Remain Open to “Happy Surprises”

by Memoir Mentor on July 31, 2012

Sometimes you make a mistake that throws you off your original, well-conceived plan and leads you to something so unexpected and lovely, it becomes what my friend called “a happy surprise.” We were in Basel, Switzerland, our last day in that beautiful city before we were to board our ship to sail down the Rhine River to Amsterdam. It had been one of those perfect days, the weather absolutely splendid, and we had filled the time with as many activities as possible, including a long, heart-pounding hike up a narrow winding staircase to the top of the Münster, Basel’s landmark cathedral. Our guidebook had told us we’d find the best view of the city there…and we did. What’s more, the little staircase adventure afforded us a back-patting opportunity. The old folks still have it!

Now it was nearing late afternoon, and we still wanted to squeeze every ounce out of our time in Basel. One of our friends suggested we take the tram to the Kuntzmuseum, where there was a traveling Renoir exhibition. Our guidebook instructed us to take the #2 tram to the museum, so we set out, not entirely sure where to get off, but calm in the belief that we had plenty of time to get there by five, when the museum offers free admission for the last hour before closing.

So we were tootling along on the tram with four pairs of eyes alternating between keeping tabs on the wall map and taking in the sights out the window. Just as we pulled away from one stop, my husband yelled, “We passed the museum! We should have gotten off back there.” What to do? How would we make our 5:00 rendezvous with Renoir?

We decided to hop off at the next stop and catch the first tram heading back the way we had come. Once we set foot on the pavement, though, we turned around and took in our surroundings. Just ahead in the direction of the museum was the long arching Wettsteinbrücke, the bridge that spanned the Rhine. With the weather so perfect, wouldn’t it be wonderful to walk across that bridge and watch the Rhine flow beneath us?

The idea was irresistible, so we set off. As we approached the bridge, the late afternoon sun cast a golden hue over everything, burnishing the

Münster in a rosy glow on the river bluff ahead. We had the bridge mostly to ourselves, the wide river below us swift and yellowy-green. A couple of boys on a lark and wearing orange life jackets were letting the current carry them to wherever it took them. Looked like fun.

Now what was going on with the bridge railings? They seemed to be wrapped with something like fuzzy, multi-colored tube socks. Investigating more closely, we discovered we had come across the needlework of what must have been scores of artisans. Each design was different, some crocheted, some knitted, in a variety of lengths and an array of colors. Each yarn strip had been lanced around the railing and to the strip next to it, forming a huge, variegated snake on each side of the river. The river must have been nearly a quarter-mile wide at that point. We lingered a long while, taking pictures of designs that caught our eye.

We eventually made it to the museum, a little later than planned, but I’d have to say that the “covered bridge” thrilled me as much as Renoir.

What does all this have to do with memoir writing? Maybe you’ve already figured it out. It’s useful to begin some of our larger projects with a plan–an outline of some kind that helps us envision where we’re going. However, once we start writing, a new idea, a forgotten memory, a suggestion, can invite us into unexpected territory. If we go with the flow, we can suddenly find ourselves writing with a creative energy we haven’t experienced in a long while. We can hardly type the words fast enough. Remember when that happened to you? Not often enough, right? If we had clung to our trusty outline and forbade ourselves from venturing into new territory, we would have missed that “happy surprise.”

That’s this week’s lesson: Plan ahead, but be open to serendipitous, creative urges. You may remember Robert Frost once said something about the road less travelled making all the difference? He was thinking along these same lines.

Afterward:  Curious about what we had seen on the Basel bridge, I googled “yarn art on Basel Bridge” when I returned to California. (Google has all the answers!)  It took me less than a minute to find what I was looking for. It’s called “yarn bombing,” a form of graffiti, and it apparently has been going on for some time all over the world. Shows what I know! Check out the video here: You’ll get the picture.


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