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Unexpected Turns by Diana Butler Bass

Autumn has arrived.

If you live in a place with four seasons, you know what to expect. In the coming weeks, the days grow shorter, the leaves will change, and fall harvest will fill our markets with abundance. Familiar holidays and holy days will mark our calendars, and life’s repeated rhythms carry us surely toward winter.

Unlike the turning of seasons on the calendar, we really can’t anticipate the seasons of life. We sometimes act as if our lives are predictable, but they really are not. Life can take sudden unexpected turns.

This past summer, very few things happened as I had expected. In Virginia where I live, even the weather was strange. Summer arrived slowly, and when it did, it was dark and wet, oddly hot at the same time. My garden struggled to grow anything other than weeds. Because my new book had released in the spring, I spoke at events well into July and recorded more radio shows and podcasts than I ever imagined existed. It might have been summer for some people, but there was no time for me to relax. Too much work! Even my summer writing time was pushed aside in a flood of conflicting demands. Every day was different, making it nearly impossible to maintain any regular schedule. Typically, I treasure summer in my garden and in my writing cottage—the weeks that ground my spiritual, family, and professional life. This summer, however, there was no comforting rhythm. I just juggled chaos.

Then came August. Surely, I thought, August will settle down and there will be time to relax, renew, and refocus. I headed with my family to a ranch retreat in the mountains of Wyoming. There, I hoped—finally—to experience some of summer’s slow and healing pace.

I put my phone away. I signed off email and social media. I went on a couple hikes, laughed with friends, and marveled at the night sky. After four days, I began to breathe again.

My husband Richard and I took a trail ride. The outing was simple: gentle horses on an easy trail with two wranglers, designed to help me overcome my fear of horseback riding. About forty minutes in, I was enjoying it, feeling surprisingly comfortable, and looking forward to the next ride. The wrangler asked, “Would you like to go back or go on?” Before I answered, Richard said, “Let’s go on. Just a little longer.”

We went on, a little further into the canyon. Without any warning, I heard a noise behind me and a voice yelling in fear: “Whoa, whoa! Stop! What’s going on?” I turned my head to see Richard’s horse bolt and then throw him, leaving my husband on the ground with no visible sign of breathing.

I jumped off my horse and ran to him. He was gasping but had managed to sit up. Somehow, in the next hour, we got out of the canyon and into a beat-up Yukon. We drove down a dirt road—followed by almost 80 miles on the highway—to the closest hospital in the town of Lander, Wyoming. Richard had six broken ribs and a small lung puncture. He spent the next five days in that hospital, and my daughter and I spent those days dividing our time between him and the local Holiday Inn.

In a summer of unexpected turns, this was the most unexpected of all.

At first, I was frightened. But, when I realized that Richard would be all right, I got angry. Mad that we had made the wrong choice—we shouldn’t have gone any farther on the ride—and that the summer of 2018 had turned into one gigantic stressful mess.

At some point, my daughter said to me, “Hey, mom, have you noticed that everyone keeps saying how we should be grateful?”

Actually, I hadn’t noticed. I was too upset to notice.

“What?” I asked.

She replied, “Well, people keep saying how much worse it could have been, how he didn’t break his neck or his back. How the lung puncture healed with no surgery needed. And they’ve all got horse stories, some of them really bad.” She was right. “Everyone says we’re lucky. You should be grateful. After all, you wrote the book.”

And there it was. For months, I’d been speaking about gratitude, urging people to be grateful especially in difficult times, and when things got hard, I literally forgot everything I’d been saying. Like these words from Grateful: “Gratitude is strongest, clearest, most robust, and radical when things are really hard. Really hard. All-is-lost hard.”

How easy it would be to feel thankful for a bountiful garden, for beautiful prose written as part of a new book, or for a beach vacation. But none of those things happened this summer. Instead, I needed to practice what I’d been preaching—that gratitude is most needed when nothing goes as planned, when life takes unexpected turns. As my husband recuperated in the hospital, and once my daughter redirected my attention, gratitude slowly transformed the unexpected turn into a learning path. Nothing was what I had wanted, but there were both good lessons and surprising graces along the way.

So, as the summer drifts away, I find myself grateful for some simple things. That Lander, Wyoming, a place I didn’t even know existed, holds the memories of hospitality and help in need. My husband is alive and recovering, and that my daughter is wise enough to call her mother to account. That unexpected turns do not always have to be unwelcome ones. That gratitude is, indeed, the best guide with loss and when feeling lost.

And, of course, no matter what comes this autumn, it is always time to give thanks.

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