear choked sniffling on the other end of the line. And now my daughter has come home from college for the summer; she is angered by my unexpected tears, and easily causes them.


The vegetable stir-fry I threw together was OK, nothing special, but then I put 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 — unbelievable!


When your ex-mother-in-law loves you so steadfastly that the relationship lasts many years after your marriage is over, that is unexpected. But even more unexpected is that, after decades of this happy connection, she changes her mind. She cuts you off completely, stops answering your e-mails, tells others you have said terrible things to her. You have no idea what these things are. You would have thought this impossible.


A notorious buffoon is elected to the highest office in the land. He lies, cheats, connives, and 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. He surely did not expect this to be quoted in his obituary one month later.


As one might expect, the Internet offers up a list of the fifty most unexpected discoveries. A royal-blue crawfish, a bubble-gum-pink grasshopper, a quarter intricately carved to show George Washington smoking 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 seventy-five-pound pearl and kept it for years as a good-luck charm, unaware that it was worth $100 million.


There are single earrings and many other pieces of jewelry I’ve mislaid and do not expect to find — particularly the gold dolphin 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. I 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 recognized as a repository of great wisdom, called on frequently to dispense advice.


You swim joyfully in cold water for many years, then one day cannot bear it for even a second. Otherwise menopause is not so bad.


I often hear stories about people who get together with their long-lost true love from high school or college and live out their days in conjugal contentment. I can imagine the delight of this, especially because I am too tired and antisocial to meet new people, or to make a decent impression on them when I do. I visit with old boyfriends in my dreams but do not expect to see them anywhere else.


Once your memory starts to go, unexpected things are much more frequent. You start to put away a bottle of spicy V8, and, lo, there are two already in the cupboard. Whoever keeps buying the V8 must have also invited your neighbor for lunch: here she comes, carrying a bunch of mint from her garden.


One season after another, there are surprises: the sun breaking through a summer storm, the wicked orange bonfire of fall, winter branches coated in ice so they look like crystal, the brave crocuses of February and the explosion of cherry blossoms on the avenue in May. That’s the thing about beauty — no matter how many times you see it, it is unexpected.