Living Frugally on Surprise

It’s been a tough few weeks, with just a few too many surprises disrupting the usually gentle rhythm of the semester. A grant deadline was pushed up by two weeks; my youngest son, a continent away, got quite ill. All the while my e-mail chirped like a nest of starving baby birds, messages popping up and demanding answers faster than I could stuff answers in them.

Last Monday, in what appeared to be a lull between winter storms both literal and metaphorical, I slid one last calculation onto the supercomputer queue and ducked out the door. I had booked a room for the night in a retreat house and was looking forward to some slow time with God.

An hour and a half later, I parked the car, sent a text to my husband letting him know I’d arrived safely, and opened the trunk to grab my overnight bag. It wasn’t there. I checked the back seat. Was it behind the passenger seat? Was it hiding under my gym bag? No, no, and definitely not. I had packed that bag with indulgences, balm for my soul after the slog of the last weeks. Peppery vanilla-scented chai, a book of poetry. These, I told myself firmly, you can live without. It’s Lent. You’re a grown up. But my pajamas? My toothbrush!

That’s when it occurred to me that the gym bag I kept shifting around, hoping to see my small bag hidden behind it, had a toothbrush and a few other necessities stashed in it. There were pants and a sweatshirt that could double as pajamas, and while I decided I was not desperate enough to reuse the socks stuffed in the outside pocket, my feet could be happy in my sneakers without them.

I had enough to manage for the night.

I found myself remembering the opening words to Alice Walker’s poem “Before you knew you owned it”: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” How much, I wondered, of what I think I need, could wait on surprise? How frugally could I live?

For one night at least, I could apparently manage with no socks and a single line of poetry.

St. Ignatius’s Principle and Foundation reminds us: “All the things in this world are gifts from God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” I wonder how often I forget that many of the best gifts are surprises. I was surprised to think I could walk off and leave my bag by the door, but yet more surprised to realize there was nothing in it I truly needed. What I needed was time empty of things demanding my attention, even a bag to unpack and repack. What I needed was not hot chai and chocolate, but God’s tender care, more easily seen when stripped of my own pretensions of preparedness and organization.

I didn’t even have time to open my e-mail the next day before the flock of tasks began demanding their due, chirping at the door. “Take only enough” of compassion, reminds Walker in her poem. The night had been just enough and simultaneously everything that I desired.

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Michelle Francl-Donnay
Michelle Francl-Donnay is the mother of two 20-something sons, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, and a regular contributor to Philadelphia Archdiocese’s, where she writes about the joys and struggles of trying to live a contemplative life in the midst of everyday chaos. Michelle blogs at Quantum Theology.


  1. Surprise can be the opportunity that unlocks our humility I have found. And it can suspend the ego in which I find a pleasant relief. Especially the clearing of perspectives and the opening of that surprise that makes us grateful for everything.


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