Planning things out

Published 6:02 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

I’m the type of person who likes to plan things out. I want to know what’s going to happen and what will be required of me. If I leave for vacation, I want the plane to be on time, my luggage to arrive at my destination and my reservations to be honored. I don’t like leaving things to chance, and I’m not always as sufficiently flexible as I ought to be.

Surprises can be unsettling. They arrive when I’m unprepared. They interrupt well-laid plans and wreak havoc with schedules.

But surprises can also be delightful. They yield unforeseen joy. They bring magic into relationships and lead to spontaneous fun.

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That’s the nature of surprises. You never know what to expect.

So, when I woke up on a recent Wednesday morning without a hint that the day would unfold in a surprising way, I launched into my daily routine. I drank my usual mug of coffee, enjoyed my usual piece of toast and set about doing ordinary things.

Then my phone rang. The caller ID indicated friends I had not seen in person for several years were on the line. I hesitated. Earlier this year, they had posted some pictures to social media, photographs from a family reunion attended by folks spanning multiple generations and presided over by a smiling, albeit increasingly frail, matriarch — a gracious, gentle woman who had been as close to me as a mother during my growing up years. I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer the phone. What if they were calling with sad news?

I braced myself, and, happily, my worst fears were immediately relieved. “We’re in Appomattox!” they announced.

The visit had been unplanned. As the story unfolded, I learned they had been at a conference in Pennsylvania. Instead of hurrying back to their home in Florida, they decided to take a more leisurely route. They picked up Skyline Drive in northern Virginia and continued south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. On a whim, they decided to get off and visit Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. On their way to Appomattox, they passed a sign for Farmville. As the pieces of Virginia’s geography clicked into their awareness, they reached for the phone.

Showing off Farmville to visitors helped me see it again through fresh eyes. Along with my guests, I was impressed with the sense of history and community conveyed by the downtown area. I became reacquainted with the inherent charm of the traditional architecture and bricked crossways. I admired the town’s picturesque storefronts and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere as passersby waved greetings. The plaza area where High Bridge Trail crosses Main Street was in full bloom, and butterflies presented themselves in abundance.

We visited High Bridge to take in the view of the Appomattox River valley. We compared notes about sunsets we’ve seen. I explained how much I liked the vernal pools that appear on the valley floor before the trees leaf out in the spring, and I described how the area looks when the trees are filled with fireflies or when they dress in splendid color for autumn.

Longwood University was also showing off its spruced-up façade, preparing to welcome dignitaries for the vice presidential debate. My friends were amazed at how a small town would have been chosen to host such an event, and it gave me a chance to talk about the role Farmville has played in other historic moments, to discuss civil rights in education, and to describe ongoing efforts toward racial reconciliation.

Once upon a time, I didn’t know about such things, and I surprised myself to discover I’ve apparently learned a lot since I first moved here. And I’m still learning.

All too quickly, the visit was over. My friends continued their journey south, and I’ve been left to reconsider my relationship with surprises. I’m not sure why my initial instinct was to fear the worst. After all, it seems life’s most significant events are often linked to surprises that pop up along the way. With practice, I hope to become the kind of person who anticipates the best.

Karen Bellenir, a Farmville resident since 2009, blogs for Pier Perspectives at and serves as editorial director for Wordwright LLC ( A book titled “Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia,” featuring a compilation of her past columns will be published in September. Her email address is